Fellow pundits, and perhaps even polls, will most likely declare Albert Gore, Jr. last night's winner in the third and thankfully final presidential debate. Gore returned to the formula that worked so well at his convention speech. He promised to fight the powerful, although he had to do so without the moral booster of the Tipper kiss. He had to demonstrate a mastery of the issues, which he managed to do, for the most part, in an only slightly annoying and overbearing manner.
But I say Bush actually beat Gore by a nose, mostly because the governor managed to pull off some Clintonian feats. (Last night's real winners, it goes without saying, were West Coasters who had dinner plans that preempted the debate, those on the East Coast who fell asleep in their Barca loungers before the debate aired, and those anywhere with a good novel to read, such as Stendahl's Red and Black).
Consider the ill-named, "Patients Bill of Rights," the first subject of debate. Gore got mired down in D.C. speak, trying to get Bush to commit to the Norwood-Dingell bill (dubbed the "dingleberry bill" by those who appreciate its true nature). But Bush displayed the sort of leadership I think many Americans are looking for out of Washington. At least it's the kind they have been getting from Clinton.
After a minor gaffe, claiming he passed a "national" patients' bill of rights in Texas, Bush said the issue "requires a different kind of leadership." It sure does—and that's what Bush provided in Texas, when the governor vetoed the first piece of health-care legislation that came to his desk in 1995. That legislation, which Gov. Tort Reform now brags lets patients sue their HMOs, only became law after he refused to sign it, a classic political hedge strategy. So in eagerly taking credit for the current state of health affairs in Texas, Bush is acting like Clinton did on welfare reform: The president twice vetoed legislation that the GOP drafted and passed before finally being forced to sign on; now he brags about how he ended welfare as we knew it.
On tax cuts, Gore certainly did better than in the second debate, managing to work the richest 1 percent statistic in the first half hour, rather than the last 20 minutes. But Bush clearly dominated the issue, forcefully defending tax cuts for those who pay taxes. "If you pay taxes, you ought to get tax relief," said Bush. "The vice president believes that only the right people ought to get tax relief. I don't think that's the role of the president to pick: 'You're right, and you're not right.'"
Of course, Bush does plenty of picking himself, with tax credits on top of his across-the-board cuts (which, incidentally, pick the right people: the people who pay taxes). But that's beside the point. Bush's case was furthered when a 34-year-old, single, middle-class woman asked Gore what his plan would do for her. The honest answer was "not much," since she isn't, in the words of Gore's acceptance speech, the right kind of person. Gore talked up his government savings plan, telling her that if she earned so much and saved so much the government would kick in some bucks. But when it comes down to it, she has to either get married and have kids quick, preferably putting them in daycare as soon as possible, or hope that her parents get ill so she can use the $3,000 tax credit Gore said he'd give her.
Bush showed subtle brilliance on that most important issue of Hollywood's horribly entertaining products. Said Bush, "I'm going to remind mothers and dads: The best weapon is the off-on button, and paying attention to your children and eating dinner with them." Not only did he appropriate Gore's rhetoric—Gore stressed the importance of dinner table conversation at the National Fatherhood Summit early this year—but he tapped into Gore's deepest insecurities. From his earliest days, Gore has known the pain of eating alone in the DC hotel rooms that constituted his family home.
Maybe that's why Gore soon started uttering silliness that would embarrass even Jerry Brown. When asked about apathy among young people, Gore responded, "Sometimes people who are very idealistic and have great dreams, as young people do, are apt to stay at arm's length from the political process because they think their good hearts might be brittle, and if they invest their hopes and allow themselves to believe, then they're going to be let down and disappointed." Perhaps Gore was thinking about his own self-declared "alienation" from politics as an idealistic youth. If so, then he left out a possibly important detail that might explain the disconnect: The kids may be too stoned to care.
Whatever. With three weeks to go before Election Day, the piling-up of campaign promises might overwhelm the brittle hearts of millions of Americans, regardless of age. Especially when they figure out they'll be stuck with the bill.