Gore Wins Final Round
Third debate's a charm for the vice president, but forum was less kind to Texas governor
In the third and final debate last night Vice President Al Gore '69 came back into his own after a lukewarm performance Oct. 11. Returning to his strengths--an impressive knowledge of the issues and an ability to differentiate himself from his opponent--Gore made sure that voters came away from the debates with a firm sense that he had the most control over substance. In this "town hall" style debate the contrast between the two candidates was very apparent. Gore was in the lead from the beginning of the debate: He made comparisons voters could understand while being sufficiently specific in his responses, and he capitalized on his administration's record. Bush made a fair effort to articulate his vision of local control and small government, but did not make clear how his approach would result in better outcomes for Americans.
There were three questions that were most representative of the candidates' respective performances. The first came from a farmer asking what each candidate's administration would do to preserve the family farmers' way of life. Gore answered the question directly, specifically and sympathetically. He cited the failures of the 1996 Freedom to Farm Act and talked about better husbandry of the land. He called farmers the "first environmentalists" and suggested expanding the conservation reserve program so that farmers could manage their land themselves but be rewarded for keeping it healthy, for instance by leaving weakened fields fallow to prevent soil erosion. Bush, on the other hand, talked in general terms about his desire to see U.S. farmers feeding the world through exports to open markets. It was unclear how this addressed the farmer's concerns. He also spoke about not using food as a diplomatic weapon, but failed to elaborate on what that meant. For a man who claimed to be from the second biggest farming state, Bush seemed distressingly vague of the specific problems facing family farmers.
In the second case, a woman asked how each candidate's tax plan would affect her, a middle-income single woman with no dependents. This question should have been a softball for Bush, since Gore's plan places much more emphasis on tax credits for families and children than single individuals. Yet Gore was able to enumerate the specific tax credits she would receive depending on her income level; Bush instead discussed how education would decrease crime, how she could live in a world that was safer and how his administration would provide a foreign policy vision--rambling on about every aspect of his platform.
Yet the most telling moment in the debate came during a question on affirmative action, when Bush said that he was against quotas but for "affirmative access." When Gore challenged him, asking what that meant, Bush simply replied that he was for "what I just said" and then turned to moderator Jim Lehrer for a lifeline, protesting that Gore wasn't following the rules of the debate.
Gore was the only of the two to show a sense of purposefulness during this debate. He returned often to his most successful themes, arguing that Bush's budget plan doesn't add up and that his tax cut favors the wealthy. Instead of responding to these charges, Bush evaded specifics by calling Gore's attacks "a difference of opinion." He frequently restated his opposition to big government, but did not say how the programs Gore was proposing would be less effective than his more limited agenda, or how an emphasis on state's rights would adequately address the concerns of the audience members.
In terms of style, Bush occasionally lost track of the question, offered answers without specifics or seemed to turn to technicalities in order to eschew Gore's attacks. Gore, on the other hand, came across as a skilled debater with a powerful, but not overbearing, control of the facts. Luckily for the viewers, he managed to avoid the numeric quagmire he encountered in the first debate, instead using compelling and memorable comparisons to illustrate his points. Yet Gore did occasionally fail to answer the question he was asked, although he was generally able to return to the subject later on.
No matter who wins, the next president will not be our most charismatic leader. Gore is still struggling with his image as a stiff Washington insider, and Bush was unable to conjure up a sufficiently presidential expression even when responding to allegations that he had gloated over the executions in his state. But from these past three debates Americans should be able to make their decision based not simply on image, but also on substance. In this final debate Gore had the latter in spades.