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After a rambling monologue of an infomercial by Ross Perot, a sad portrait of a man excluded from the limelight and desperately trying to claw his way back in, the debate began. The air was thick with anticipation: Would the hatchet man return? Would Bob Dole finally go for the jugular, as we suspect he has wanted to all along?
For weeks, all the pundits have been saying that Dole had to attack President Clinton on policy, on character and on ethics. With Clinton resting on a double-digit lead, the former senator needed to bark louder, even as he continued to control his bite. Subtle barbs peppered the discussion early on, as Dole sniped at the president with non-sequiturs. All in all, though, I doubt many minds were changed. If you couldn't catch it on television, here's a handy summary of last night.
On ethics: Dole scored the telling points he needed. His charges on Whitewater pardons and FBI files went unanswered and no doubt reinforced Americans' doubts about Clinton's moral flaws that have dogged him throughout his presidency. On Welfare: Dole trotted out the old standby on denying aid to illegal immigrants. Don't you know, he asked, that it hurts states like California (which have 54 electoral votes)?
On the Middle East: Clinton pledged United States involvement, but not troops. We can never impose a peace, he warned, but we can minimize the risk. Again, Dole failed to attack Clinton's one true Achilles heel: his complete failure of moral leadership in foreign affairs. Here is a president who, unlike Bob Dole, knuckled under to the Europeans on Bosnia, betrayed human rights for free markets in China and improperly intervened in Israeli elections in the Middle East. If Dole can't see these weaknesses, then he's not smart enough to be president.
On homosexual rights: Both candidates were visibly uncomfortable on this issue and tried to spend most of their allotted time talking about other topics. Only towards the end did Clinton come out with the unequivocal statement that Americans need to hear. If you believe in the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence, and if you play by the rules, then you are a part of the American family. Ourcountry has more pressing problems to deal with than worrying whether homosexuals will win a fictitious kulturkampf invented by thereligious right.
On affirmative action: In a rare defense of a classically liberal program, Clinton laid out the case for assuring that all Americans, regardless of race, have equal opportunity. The time has not come, he said, for the government to trust that people will behave fairly on matters of race. His comparison of affirmative action to the Americans with Disabilities Act rang true. Just as we don't guarantee disabled Americans a job, but we promise them a ramp so that they can get to the interview, we assure all Americans, that regardless what color their skin is, they will be recruited and considered as workers, students and leaders. Dole failed to convince me that anything but the "long arm of the federal government" can keep America fair. The tax credit for family leave and the appeals to equality don't mean much if those rights and privileges are not guaranteed.
Little was said to change anyone's mind and one wonders if anything can bring Clinton down between now and the election. But another question begs an answer. When did presidents become policy catalogs? Don't get me wrong, the focus on issues is important, and I do want a president like Clinton or Dole, people that actually understand the nitty-gritty of the problems at hand and have ideas of how to solve them. But what happened to good old-fashioned rhetoric? In place of impassioned speeches, we got number crunching. I waited for Dole's charge to our generation and all I got was "Don't smoke, don't drink and don't do drugs."
Time after time, Clinton failed to give the compelling moral arguments behind his policies, but Dole never delivered the knockout punch. Unless I missed something last night, come November 5th, Bob Dole will still be just a man.
Ethan M. Tucker's column appears on alternate Thursdays.
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