As civil discourse, the first Bush-Gore presidential debate was an easy winner. Both men would make nice dinner-party guests.
As an enlightened exchange, it flopped. Facts and numbers were distorted, issues were muddied, and solutions were too skimpy in detail to grasp. A dinner party like that wouldn't go too late into the evening.
The question of who won matters less than how well the candidates engaged viewers. A president must be able to rouse the masses.
When else but during this event every four years will Americans sit for 90 minutes and think only of how to run the national government?
Sadly, Al Gore and George W. Bush appealed more to selfish interests than to civic-minded thinkers. Elections aren't a Halloween exercise of passing out goodies from the Treasury. They're town meetings to form a more perfect community. Otherwise, the debates turn into class warfare instead of class acts.
The moderator, Jim Lehrer, tried well to elicit core differences (abortion and oil was the easiest). But he failed to help Americans get the facts straight and understand the long-term effects of each man's positions.
Would Gore's education plan hold teachers less accountable? Would Bush's tax cuts unfairly favor the rich, or Gore's tax credits be too complex? Final answers were missing.
As a result, viewers with gavels raised to pass judgment watched more for quippy put-downs, body-language messages, and emotion. The typical morning-after quarterbacking focused on who was more sincere, more commanding, more defensive, more forthcoming. All fine, but surely there must be more.
Alas, the debate's lack of clarity and depth makes a case for returning to the old idea of voting for the party rather than the candidate.
Perhaps the next two debates can be quickly reshaped to make them dinner parties worth attending.
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