In the first presidential debate, Bill Clinton was lucky enough to draw center position and from there he protected his lead in 90 minutes of bristling give-and-take with George Bush and H. Ross Perot, Mr. Clinton had to establish once and for all that he could handle himself on a presidential level. He did so with a mastery of detail, a firm grasp of issues and, most important a display of caution to protect his future options if he makes it to the Oval Office.
Presidential Bush was also in command of himself and his subject matter, even using his incumbency to announce that White House chief of staff James Baker would become a sort of domestic policy czar in a second term. He stressed his experience in foreign affairs and bluntly critized Mr. Clinton's participation in anti-war demonstrations when he was astudent in England during the Vietnam War.
As expected, Mr. Perot enlivened the debate with his caustic comments about the Washington Establishment and his insistence that he is a man who can get things done. But he emerged as more of a sloganeer than potential president and, surprisingly, failed to focus the debate on the need to decrease the horrendous national debt. He was implicitly pro-Clinton in his criticisms of the BUsh economic record but went along with most of Mr. Bush's record on foreign affairs--even omitting his usual complaints about U.S. policy before and during the gulf war.
Last night's debate was but the first of a miniseries that will include a vice presidential skirmish between Dan Quayle, Al Gore and James Stockdale on Tuesday, a second presidential clash without journalist interrogators on Thursday and then a final clash a week from tonight.
As presidential debates go, the first Bush-Clinton-Perot encounter was informative, wide-ranging and revealing. It showed all three men to their best advantage--Mr. Clinton steeped in the modalities of the post he is seeking, Mr. Bush confident through his experience in office and Mr. Perot the action-minded gadfy. It is too bad that the next debates cannot be direct Bush-Clinton encounters, but Mr. Perot is unlikely to give the "bully pulpit" that comes with running for the nation's top office.
Mr. Bush constanlty decried the pessimism and criticism that was heard from his challengers, asserting that under his leadership the Cold War had ended and the economy, despite the current recession, was still the envy of the world. Mr. Clinton, sensing he might be losing points on this contrast, said in his closing statement that in demanding real change in Washington he offers hope over fear and a bright future for the country.
Now for round two.