WHAT THE AMERICAN people witnessed in this year's first presidential debate was a classic encounter between centrist politicians, the Republican leaning right and the Democrat leaning left. It was also classic in the sense that the incumbent insisted things are going well for the country and the challenger demurred. Under such predictable circumstances, without a gaffe or grand slam by either candidate, the dynamics of the campaign remained essentially unchanged: Bill Clinton serenely riding his lead; Bob Dole striving against unfavorable odds.
Although the instant polls had viewers declaring President Clinton the "winner" by about the same 17-point margin they have been giving him all fall in candidate-preference sampling, Mr. Dole displayed presidential quality. He was informed, witty, respectful of his opponent and the likable man his colleagues in the Senate have known for years.
As for Mr. Clinton, he again showed his mastery of fluent political discourse by expertly rattling off the achievements of his administration. He even seized the initiative in pointing out inconsistencies in Mr. Dole's record -- a debate topic on which the Republican nominee was thought to have the upper hand.
The whole exercise must have been a frustration for ideologues on the Democratic left and the Republican right. Mr. Dole utterly ignored such Pat Buchanan issues as abortion, school prayer, affirmative action and protectionism. His advocacy of an "instant check" on would-be gun purchasers showed why the National Rifle Association refuses to endorse him. And while he clung to his call for a 15 percent across-the-board tax cut, this flip-flop to supply-side economics undercut the stand he might have made for a credible course toward a balanced budget.
As for Mr. Clinton, he abjured Mr. Dole's repeated attempts to brand him as a "liberal," once a proud label for Democratic nominees. Gone were his early health care ambitions and a spending splurge to energize the economy. He was a president who bragged about reducing the bureaucracy, scuttling the New Deal welfare guarantee for the poor, putting cops on the street, cutting the deficit 60 percent.
Perhaps after the election this lunge for the center will end as the Democratic left seeks to recoup and the Republican right strives to resurrect the Christian Coalition agenda. But if the first presidential debate confirmed anything, it was that the two contenders are not only friends who can forgive campaign excess but experienced pols whose objectives converge more than they dare to admit.
Pub Date: 10/08/96