WHEN you've survived all the silly talk about who won and how many votes were changed in the Clinton-Dole debate, face up to the reality that it was an unhelpful exercise in establishment denial.
Denial that distrust of government by millions of Americans, some toting guns and pipe bombs, is a grim American problem. There was no discussion of domestic terrorism and how to combat it.
Denial that a race-relations crisis exists. No enlightenment as to how either candidate would close the racial divide -- and no real discussion of the nation-searing issue of affirmative action and the rights and opportunities of blacks, Hispanics and Asians. And thus, no substantive talk of the two candidates' views about immigration, legal and illegal.
Denial that welfare reform, the destruction of the social "safety net" and their impact on families, race relations and class strife are critical issues. Two privileged white men, both better off than they were four years ago, had long ago agreed to demagogue on this issue, so there was no safe way for them to debate.
In some vapid search for pure neutrality, the debate organizers picked as moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS, whose puerile questioning did not provoke either candidate to open up on important and controversial issues.
Without a challenging moderator, the candidates were free to sputter forth mostly canned propaganda sound bites. There was absolutely nothing enlightening about their exchanges on foreign policy, gun laws, the drug problem or campaign financing. Does anyone pretend to know more today about the future of Medicare? The American people lost this debate.
The president, sitting on a lead, is glib and deft. Oceans of words flow from him -- too many for voters to sort out. He has mastered the earnest, caring facial expression so necessary in the Oprah age.
A more skilled debater than Bob Dole would have been able to deflate some of Mr. Clinton's bloviated claims. For example, there are not 100,000 new cops on the street, but perhaps 20,000.
And when the president claimed to have "cut taxes for 15 million working Americans," he ought to have been corrected. No one got a tax cut under the Clinton administration -- though he ran in 1992 on the promise of a middle-class tax cut. Lots of people got a tax increase. The 15 million Americans he must be referring to are those who got higher earned income-tax credits -- a transfer payment, not a tax cut.
It does try one's patience. This president began his term proposing a $16 billion "stimulus package." He proposed budgets that would balloon the deficit -- until forced into fiscal restraint by a Republican Congress.
Now he boasts of reducing the deficit. If his policies had prevailed, the deficit would not be coming down, and the budget would never be balanced.
Senator Dole is winning praise for turning aside an opportunity to criticize the president's personal morality -- and perhaps it's just as well to leave that alone in a debate format. It would only look like mud-slinging.
The guy what brung us
As a white married female, with enough income to make a 15 percent tax cut attractive and enough conscience to wonder where it's coming from, I haven't had two men pay me this much attention since I was 18.
But if you want to know why Bob Dole is having a "woman problem" -- he is terminally awkward talking to or about women, as if the subject were sex, not gender. When he includes women's issues into the conversation, the seams show. His appeals to women are a bit "off," rather like his appeal to drug-tempted youth -- "Just Don't Do It" -- when he closed the evening by leaving the kids his Web site address.
Mr. Clinton sometimes gets too much credit for too little. He mentioned the Family and Medical Leave Act four times in one 90-minute debate. But he has built up, layer by layer, a relationship with women who are less enamored with pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps economics and more interested in community. He talks (and talks and talks) the language of caring. And he listens.
Nothing happened on Sunday night to change that. My guess about the target population of American women? We're gonna go home with the guy what brung us.
He needed a homer
In baseball parlance, Bob Dole got on base, maybe even hit a double. But he needed a home run, and he didn't get it. What happened to the dramatic announcement that had been widely rumored -- perhaps an offer to resign if he didn't follow through on his promise of a tax cut, or that Colin Powell would be his secretary of state or defense?
Yes, Mr. Dole was introduced to a lot of voters who don't really know him. Yes, he used humor to his advantage. And, yes, people were reassured that in his latest incarnation Mr. Dole is not the nasty man he seemed to be during the 1976 vice-presidential debate. But, as the television set revealed, in the style contest, it wasn't even close. Mr. Clinton is the master of style over substance.
The debate was probably a draw. With less than a month to go before the election, if Senator Dole has a secret weapon, now is the time to use it. Otherwise, forget the inaugural address and start working on the concession speech.
Pub Date: 10/09/96