It was George W. Bush's debate to lose, and he didn't. Bush passed the test by not living down to his lowest expectations.
Al Gore was rude and cocky. He frequently rolled his eyes, smacked his lips, sighed in disgust and constantly interrupted, even claiming ``rebuttal'' time that wasn't his. Gore always seems to have a chant, perhaps the result of hanging out at a Buddhist temple. This time it was ``the wealthiest 1 percent.'' Bush needs to develop an answer for this. Perhaps he might say, ``Look, Al, I'm tired of you bashing the people who make America work. These are entrepreneurs you want to punish for their initiative, sacrifice and risk-taking. They have built businesses and hired workers, thus expanding the middle class.
You want to punish people for becoming wealthy. I want to make it easier for more people to become wealthy. You think government ought to tax them at higher rates and strangle them with new regulations. I want to see them enjoy more freedom and the fruits of their labor. You
want more power to reside in Washington. I want to empower more individuals.'' Bush was able to convey some of this, but he needs a rhetorical flourish to drive it home.
Bush made some good points. He spoke of Gore having had nearly eight years to do the things he says he will do if elected president.
He wondered what happened to the middle-class tax cut Gore had promised in 1992. Instead, it got a retroactive tax increase. And Bush got in the best line of the night in response to the ``character question'' by noting that ``the buck stops here'' sign had been moved from the Oval Office to the Lincoln Bedroom. Gore tried to play victim, saying Bush had attacked his ``character'' (yes, his bad character), and Gore wasn't going to ``respond in kind.'' How could he? That was a battle he would surely lose because polls show the public doesn't think this administration has demonstrated much personal integrity.
There were plenty of opportunities for Bush to skewer Gore, but perhaps for fear of being labeled ``mean-spirited,'' he didn't. Gore took credit for welfare reform, though his impeached ``greatest president'' repeatedly vetoed Republican congressional attempts at reform until advisor Dick Morris observed the polls showed the public wanted it. Only then, of course, did President Clinton sign a bill.
On RU-486, which Pat Buchanan has called ``human pesticide'' (he and Ralph Nader should have been included in the debate to liven things up), Bush did not display the outrage one might expect from a pro-lifer. He didn't even question the timing of the FDA's approval of the drug weeks before the election. And he treated it as a fait accompli, saying he wanted to make sure it wouldn't damage a woman's health. How about the baby's health? Giving people the technological tool to kill a child at an earlier stage does not answer the moral problem of abortion, which is only one part of a growing debate about
the use of technology.
Gore virtually conceded he would apply an abortion ``litmus test'' for Supreme Court justices. Why does he get such a test and Bush feels he can't have one?
Bush allowed Gore to get away with his bogus story about Winifred Skinner, the woman who supposedly must scavenge and sell tin cans so she can buy her prescription drugs. Her son told an Iowa radio station she takes money from him for other things, but refuses money for her
medication. This is no homeless bag lady roaming the streets. Bush could have used this as an example of how Gore has a problem telling the truth.
Bush survived a debate format he dislikes. The next two provide settings in which he feels more comfortable. Bush can't let the competition for the small number of ``undecideds'' keep him from articulating his philosophy about the role of government and of life and the importance of having a president who tells the truth. Jimmy Carter scored points following the Nixon years when he said, ``I'll never lie to you.''
Gore is an inviting target on several levels. Now that Bush has shown he's not a midget next to Gore, in the second and third debates Bush should direct some rhetorical firepower in Gore's direction.
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