The Conversation: Part II

Two weeks ago, we marked the fifteenth anniversary of the first debate between then-Vice President Al Gore and then-Texas Governor George W. Bush, and the mainstream media’s shameless efforts to spin the debate as a de facto win for Bush even though Gore clearly beat him like the proverbial rented mule. Today marks the fifteenth anniversary of the third and final debate between Bush and Gore at Washington University in St. Louis; Gore once again destroyed Bush, but on this particular occasion, the mainstream press actually acknowledged Gore’s dominant performance.

Gore simply did no wrong that night, condemning the radicalism of the Republican-controlled House and Senate, calling for comprehensive health care reform (including a move towards universal health care, something Bush vehemently opposed), vowing to improve public education (while warning of the threat posed to public schools by the voucher programs Bush supported), lambasting Bush’s plans to slash taxes for billionaires, and ultimately coming across as the centrist, rational, logical choice for President. Bush was even worse here than he was during the first debate; Dubya was barely coherent, muttering more idiotic anti-government rhetoric (including some despicable denigration of Social Security) while hinting at the warmongering he would ultimately engage in during his eight horrid years in the White House.

The Gore campaign was justifiably thrilled by the Vice President’s performance in the debate, which was watched by an estimated 37 million viewers. Even the mainstream press–which refused to acknowledge Gore’s crushing of Bush during the first debate due to fear of the “liberal bias” charge from Bush loyalists—had to give Gore his props (although some Fourth Estate figures, such as Frank Bruni of the New York Times, still held on to the false-balance faith).

Then-New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, who attacked Gore’s alleged haughtiness after the first debate, called it fair and square this time around:

This time Al Gore got it right, and not a moment too soon.

People were starting to say of George W. Bush: Well, he might not know the Middle East from the Big East, but he’s a nice guy. He might not know subliminal from subliminable, but he’s likeamable. And, hey, I can’t locate Yemen on a map, either.

Turned off by Al Gore’s performance in the first two debates, a fair number of voters began moving toward Mr. Bush, making excuses and weird rationalizations along the way. Some argued that if Mr. Bush were to become president and the country found itself in a tight spot, he’d have plenty of experienced people available to bail him out — his dad; his vice president, Dick Cheney; his secretary of state, Colin Powell, etc.

Talk about the soft bigotry of low expectations! Why should anyone be afraid to set high standards for Mr. Bush or Mr. Gore, and demand that they meet them? They’re running for president.

At the debate Tuesday night, Al Gore was the best he’s been since his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention. He was knowledgeable and comfortable discussing a wide range of complex issues, including health care, Social Security and tax cuts. You can agree or disagree with his position on any issue, but you cannot argue that Mr. Gore does not understand the issue. With Mr. Bush, you’re never quite sure.

The tone of the debate was set early. Mr. Gore was much better prepared than Mr. Bush to discuss a so-called patients’ bill of rights. ”Doctors are giving prescriptions, they’re recommending treatments, and then their recommendations are being overruled by H.M.O.’s and insurance companies,” said Mr. Gore. ”That is unacceptable.”

He said he supports bipartisan legislation — sponsored by Representative John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, and Representative Charlie Norwood, a Georgia Republican — to establish a national patients’ bill of rights.

Mr. Bush said he, too, supports a patients’ bill of rights. But though he was asked twice if he supported the Dingell-Norwood bill, he never answered. Instead, he scoffed at the whole governmental process, saying, ”There’s this kind of Washington D.C. focus — well, it’s in this committee, or it’s got this sponsor.”

Well, yes, governor. That’s how the federal government works. And it will continue to work that way, even if you are elected president.

Boston Globe columnist Derrick Z. Jackson also noted how thoroughly Gore defeated Bush:

Last night, George W. finally became a VW, a small, cramped vehicle that sputtered and puttered, desperate to get to the end of the 90 minutes without running out of gas. On several occasions, Al Gore stole his hubcaps.

Gore, often accused of being too wooden, waxen, or whimsical about his accomplishments, got down to an important piece of business in the third and final debate by getting Bush to concede how his tax cuts benefit the wealthy. Bush thought he was doing us a great favor, saying the ”the top 1 percent will end up paying one-third of the taxes in America and they get one-fifth of the benefits.”

Only one-fifth? How kind of Bush.

With that, Gore looked out to the entire audience and said:

”If you want somebody who believes that we were better off eight years ago than we are now and that we ought to go back to the kind of policies that we had back then, emphasizing tax cuts mainly for the wealthy, here is your man. If you want somebody who will fight for you and who will fight to have middle class tax cuts, then I am your man.”

All Bush could say, no matter what the issue, was how he trusts the people, don’t the government. All he could say was he believes in local control, don’t trust the government. Put your trust in private industry, don’t trust the government. At some point you had to ask, if Bush telling us don’t trust the government, why is he running to run it?

The Boston Globe editorial page also acknowledged Bush’s pitiful performance, but then-Salon writer Jake Tapper’s characterization of Bush’s failure was perhaps the most comprehensive:

A lifetime — surely a campaign season — of coasting, not enough of that fancy book-learnin’, came back and took a Texas-size chomp from his Lone Star ass. The Chevy Chase of American politics phoned in a real dud of a performance Tuesday night, trying to slide by on charm and little else.

Gore performed flawlessly during those debates, and would have performed flawlessly as President were it not for the supreme injustice that robbed him of the keys to the White House. Of course, Gore went on to win the Nobel Prize, while Bush took us to hell with a war based on lies. Fifteen years later, can anyone possibly debate which candidate was the better man for the job?

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.