IN CASE YOU MISSED IT, the high point of modern American political discourse was reached during an exchange between the Veep and the W. in Wednesday night's presidential debate. W. was sneaking away from the topic of gun control, to which his opposition hurts him among moderate women voters, by changing the subject to "values." One lesson of Columbine, he asserted, incontestably, is we need to love our children more. (Not so much, though, that we should institute paid parental leave, a radical Scandanavian notion that Ralph Nader is the only candidate to support.) On the theory that no maxim should go unmangled, W. concluded with this advice: "Love your neighbor like you'd like to be liked yourself."
For a suspense-filled second, Al Gore gathered his thoughts and then issued his response: "I also believe in the Golden Rule," he said.
Whew! Talk about your Profiles in Courage! Gore could have said, "Well, I've always gone by, 'Never give a sucker an even break,' or possibly, 'Might makes right.'" But at the risk of forfeiting two key swing constituencies -- out-of-control violent males, aged 18-to-25, and insurance salesmen -- Al screwed up his courage and did the right thing.
The depressing conclusion one takes away from Wednesday's debate is that when Al's not baring his fangs, he's altogether toothless. With the American people plainly recoiling from his manner in last week's first debate, Gore sought to get through this week's with no manner whatever. He did not sigh; neither did he assert. This was a candidate who crept up to an allegation with phrases like "I may have been misled by news reports" and "I'm no expert on Texas, but ."
In fact, where there were distinctions to be drawn that would have worked to Gore's advantage, he was clearly terrified to draw them. He didn't pin W. down on his opposition to a hate-crimes bill that would have included attacks on gays and lesbians. He alluded to a recent L.A. Times story documenting the ease with which Texans with violent or criminal histories have been able to get concealed-weapons permits since W. made them easier to obtain, but he didn't really spell out what the story had said.
Not until the final half-hour did Gore seem to realize that you can't land a punch if you don't throw one. At that point, he connected solidly, attacking Bush's abysmal record on health coverage in Texas. The state, he said, ranks dead last in the percentage of families with health insurance, a charge W. was unable to dispute for the simple reason that it's true.
For Gore, though, the rest of the evening was one long missed opportunity. A well-coached W., meanwhile, held his own in the foreign policy discussion, likely dispelling some of the doubt he's engendered as to his capacity to articulate policies, or just say place-names, without balling them up. Though he laid himself open to continuing attacks in the coming weeks on his record in Texas, he probably came out of the debate with his prospects enhanced.
LOOKING AT THE ENTIRE LONG ARC of Gore's career, there's a strange irony in his uneven (that is, bad and worse) debate performances this fall. Gore's senior thesis at Harvard, a friend recently reminded me, was entitled, "The Impact of Television on Political Campaigns," and in it, he argued that John Kennedy had defeated Richard Nixon in 1960 in good measure because of Nixon's manifest discomfort during the debates. Forty years have come and gone since those debates, and in all that time, no candidate has ever approached Nixon in his inability to handle the medium or simply to strike a normal tone -- until Gore. The Veep seems incapable of just ambling along; either he's roaring ahead in fifth gear, or the engine is totally off.
Bush, by comparison, is an accomplished ambler. Save only those instances where he loses himself in his own numbers or irately defends his pop's reputation, he burbles genially along, the nicest mass executioner you could ever hope to meet. On Wednesday, he attempted to be particularly un-bellicose on foreign policy, and he largely succeeded. For the guys, he talked of military readiness, but for the gals, he said repeatedly that American should be "humble," not threatening, in dealing with those foreign nations. Granted that any nation that has W. as its president has a lot to be humble about, it was still a moment calculated to reassure those suburban moms, and I don't doubt it succeeded. There is an element of bellicosity in Gore's Wilsonian-idealist interventionism, justifiable though it proved to be in the Balkans. On Wednesday, however, it made Bush appear the more peaceable of the two: the only thing really worth fighting for, W. seemed to suggest, was oil.
One difference between the first debate and the second is likely to be its shelf-life. Gore's inconsistencies in the first debate were rehashed ad nauseum for the entire week following. This week, with the Middle East plummeting into a pitch-black abyss, I doubt the pundits will give the second debate much of a second thought.
WHAT GORE HAS LOST, WHAT HE NEEDS to recover in his final debate next week, is the calibrated, semi-demi-populism of his Democratic Convention speech. At the Staples Center, he was the champion of the people against powerful interests, appealing at one and the same time to working-class voters still trying to make ends meet and progressive voters still wrestling between Nader and Gore. With reference, this time, to the governor's record in Texas, Gore needs to reprise his themes of August. The election, he must remind voters, is really about something more than the personalities, and the psychologies, of the two major candidates. W. really is out to dismantle the social protections that Americans created for themselves during the 20th century, while Gore seeks to preserve and in some instances actually expand them (as, for instance, with his proposal to provide health insurance to more children). Turning this election back to the issues is a task on which neither the media nor his own mannerisms will help him out, but he has to find some way to get around both.