In the end, Al Gore went back to the only thing that had worked for him during this long, frustrating campaign year. He returned to the themes of his Democratic Convention acceptance speech of August, the speech that had propelled him into the lead for nearly two months. Once again, he was the cultural conservative, complaining that “parents now have to compete with the mass culture in order to raise your kids with the values that you want them to have,” affirming his record as a husband of three decades and a father of four children. Once again, he was the economic populist, assailing “powerful forces,” the HMOs and the drug companies. And he contrasted his support for a patients‘ bill of rights and prescription-drug subsidies with Governor W.’s opposition to same. Thus would those undecided voters in Michigan — appalled at television‘s profanities and Grandpa’s medical bills — come back into his camp.

And, in the end, W. went back to what had worked for him — making light of differences in policy and much of differences in character. Rather than prolong a discussion of his tax rebate, he simply declared, “We‘ve had enough of fighting. It’s time to unite.” The problem, he said, was the contentiousness in Washington, and if ever there was a contentious Washingtonian, it was Al Gore. No need for direct attacks on character this time; W. was sitting on a small lead and didn‘t want to appear disagreeable to those undecided voters in Michigan — white working-class women in particular. The theory of the Bush campaign seems to be that the swing voters don’t really follow the issues, but they do know when someone‘s rude.

Throughout the campaign, the strategic goal of the Gore forces has been to neutralize the character issues, on which they were weak, so they could stress the policy issues, on which they were strong. That goal eluded them until Gore took the podium at Staples Center; thereafter, they were flying — until Gore’s conduct in the first debate (and the media‘s pack mentality in going after it) raised the character question anew.

The strategic goal of the Bush campaign has been precisely the reverse. The fact that the public preferred the Democrats’ position on most of the major policy issues, that they didn‘t trust the GOP to defend Social Security or patients’ rights, is what put the “compassionate” in W.‘s conservatism. (“Compassionate” means “Close enough to the Democrats.”) By character alone would W. retake the White House, which is why he soared after the first debate.

On Tuesday night, Gore managed — just barely — to turn the discussion back to policy, on which ground he clearly won the debate. He was walking a tightrope: He had to contrast his positions with W.’s without coming off as the quiz-team thug of the first debate. This time out, Al was tethered, but not muzzled, as he‘d been during the second debate. Well, barely tethered. He strode around the stage Tuesday night, looming over W. and the audience members who dared to ask questions. He didn’t interrupt as frequently as he had in the first debate, but he almost stepped on one Bush line that actually helped his own case considerably: W.‘s admission that his tax cut did indeed flow substantially to the rich. In violation of the debate rules, Gore pressed W. directly on whether he opposed affirmative action; a cornered Bush implored moderator Jim Lehrer to declare Big Al out of order.

Gore’s not-quite-hectoring on questions that Bush clearly did not wish to answer seemed to jar the governor. Immediately after the affirmative-action dustup, a woman asked how the candidates‘ respective tax plans would affect her — a 34-year-old single, childless, middle-class woman. Gore rattled off precisely which parts of his program would help her: how much the government would provide to match her savings at several different income levels, what it would offer as an Earned Income Tax Credit if she were nearer the bottom end of the economic scale, her lifelong learning tax credit, her $3,000 tax credit if she took care of her parents. It was a bravura performance, and set the stage for Bush’s response: a mind-boggling two-minute condensation of every policy briefing W. had received over the past two years, the programs pinging crazily like the bells on a pinball machine. It‘s worth quoting at some length:

“You’re going to get tax relief under my plan,” Bush began. “You‘re not going to be targeted in or targeted out . . . If you take care of an elderly in your home, you’re going to get the personal exemption increased. I think also what you need to think about is not the immediate, but what about Medicare. You will get a plan that will include prescription drugs, a plan that will give you options.

”Now, I hope people understand that Medicare today is — is — is — is important, but it doesn‘t keep up with the new medicines. If you’re a Medicare person on Medicare, you don‘t get the new — new procedures. You’re stuck in a time warp in many ways. So it will be a modern Medicare system that trusts you to make a variety of options for you.

“You‘re going to live in a peaceful world. It will be a world of peace, because we’re going to have a clearer — clear-sighted foreign policy, based upon a strong military, and a mission that stands by our friends, a mission that doesn‘t try to be all things to all people — a judicious use of the military which will help keep the peace.

”You’ll be in a world hopefully that‘s more educated so it’s less likely you‘ll be harmed in your neighborhood. See, an educated child is one much more likely to be hopeful and optimistic. You’ll be in a world which fits into my philosophy: You know, the harder you work, the more you can keep. It‘s the American way.“

Such is the soundbite mindset of the media that a gaffe is defined as one clear misstatement of fact rather than two minutes of sheerest free association that would take an analyst — psycho-, policy or linguistic — months to decode. The one passage that most fascinates me is the last — suggesting as it does that Bush seems to believe that ”the harder you work,“ the more money you’ll make. That must mean that the poor are — well, lazy, at least, in a world which fits into W.‘s philosophy.

Bush was also handicapped on Tuesday night by the fact that nonjournalists were asking the questions — meaning, as is invariably the case when actual people pop the questions, that the subjects for the evening were the price of drugs and health policy and school vouchers and gun control: Al Gore’s issues. W.‘s one major policy point, which he came back to again and again, was the aggregate cost of Gore’s proposals. (”If this were a spending contest,“ Bush said, ”I‘d come in second.“) The Veep, said the Gov, was proposing to spend three times what Bill Clinton called for in 1992, or more than Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis combined. (Liberals! The horror! The horror!)

That this point resonates with many Americans is a testament not only to our ongoing Jeffersonian anti-statism, but also to the fact that we still have not adjusted to the meaning of the surplus. Of course, Gore is proposing more than his predecessors: They all ran when the government was experiencing huge deficits. Gore is running at a time when the government is taking in more money than it is spending, and the nation is facing a backlog of unmet needs because the Reagan budgets dug a hole that paralyzed government for 20 years — which was precisely what Reagan intended.

Moreover, Bill Clinton not only turned red ink to black (is that why Gore recently told Oprah that his favorite novel was The Red and the Black?), but ended the Democrats’ support for such unpopular programs as welfare. One benefit that accrued from both these shifts, Clinton asserted, was to make it possible for the Democrats to support an activist — if fiscally conservative — government again. Fiscal discipline, popular programs: The Democrats‘ message shouldn’t be the problem. Indeed, what will decide this election in the next three weeks is whether Americans are voting on the message or the messenger.

LA Weekly