Good thing this isn‘t an election for student-body president. If it were, W. would win in a walk.

In matters of manner — and in student-body elections, little matters except manner — Al Gore is the smartest kid in the class, who never lets you forget it. He not only stepped all over W.’s answers during Tuesday‘s presidential debate, but interrupted moderator Jim Lehrer’s questions. W. is an affable doof, who rises to the occasion by running a serious campaign. So who do you want presiding over school assemblies — or, in this case, talking to you from the Oval Office?

This isn‘t high school, thankfully, but appearances — at least, the appearance of ”presidentiality“ — matter. A friend who called me after Tuesday’s debate said that for the first section, while she was driving home and listening on the radio, she had the clear impression that Gore was scoring big. When she got home and switched on the TV, however, she found Al‘s audible substance diminished by his visible smarminess. (Forty years ago, those who listened on the radio to the first Kennedy-Nixon debate thought that Nixon had prevailed on points, while those watching on television thought he had looked, well, Nixonian, and that Kennedy had come across as well as Nixon.)

W. had his shaky moments on Tuesday night — unsure about the position of the Russian government on the Yugoslav crisis, certain that his hugging and crying with a flood victim was classically gubernatorial. (”That’s what governors do,“ he pronounced.) On the whole, though, W. appeared plausibly presidential. Mind you, the appearance of plausible presidentiality guarantees nothing about a president‘s actual performance, as the example of Warren Harding reminds us. But appearances do matter.

Fortunately for Al Gore, they are not everything. Most of Tuesday’s debate was conducted on Gore‘s terrain — on such issues as tax cuts, prescription drugs and abortion. On tax cuts in particular, Bush’s proposal to give $665 billion over the next decade to America‘s wealthiest 1 percent is the great hanging curveball of this election year, and Gore clobbered it again and again.

The Bush people know that they can’t beat Al Gore on specifics. Instead, they have concluded that W. must debate the policy differences between Gore and himself on the level of broad ideology. It‘s long been an axiom of political science that Americans are ideological conservatives and operational liberals — clear anti-statists when considering government programs in the abstract, and, however bewilderingly, whole-hearted supporters of actual government programs like Social Security, Medicare and job training. More than in any election in decades, this split in the American political persona is precisely the fault line between the two campaigns.

The mere existence of a fault line is relatively recent, for it’s only recently that Gore has morphed into an operational liberal. Ralph Nader‘s assertion that the Veep and the Gov are essentially indistinguishable was essentially true when the campaigns commenced last year. On questions such as trade and the global economy, about which not a word was spoken on Tuesday night, Nader is still right. Just this winter, Gore’s stress was almost completely on debt retirement — still the biggest item in his budget, which is why so many bankers are backing this self-proclaimed populist.

But prosperity has driven Gore to decency — or, at least, in that general direction. Over the course of the year, as the surplus projections swelled and Gore ran out of debt to retire, he enlarged his proposals for prescription drugs, classroom construction, college tuition. Bush‘s charge that Gore is proposing the greatest expansion of government since Lyndon Johnson isn’t true, but Gore is proposing the greatest expansion of domestic programs since Richard Nixon. And it‘s about time. This is the first moment in more than a quarter-century that it is both fiscally and politically possible to address the myriad problems that government has allowed to fester lo those many years.

If the choice this year is between Gore’s poll-tested programs and Bush‘s lunk-headed tax cuts, W. is doomed. Hence, Bush is turning to a sweeping neo-Reaganite assault, not on government per se, but on expanded government. (That’s what makes it neo.) W. was at his most compelling Tuesday night when outlining his ideology — but elections hardly ever turn on ideology alone. It took the inflation of the late 1970s to push Americans toward Reagan, and the failure of the Clinton health proposal to push Americans toward Gingrich. American anti-statism may be chronic, but it‘s rarely acute, which is why Al Gore — hammering on the numbers, the specifics, the details — emerged from Tuesday’s debate as the candidate most likely to occupy the Oval Office. From which, in one televised address after another, he will surely patronize us all.

Harold Meyerson‘s analysis of Thursday’s vice-presidential debates will appear on the L.A. Weekly‘s Web site (

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