It Came From Mars


October 18—The most striking aspect of last night’s debate was the blackout on any serious discussion of the Mideast crisis, which last week claimed the lives of 17 American sailors, and which has sucked the U.S. into a huge, apparently endless international policing operation where American troops are sitting ducks in a war zone that can easily turn out to be far worse than any Vietnam.

In reply to one oblique question about what would make him the better person to have in office during the Middle East crisis, Republican George W. Bush said, “I’ve got a strategy,” but he never said what it was. This is what Democrat Al Gore said (no kidding!): “I see a future when the world is at peace, with the United States of America promoting the values of democracy and human rights and freedom all around the world.” The meek Jim Lehrer let them get away with this crap.

The other remarkable aspect of the debate was that neither Gore nor Bush answered the questions posed to them by the audience of “ordinary people.” One teacher asked Gore, “In the school district in which I work, we face crumbling school buildings, increased school violence, student apathy, overcrowding, lack of funding, lawsuits. What can you tell me and my fellow American teachers today about your plans for our immediate future?” Gore lurched into psychobabble and ended up saying: “I want to make it possible for all middle-class families to send their kids to college and more Pell grants for those who are in the lower income groups, also. And then I want to make sure that we have job training on top of that, and lifelong learning.” Here’s Bush: “I’d worry about federalizing education if I were you.”

Gee, thanks, guys.

Like the two previous debates, last night’s so-called town meeting was a complete turnoff. One possible explanation for what went on: Bush is generally trending ahead of Gore in public-opinion surveys, and last week the Zogby poll on American values suggested that the populace backs Bush over Gore by substantial margins on a wide range of issues, from Social Security to not using abortion as a litmus test for appointing Supreme Court justices, to reducing gasoline taxes and eliminating the estate tax. On the other hand, voters approved of Gore’s support for a higher minimum wage and his opposition to school vouchers.

It may be that Bush, anticipating a low turnout, is now running to shore up his conservative support. As in a primary, where conservatives hold the key to a candidate’s success or failure, Bush now needs to rally the right wing to get out the vote. That pressure would account for his states’ rights rhetoric on local control of schools, getting Washington off our backs, pulling back from troop deployment abroad, ending peacekeeping missions, doling out tax breaks, privatizing Social Security, giving states control over health insurance programs, offering unqualified support for the death penalty, and supporting citizens’ right to bear arms for protection. All of this is coated with the governor’s unctuous bipartisan lingo, all the stuff about reaching across troubled waters, blah-blah, and his continued assertions that he, the son of a United States president and the product of an Ivy League education, is somehow an outsider.

By contrast, Gore sometimes tries to sound like a populist, which everyone knows he is not. Like Clinton, Gore tries to shadow the conservatives, running up from behind and pinching them in the ass before darting off. But in doing so, he has raised the question of his own credibility. And that remains his big problem as the election nears.