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How Dole Missed The 'Great Debate'

When one steps back from the recent presidential debates and looks at them with some perspective, this conclusion seems quite obvious: They were no more than an extension of a Great Debate that was fought out to the finish last winter and won by the president.

That Great Debate was between House Speaker Newt Gingrich and President Clinton. Mr. Gingrich and his House majority were pushing an agenda that amounted to a movement away from the federally centered social reforms put in place by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.

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At first and for many months the Speaker appeared to be winning that debate. Mr. Clinton put up very little resistance. Indeed, it appeared he was about to cave in to the so-called Republican revolution. Americans everywhere seemed to be hanging onto Newt's words as he pushed his case.

This all changed when, in political terms, the president played the right card and Gingrich played the wrong card. Faced with agreeing to a budget that had been shaped by the Republicans and that made way for the agenda of the House conservatives, Clinton dug in his heels. And when this meant that without a budget the government would close down, the president still wouldn't give in.

Instead, Clinton began to portray himself as the savior of Medicare, claiming that the budget he was resisting included slashes in that entitlement that would badly hurt senior citizens. Never mind that the Republicans really had big increases for Medicare included in their budget. Clinton scared the daylights out of older people everywhere. And when he did this, he was also able to cast Gingrich and the Republicans as the villains in the shutdown of government. Indeed, out of that confrontation the president was then able to go on and convince much of the public that the Republicans were going too far in trying to reshape the federal government - and that he was the citizens' protector against these excesses.

So the outcome of the debates between Clinton and Dole was probably inevitable. Dole wasn't Gingrich. But he had been painted as Newt's alter ego by the Democrats. Thus Dole found himself trying to persuade voters who were "hard sells" to convince; most of them had already made up their minds that they would be better off with Clinton at the helm.

This Clinton "victory" points up a basic political reality: People love to talk about getting the federal government out of their lives and cutting government spending. But let these same people come to feel that these changes will impact negatively on them and their tune quickly changes. So when the TV debates took place, the voters had already chosen the winner. They had decided that the direction Clinton was taking them was preferable to where the Republicans, including Dole, might take them.

Thus, the polls that showed Clinton "won" the debates really didn't reflect what had gone on. They mainly mirrored the views of the voters on the candidates. Those who preferred Clinton said he had "won" the debates - and vice versa.

Actually, neither candidate did much to help or hurt himself in either debate. They both handled themselves quite well. There certainly was no gaffe or admission or disclosure that might have turned the election around.

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So now we move toward the actual voting. And that outcome appears to be a further extension of the Great Debate of last winter. The people who lined up behind Clinton then seem to be still with him.

Here one might well ask:

What if Gingrich hadn't engaged Clinton in this debate over the direction of this country? Or what if he had avoided the showdown of shutting down the government - which gave Clinton the opportunity to play his Medicare card?

Well, before that happened, Clinton was way down in the polls. He might not have been able to make a comeback. And that might have meant that a lot of things could be different today - including what appears to be the likelihood of a big Clinton victory.

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