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Much debate about nothing

With the first presidential debate now behind us, we can begin to focus in on the issues that matter. We can look forward to the rest of this fall and ask the question many of us have yet to answer: What do we think of "Dark Angel"?

The Fox network decided to take a pass on the debates Tuesday night and instead premier its new show, figuring most viewers would rather watch a young woman in a skin-tight cat suit gallivanting around a post-apocalyptic Seattle than two white guys in suits behind lecterns.

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And after the remarkable lack of fireworks Tuesday night, the Commission on Presidential Debates could well be trying to include her in the next Bush-Gore pillow fight - or maybe Ralph Nader, minus the cat suit.

But even if Boston was boring, it wasn't all bad. If this was the first time you paid serious attention to the campaign, you got a decent explanation of what these two guys stand for - the differences between them and the similarities.

Al Gore wants a smaller tax cut and more spending on programs. George W. Bush wants a bigger tax cut and less spending on programs. Both believe education is a priority, but Mr. Gore wants to spend money to reduce class size, while Mr. Bush wants vouchers - though the word never once crossed his lips. Gore is pro-choice. Bush is anti-abortion.

All things considered, if this electorate is as hungry for a real talk about issues as it says it is, there was a lot to like on stage in Boston. But, as always happens after debates, all the punditry and analysis about good government and issues dissolve away. And instead, the discussion centers on the issue best crystallized by those giants of American political philosophy, the Oakland Raiders of the 1970s, who gave us those immortal words, "Just win, baby."

For the past few days the spin doctors, politicians, and pundits have been sorting through the question of who - if anyone - won Tuesday night. And somewhere in all the noise, we missed the point.

Presidential debates aren't ever really about winning or losing. If you completely disagree with a candidate's ideas, you're not likely going to be won over by a broad smile and a volley of figures. Debates are about appearing confident, avoiding serious gaffes, and explaining one's vision for the country.

On this count, both guys did OK. They highlighted the differences between them, they did so with minimal nastiness, and no one mispronounced any names.

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Boring? Maybe. But in the end, this serves a very important function. It starts knocking people off the fence and into one camp or the other - especially those who don't really belong on the fence anyway.

Most people who claim they are "sitting on the fence" aren't exactly sitting in the middle and straddling the thing. They are leaning one way or the other - both feet dangling on one side - and waiting to fall off with a slight breeze. They got it Tuesday night.

And here's where the question of who won actually has relevance - away from the post-debate analysis, at the personal level.

If you were a committed fence sitter before Tuesday and you came away thinking Bush won the debate, your fence-sitting license is revoked. You are a Bush supporter.

The fact of the matter is, by most objective criteria, Gore "won" the debate, for whatever that's worth.

He had a better grasp of the material he was discussing, he knew the specifics, and he generally looked more comfortable. Bush seemed out of his element on the question about foreign policy and many of his answers were more thematic and rhetorical than specific.

Fence sitters who claim that Bush won couldn't have heard anything new. Bush simply replayed his stump speech and didn't self-destruct. And that was enough for those leaning toward Bush. After all, winning isn't everything in debates. Getting your message out is.

Journalists and viewers were hoping for a decisive moment Tuesday - a home run for one of the candidates. But that was never going to happen. Taking a big swing involves risk, and neither of these guys is interested in that right now. The race is too close.

All of which means, if you weren't excited by this first debate, don't expect the next one to be a whole lot more entertaining. Everyone got what he or she wanted out of Tuesday.

Gore won the debate, but not by enough to make a real difference. Bush didn't fumble anything. And Ralph Nader, who was denied entry into the hall, was able to watch "Dark Angel" without missing much.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society