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Jewish World Review Oct. 20, 2000 / 21 Tishrei, 5761

Thomas H. Lipscomb

Thomas H. Lipscomb
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Consumer Reports

Gore wins the debate --- Bush wins the electorate -- ONCE AGAIN the press gets it wrong. By calling in the usual debate coaches and perfessers as experts on the last in the series of presidential “debates” they concluded George W. Bush gets low marks as both a policy wonk and a debater. What they overlooked, again, is that this highly artificial format isn’t scored as a debate. If anything it serves as a test of political appeal. But the press will continue to be mystified as Bush pulls further ahead in the polls. To a scientist, Bella Abzug and Marilyn Monroe may have had similar biology, but they still differed markedly in their biological appeal to others of their species. It all depends on whether what you’re measuring really matters.

Intellectuals of both left and right are equally guilty of believing that the principle purpose of the American political system is to enfranchise their ideas. But now that most of the U.S. press has become little more than a public relations outlet for the Democratic Party it is no surprise which set of ideas many journalists prefer. There is no better proof than their astonishing silence in the presence of the “fix” that was clearly in given the left wing bias in the questions selected and questioners chosen for the debate Tuesday night.

Christopher Matthews and Lawrence O’Donnell, both Democrats and skilled political wranglers in their own right, pointed this out during MSNBC’s wrap up after the debate. More than half the fifteen questions sounded like they were right out of the Democratic Party’s playbook list of key campaign issues from universal health care, gun control, “crumbling schools” and “overcrowding.” The rest were fairly nonpartisan concerns with the exception of one question on defense that might have come from a likely Republican. Three of the fifteen questioners were members of the profession that had the largest representation at the Democratic Convention this summer and remains the most steadfast source of Gore’s campaign funds – teachers. The two black questioners were representatives of the only large minority group in America that is overwhelmingly supportive of the Democratic Party and there were no Hispanic or Asian questioners. There were none of the usual questions that might have been reasonably expected from conservatives on issues like religion in the schools or partial birth abortion.

The studio audience and questioners were chosen by the Gallup organization out of a pool of undecided voters in the St. Louis area and 130 possible questions were submitted for consideration. Given the wide swings in Gallup polls recently caused by their difficulty in handling “undecideds” it’s not too surprising that this might have been an unbalanced sample. But Jim Lehrer bears direct responsibility for the fifteen questions used on air. His left leaning selection is not the consequence of some “vast left wing conspiracy,” however. It is simply yet another clear indication of the degree to which the center of gravity of major media figures has swung far to the left. From that perspective Lehrer no doubt truly believed that his selection fairly represented a moderate sampling of the 130 proposed questions. Unless Gallup’s undecideds were only undecided in choosing between Gore and Ralph Nader that seems highly unlikely. What seems more likely is that Lehrer, like many in media today, wasn’t even aware himself how he had recalibrated his own sense of the center -- well to the left.

What is harder to explain is Lehrer’s general passivity in the face of Gore’s contempt for the ground rules which had been carefully negotiated with the Commission on Presidential Debates by representatives of the two candidates. Leaving aside his failure to effectively police Gore’s overtime responses and self-assigned followup questions, Lehrer let Gore get away with the equivalent of repeatedly punching Bush below the belt while his arms were tied behind his back by his observance of the ground rules. The candidates had agreed not to address one another personally during the debate, but Gore continually asked Bush rhetorical questions he was not allowed to answer scoring cheap points with no interference from Lehrer. Bush’s appeal to Lehrer to enforce the rules brought no response. Clearly there was no controlling legal authority as far as Gore was concerned and like a phony World Wrestling Federation “referee” Lehrer wasn’t about to impose one.

Ironically Gore’s fascination with rhetorical questions like “What about Dingell-Norwood?” made Gore look even more like an obsessed Beltway policy wonk. And his constant reiteration of “fight, fight, fight…” made an electorate so eager to get away from the mudbath in Washington that it had given a pass to the most corrupt president in American history even more nervous. Both candidates had carefully avoided mentioning Clinton in the campaign because of the dangers of either attacking him or defending his record. But the question of Gore’s lying raised in the debates and his junkyard dog demeanor on stage raised enough voter concerns over whether they wanted four more years of this made Bush’s calm decency look pretty good. Nothing about the last debate is likely to change the trend to Bush now underway.

Observers forget that it isn’t the ratings for the debates that indicate their effect upon the electorate or the round by round scorecard. It is whether an impression of the human beings running for office is created which can be quickly and vividly conveyed in a phone call or over a backyard fence. Word of mouth can make or sink a campaign faster than all the policy briefs, advertising, or careful appeals to special interests. Alice Roosevelt Longworth’s acid remark that 1948 GOP presidential candidate Tom Dewey looked like “the little man on the wedding cake” is a case in point. Dewey was a shoo-in as a fearless prosecutor who had cleaned up the machine politics corruption in New York running against a Pendergast machine politician like Harry Truman. Dewey is now a turnpike.

If recent polls are reliable, Bush already wins on the majority of the issues Americans are concerned with. Thanks to Gore’s performance in the debates and Bush’s shrewd decision to only confront Gore on sunny ground of his own choosing, voters now have a clear view of the human beings they are being asked to elect. It’s hard to see how Bush suffers from that comparison.

Thomas H. Lipscomb is the director of the Center for the Digital Future in New York. An an editor and publisher for many years, most recently as head of Times Books, he is also the founder of two public companies in digital technology. To comment, click here.

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© 2000, Thomas H. Lipscomb