When the debates began, George W. Bush
was being held to an unfairly high standard: Nobody can dominate a debate the way the Texas governor has dominated the race outside the auditorium. Now, however, the expectations game is working in Bush’s favor. By performing so poorly in the first two debates, Bush made last night’s adequate performance seem pretty good.
Bush gave a very solid answer to Tom Brokaw’s question about missile defense, ably pointing out the absurdity of viewing its deployment as an act of aggression. He did well on taxes, too or "the taxes," as he would say and finally started an argument with one of his rivals (John McCain) on the subject. His willingness to attack Bradley and Gore on taxes and spending has to have reassured many Republicans.
But Bush wasn’t fast enough on his feet to win an exchange with Gary Bauer over China and the WTO, as he should have on the merits. He handled an HMO question well at first but then flubbed it at the end, seeming to endorse a federal review board to second-guess HMO decisions. (He can’t have meant what he said.) On the soft-money question, Bush led with the impact on the GOP while Orrin Hatch and Alan Keyes made the more appealing argument on principle against McCain.
Bush has gotten better as he has debated more; presumably he will get better still. A deeper problem may be that his riffs on compassionate conservatism are beginning to reinforce the impression that he’s light. However heartfelt his remarks about "not leaving one child behind" may be, they sound as though he’s falling back on a safe platitude or worse, that he’s more sentiment than seriousness.
had his best night so far, showing his quick wit in comments about Brokaw’s wealth and later Steve Forbes’s. When everyone else was flailing around about the disappearance of the family farm, he remembered the Republican line on it: Death taxes are breaking up the farms. And this time, Hatch waited until his fourth turn to mention he was on the Senate finance committee: progress. On the other hand, that self-righteous bit about the "moral power" he would have because he had lived his life well was a case study in how not to promote social conservatism.
Forbes had the best answer of the bunch on the Columbine/guns question. Everyone else said that existing law had to be enforced, but only he pointed out that the Clinton administration wasn’t doing it which is a necessary piece of background information for voters to see this position as more than a dodge. Less commendably, he also did his "cross of wheat" bit about Alan Greenspan’s responsibility for low farm prices. Overall, Forbes didn’t score any points last night, and a guy in his position has to.
McCain didn’t do as well as in the last two debates. He was clearly running to Bush’s left, coming out for a prescription-drug benefit and an expansion of the children’s health insurance program. (Did he really say fixing Medicare was the "most important challenge in the next century"?) He pandered to feminists: Two women who fell into enemy hands during the Gulf War and were sexually molested somehow became an advertisement for women in combat. He stayed closely to his campaign-finance reform message, as usual. As in the Arizona debate, attacks on that message by other candidates were crowd-pleasers. The verdict of the audience appeared to be: strong but wrong.
Keyes was, well, Keyes, the most well-spoken and often the deepest thinker of the bunch. The disdain for euphemism in his closing remarks was bracing: "We are not ‘leaving unborn children behind.’ We are killing them." Somebody would have had a nice line if he’d named Keyes when asked his favorite philosopher. Even his paean to the family farm, which would have been pandering from anyone else, sounded sincere. The rest of the candidates must be impressed, even if they never learn from his example.
Bauer was articulate, as always, but his message was appalling. He seemed to embrace Europe’s budget-breaking agriculture policy as a model for America; he invoked the fact that "there are broken hearts in Iowa" (because of failing farms) as something that candidates must address. Bauer is rushing headlong to the left. Let’s hope he stays away from Lenora Fulani.
The big loser of the night: the Iowa caucuses. The first half hour of the debate, in which almost all the candidates were pandering on agriculture and ethanol subsidies, was an argument against them. Two more losers: Brokaw and his sidekick from Iowa’s WHO station. Their preening was sickening one can see why Brokaw’s station logo is a peacock and their questions were both the worst and the most left-wing in tendency of all three debates.