The Presidential Debate Debate

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:30

    If that was his idea, he succeeded. The best headlines we came up with in our office were: Gore Reveals Plans to Moon Schoolchildren; Moon Delegates, Gore Aides Agree; and Linchpin of Gore's Strategy: Moon Senior Citizens. That night, Gore made his most passionate special-interest-bashing speech yet?in the same Philadelphia hotel where he would hold a $100K fundraiser just minutes later. Debate with a Hook There's a great mystery about Gore's challenge to George W. Bush. Gore wants both candidates to forgo soft money and debate twice a week instead. The mystery is why in the hell Bush doesn't accept it. Gore's hard-money contributions are capped until the conventions, since he's taken matching federal funds; Bush's aren't. While the Republican National Committee possesses a slight advantage in "soft" party funds, any Republican candidate is going to be able to drub his Democratic rival in hard money. A soft-money ban would therefore help Bush. Bush is wise not to take the deal, for two reasons. The lesser of the two is that he would lose the debates. Gore, while overrated as a debater, is still better than Dubya. Granted, over eight months of twice-weekly jousts, that advantage would disappear. Gore is ultimately as lacking in extemporaneous imagination as Bush is, and would end up looking like a windup doll. (Indeed, these debates could be boring enough to launch a third-party candidacy all by themselves.) But Gore is going to hem the debates around with so many qualifications that they will be allowed to take place only on terms that favor him prohibitively. His model here is the NAFTA debate he had with Ross Perot in 1993. That's why Gore's most recent offer to Bush was so rigged. Gore's idea was that the two would debate within the next two weeks "on the specific issue of inter-connection between the economy, tax cuts, Social Security and Medicare." In other words, let's limit ourselves to an arcane issue that I've been briefed on daily for the last eight months?before you've had a chance to get briefed yourself. It's also a classic move for the yuppie meritocracy Gore typifies: Make every competition as similar as possible to the SAT, and call it fair. The twice-weekly debates would be like that, too. Any complaints from Bush about their giving Gore a permanent home-field advantage would be met by Gore's throwing up his hands and saying, "Well, if the Governor doesn't want to talk about substance..."

    The larger reason Bush shouldn't rise to the debate bait is that Gore is likely to fulfill his end of the soft-money bargain with all the scrupulous honesty he brought to raising money in the Hsi Lai Buddhist temple. The offer is a trap. Candidates can instruct their parties not to spend soft money, but most of the special-interest money comes from issue-agitation groups. Under Gore's deal, you wouldn't see any Democratic National Committee television ads against Bush, but you'd see an unprecedented bombardment of them from the NAACP, the Sierra Club, the Teamsters, NARAL and practically every special-interest group you could name. Big-money Democratic contributors, meanwhile, would be instructed to give to these proxy groups, since the DNC no longer had a free hand.

    Mucha Gente The interest groups pretend they don't coordinate with the candidates, but Bill Clinton was actually shown to have written several soft-money ads during the 1996 campaign. Steve Forbes alleged during the primaries that the Republican Leadership Council had coordinated its attack ads with Bush's people, and anyone who disbelieves him has never spent more than 25 minutes in Washington. Politicians know how this works. Take (s'il vous plait) Jim Traficant, the wacky Democrat from Youngstown, OH. Traficant has been subjected to a $50,000 negative campaign paid for by the League of Conservation Voters (LCV). Granted, Traficant's environmental record is abysmal?he gets 19 out of a possible 100 on LCV's 1999 scorecard?but Traficant thinks his environmental record has nothing to do with the campaign. And he's right. His real sin is that he votes with Republicans so often that Patrick Kennedy of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt would be happy to see the last of him. That's why they're also casting about for a primary candidate to run against him. If Kennedy and Gephardt don't climb down, you could see Traficant leaving the Democratic caucus within weeks.

    Similar intraparty harassment is taking place among New York Republicans. Tom Kirwan, the Hudson Valley assemblyman who may have been John McCain's most ardent backer upstate, claims George Pataki's spokesperson Zenia Mucha threatened to fund a primary challenge against him. Mucha didn't respond to the attack, but Kirwan pressed his point with one of the great neologistic verbs of this election year. "If she thinks I should have a primary," Kirwan said, "she should come down to the Hudson Valley and primary me, and I'll kick her ass all the way back to Albany."

    I Play One on TV One of the key cultural indicators of what's going wrong with politics was the battle over the NBA's insistence that its coaches mic themselves up, so tv viewers can get "private" insights into the drama of sidecourt strategy. This bonehead idea is part of the gradual transformation of every profession into the acting profession. Life now serves tv, rather than the other way around. Miking up coaches will have the same effect on them that constant press scrutiny has had on politicians: Not one of them will ever say anything interesting or unusual ever, ever again. Surveillance extinguishes the candor it's supposed to promote, and everything becomes legalistic. The best exposition of how the new rules will limit coaches' range came in a stellar column by The Washington Post's Michael Wilbon, who talked to an ex-NBA coach about concrete ways the microphones would screw up the game. "At the end of a game in which he had to use his backup center in the final moments with the score tied," Wilbon writes, "he shouted loudly enough for everybody to hear, 'Get the ball inside!' But that was only for show, for the benefit of the insecure backup. The coach also told his point guard as he dribbled up court, 'Don't even look inside. If you pass the ball to him, I'll kill you.'"

    Maybe this is "doubletalk," or, as we call it in politics, a "flipflop" or "hypocrisy." But when you get rid of it, you don't get openness. You get stonewalling. Coaches will start talking the way Al Gore did when he was asked whether he had any thoughts on seeing his dear friend Maria Hsia sent to jail for her role in a fundraiser they'd worked on together. Gore replied by saying nothing at all. "I don't want to comment on her ongoing case," were his words. Or the way Hillary Clinton did, when asked if her efforts to raise soft money among Pakistani-Americans had had anything to do with the President's 11th-hour decision to shoehorn a visit to Pakistan into his coming Asia trip. Rather than simply deny it, she said, "I think there is no evidence of that."

    Or best of all, the way Michael Sherman, the lawyer for Kennedy cousin and alleged murderer Michael Skakel, did when he tried to assert that the case against Skakel in the 1975 murder is weak. "There is no physical evidence," Sherman said, "no DNA." No DNA? They didn't test for DNA in 1975. Sherman might as well add that there's no trail of e-mails, no video recording on DVD and no cellphone intercepts. Nothing, in fact, but a measly blood-spattered golf club!