The results of these debates have often not been immediately obvious. I rated the Nixon - Kennedy debate as a draw, as did most commentators at that time. Indeed, subsequent events should have shown that Kennedy lost the debate on the merits. Kennedy spent debate time arguing that the islands of Quemoy and Matsu, which are just off the coast of China but are held by Taiwan, are strategically undefensible. Nixon pointed out that similar statements by US officials in the late 1940s that South Korea was strategically undefensible had led North Korea to attack and had caused the Korean War. I assumed that if Kennedy got elected that the two islands of Quemoy and Matsu would be abandoned to the Communists. Instead, they were not. Quemoy and Matsu are still held by Taiwan to this day.
However, history tells us that Kennedy won the Kennedy-Nixon debates. He won it not on the strength of his arguments, but because he looked better. Almost everybody agrees that had Nixon never debated Kennedy, Nixon would have been elected president in 1960. As a result, subsequent incumbents refused to debate and the next presidential debate did not occur until 1976, when Ford debated Carter.
In that debate, Ford committed the greatest error of all, when he said: "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration." This statement proved that, in spite of being president and in spite of having been a Congressman for decades, Gerald Ford was just plain stupid and knew nothing about the world situation.
Thus, we turned on our TV sets last night because we did not want to miss a possibly earth-shaking revelation which would change the course of history. We were disappointed. Nothing the candidates said would have been likely to make the news, had they not been candidates for president. The world will little note, nor long remember, what they said there.
As to who won, I feel that Bush won, because the expectations for Bush were lower. We knew that Al Gore would know all the facts and would be up-to-date on everything. We thought that Bush would be in over his head and would stumble and fall. He did not.
However, a commentator on ABC News, George Stephanopoulous, made a damning commentary on Bush. He said that almost everything Bush said was scripted from his campaign stump speeches. In other words, Bush said nothing that he had not said before. If that is true, Bush is in trouble, because there are two more debates scheduled and Bush will run out of things to say.
Bush scored biggest in one area, which is that Gore often seemed rude and impolite. Gore often interrupted when Bush was speaking. Bush never interrupted Gore. Also, Gore often sighed loudly when Bush was speaking.
Furthermore, in total time taken, Gore spoke at much greater length than Bush. Gore often exceeded the time limits set for the debate.
However, the bigger question is not who won the debate as a debate, but who the voters are most likely to vote for in November. I feel that Gore may have come out ahead on that. We know from the debate that Gore understands the issues facing our nation. We are not sure about Bush.
Indeed, much of what Bush said was gobbledygook. He did not really say anything. Here is an example:
"AL GORE Under my plan, half of their costs would be paid right away. Under Governor Bush's plan, they would get not one penny for four to five years. And then they would be forced to go into an HMO or to an insurance company and ask them for coverage, but there would be no limit on the premiums or the deductibles or any of the terms and conditions.
"GEORGE W BUSH I cannot let this go by, the old-style Washington politics of "We're going to scare you in the voting booth."
"AL GORE Can I make one other point?
"GEORGE W BUSH Wait a minute.
"AL GORE They get $25,000 a year income, that makes them ineligible.
"GEORGE W BUSH Look, this is a man who has got great numbers, he talks about numbers. I'm beginning to think not only did he invent the Internet, but he invented the calculator. It's fuzzy math. It's the scaring, trying to scare people in the voting booth."
In this example, Bush wins points because he is interrupted by Gore when it was his turn to speak. However, then Bush does not really say anything. He tells us that Gore is trying to scare us by using "fuzzy math", but he does not tell us what the right math is.
This pattern persisted. When the debate turned to the abortion pill, RU-486, Gore told us unequivocally that he favors the pill and is "pro-choice". Bush faced a real problem. Bush knows that a majority of Americans are pro-choice, but that his main financial backers, who are the religious right, are anti-choice. So, he has to satisfy the people who give him the money, while retaining the chance of being elected.
So, Bush muddled through an answer: "I think abortions ought to be more rare in America. And I'm worried that that pill will create more abortion, will cause more people to have abortions. This is a very important topic and it's a very sensitive topic 'cause a lot of good people disagree on the issue. I think what the next president ought to do is to promote a cultural life in America, is a life of the elderly and life of those living all across the country, life of the unborn. As a matter of fact, I think a noble goal for this country is that every child, born and unborn, ought to be protected in law and welcomed into life. But I know we've got to change a lot of minds before we -- before we get there in America."
This, I think everybody will agree, was a rather stupid answer.
On most other issues, Gore was specific, whereas Bush was muddled. For example, Gore came out firmly opposed to school vouchers. Bush knows that his supporters, who are primarily right-wing born again Christians who want to use taxpayer dollars to support their private church-sponsored schools, are in favor of vouchers, but it is not clear that the viewing audience, unless they already understood the voucher issue, were enlightened by the debate as to what the issue was all about.
On the issue about what to do with the budget surplus, Gore should also come out ahead. Here is what Bush said: "And I think you're going to find the difference reflected in our budgets. I want to take one-half of the surplus and dedicate it to Social Security, one-quarter of the surplus for important projects and I want to send one-quarter of the surplus back to the people who pay the bills. I want everybody who pays taxes to have their tax rates cut."
In short, Bush said that he is going to spend the entire surplus and leave nothing to pay down the national debt. Gore, on the other hand, promised that if his program is followed, the national debt will be paid off entirely by the year 2012.
The American public has made it clear that they want the budget surplus used to pay the national debt first, and on this point Gore should score.
In sum, I feel that Bush won the debate but that Gore is more likely in the long run to win more votes because of the debate.