The Washington Times

En route to the airport in the cab of a politically attuned taxi driver this weekend, I found myself listening to a C-SPAN radio broadcast of the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debate. The clich about this debate is that those who listened to it on the radio thought Nixon won, whereas those who saw it on television thought Kennedy won.

No, actually, Nixon lost on radio too. The Kennedy charisma crackled through the speakers as Nixon fumbled earnestly. The vice president was especially uneloquent when trying to make the case that his advice had been influential with Eisenhower. By way of illustration, Nixon explained that after a recent trip to Venezuela, he had recommended the establishment of a separate development bank for Latin America. Question his influence, will you.

Nixon’s case for his own importance wasn’t helped by a crack by Ike at a previous news conference. A reporter had asked the president what specific accomplishments Nixon could point to as a member of the administration. Give him a week to think about it, Ike replied, and maybe he could come up with something. Naturally, a questioner threw the quote at Nixon during the debate; the vice president then had the excruciating experience of defending himself by portraying himself as the butt of Ike’s keen sense of humor. What a plateful that must have been to eat.

The most important thing about tonight’s debate between George W. Bush and Al Gore may be that it is the first of three. All along, people have been covering this election in anticipation of some knockout punch. And all along, the campaign has refused to supply one. Even things that looked like they might toll the beginning of the end – Mr. Bush’s jump in the polls following the Republican convention, Mr. Gore’s rise in the weeks following his own – quickly turned out to be less than met the eye.

So while we will all be looking for a turning point tonight, and while those hell-bent on finding such a turning point may be willing to make one up if they have to, chances are just as good that we will get no such thing – that impressions of the candidates won’t change much as a result of the debate, or that if they do, the effect will be temporary, subject to change in the next debates or on the campaign trail. Ronald Reagan was not so hot in his first debate with Walter Mondale, after all.

The question of the day is what each of the candidates “needs to do.” Yet the answers are as obvious as they are unilluminating. Mr. Gore needs to present himself as the sober custodian of the status quo of peace and prosperity, to portray Mr. Bush as a danger to that status quo, and to offer a vision of what government can do to extend the blessings of good times to as many Americans as possible. As for Mr. Bush, his task is to persuade people that there are many areas in which the country is on the wrong track, to portray Mr. Gore as a part of the problem, and to offer himself as a force for reform.

In practical terms, Mr. Gore will probably be saying “$ 1.3 trillion” a lot – the size of Mr. Bush’s proposed tax cut. Mr. Bush will have to mount a robust defense in response to Mr. Gore’s portrait of the tax cut as a risk to the good times. Mr. Bush, for his part, will probably keep returning to the “compassionate conservative” themes that have served him well from the beginning. His “education recession” line of recent weeks neatly evoked his sense of how current prosperity masks real problems.

Interestingly, Mr. Gore may benefit more from engaging Mr. Bush than Mr. Bush from engaging Mr. Gore. Now that Mr. Gore has established, in poll results following his convention performance that there is no immovable obstacle of public opinion preventing him from being elected president, his task is to paint Mr. Bush as unacceptable. If Mr. Gore does that, he wins the election. But should Mr. Bush respond in kind, with an attempt to portray Mr. Gore as unacceptable? Or would he be better served by trying to deflect Mr. Gore’s blows by keeping his focus on the positive case for himself and his program?

Everybody wants a good debate, a lively mix-’em-up over the issues. Nixon and Kennedy certainly had one. One may laugh at the notion of the origins of the Inter-American Development Bank popping up in a presidential debate, but tonight, it is unlikely that anything so challengingly obscure will warrant a mention.

The question for the candidates is what kind of debate best serves the overall interests of the campaign. The result may not be uplifting, but it surely reflects the cautious condition of democratic politics this year.