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Flipping the Script

Everyone thinks Bush will emerge from the debates covered in Gore -- but the vice-president's overstatements could give him the opening he needs. How Dubya can rewrite the ending.

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The next big part of every presidential campaign is the debates, preceded, as usual, by debate about the debates. The underdog always comes out of his convention demanding immediate debates; the front-runner agrees but can't quite commit to dates and a format. The media side with the underdog. And the public ends up with two or three debates scheduled in late September and October.

So far, everyone is on script: Al Gore has accepted 40 invitations to debate from various news organizations, in addition to the big one from the Commission on Presidential Debates. George W. Bush has agreed to debate three times but hasn't committed to dates, format, or whether Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan should be included. Last week, the Times recycled its quadrennial editorial on the subject, this time titled "Stop Arguing and Start Debating." This is the part of the campaign the Bush team has been dreading all along.

There's only one thing both campaigns and the media agree on: Gore is a much better debater than Bush. So it's strategically obvious that Bush has to agree to as few debates as possible as late in the campaign as possible -- and be prepared to take a lot of heat for delaying things in the meantime. He dodged so well during the Republican primaries that by the time he shared a stage with John McCain, expectations for Bush were so low that he couldn't help exceeding them.

This time, the Bush campaign doesn't need to lower expectations, simply because they can't get much lower. The campaign that has to play the expectations game is Gore's, which has so far been too busy taunting Bush about being afraid to participate. As soon as the schedule is locked in, Gore's advisers will start pumping up Bush so Gore won't come off like a failure if he doesn't make Bush look like an idiot from start to finish.

We've already heard much of what we're going to hear during the debates in the convention speeches. Gore will be at his best hammering home his support for the two simplest issues on which a clear majority of voters agree with him: gun control and support for Roe v. Wade. He'll be at his worst putting forward the policy variations on his claim of inventing the Internet that were all over his convention speech. Like his boss, Gore likes to take credit for the welfare-reform bill that was written entirely by a Republican Congress and signed only reluctantly by Bill Clinton after he had vetoed it twice. Even as clumsy a debater as Bush should be able to point out what the media have forgotten -- that Clinton sent a welfare-reform bill to Congress that never came to a vote. It called for increasing welfare spending by $9.3 billion. The competing Republican bill cut welfare spending by $55 billion. Once he got a line changed here and there, Clinton signed the Republican bill after Dick Morris told him his re-election depended on it.

Bush will never be able to outwonk Gore in the debates. But if he plays the role of the competent but modest fella to Gore's braying braggart, he has a chance of not only surviving the debates but coming out on top.

When Gore starts in about how he helped turn the budget deficit into a budget surplus, Bush should be able to get the Gingrich Republicans the credit they deserve for that one, too. When he became Speaker in 1995, Newt Gingrich proposed balancing the federal budget in seven years, a time period he picked out of thin air. The Clinton administration first said that was impossible, then suggested it could possibly be done in ten years but never introduced legislation that would do so. Clinton eventually surrendered and agreed to Gingrich's seven-year plan. No one ever proposed actually going beyond balancing the budget to create a surplus -- it happened because Gingrich's budget cuts were so severe (especially in Medicare) and Clinton's 1993 tax increase generated so much more revenue than anyone projected.

If Gore repeats what he said during his convention speech about campaign-finance reform, Bush can pull a Reagan -- shake his head and say, "There you go again." Gore said he would "get all the special-interest money -- all of it -- out of our democracy by enacting campaign-finance reform." The campaign-finance-reform bill that Gore wants to enact is the one by Senators John McCain and Russell Feingold. Neither McCain nor Feingold would ever make such a sweeping claim -- their bill simply reroutes the flow of special-interest cash by banning unlimited contributions of soft money to the parties. Smaller amounts of special-interest funding could still flow directly to candidates, and unions and industry groups could still spend unlimited amounts to finance television ads. And, of course, McCain-Feingold would apply only to federal elections, leaving state and local election campaigns untouched by a law Gore claims will fix everything.

Bush also has a good shot at winning the Social Security round if Gore makes the mistake of repeating his convention-speech line about "putting both Social Security and Medicare in an ironclad lockbox where the politicians can't touch them." Politicians can touch any program they want, whenever they want -- unless President Gore figures out a way to disband Congress. Bush's idea -- allowing workers to put part of their Social Security money into private accounts -- is actually the only way to create a government-funded account politicians can't touch. This one, at least, the public seems to have figured out already, which is why Bush's still-very-sketchy Social Security proposal is as popular as it is.

Especially compared to gore, bush is given to understatement. When he recited his achievements as governor of Texas at the Republican convention, he credited Democrats in the state legislature with helping him. He didn't say he'd save Social Security -- rather, that "now is the time for Republicans and Democrats to end the politics of fear and save Social Security together." It was an acknowledgment that a president has a hard time doing anything important without bipartisan congressional support. Bush will never be able to outwonk Gore in the debates. But if he plays the role of the competent but modest fella to Gore's braying braggart, he has a chance -- a very slight chance -- of not only surviving the debates but actually coming out on top.

Of course, surviving might be all he has to do: The candidate leading in the polls on Labor Day has won in almost every campaign. In other words, the election may be settled before the debate about the debates even settles down.


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