DESPITE THE PREDICTIONS of media pundits that Al Gore would clobber George W. Bush in televised debates, the Texas governor has at least held his own. Judging by poll results, he has actually done himself some good. While Gore is a master of debaters' tricks, apparently many of those who watched could sense how synthetic he is.
What is wrong with the whole debate format was illustrated by a televised conversation in a family home after the second debate. One lady was very earnestly considering Vice President Gore's idea of using the government surplus to pay off the national debt. Yet anyone familiar with Congress in general, or with Al Gore's own record in Congress, would realize how hopelessly unrealistic such an idea is.
You cannot leave trillions of dollars in Washington without expecting it to be spent. The idea of putting Social Security money "in a lock box" as Al Gore put it, is equally ridiculous when Congress always has the key, since it makes the laws and changes them at will.
What Gore said in the debate bore no resemblance to his record in Congress. As a Senator, Al Gore voted for more spending than Ted Kennedy in six of the eight years they served together. In two years, the National Taxpayers' Union voted Gore the biggest spender in Congress. But there was nothing in the debate format to give the viewers any such information. A searching interview by a knowledgeable and aggressive interviewer could have brought out such facts.
It was not in the debates themselves, but in later news stories, that Al Gore's lies in the first debate were brought out.
Remember his story about the poor old lady who had to scrounge used aluminum cans to get their deposits, in order the make ends meet and pay for her medicine? She owns her own home, gets a pension, and her son owns a ranch.
Remember Gore's story about the school girl who couldn't find a seat in class because the school was so overcrowded, supposedly due to a lack of money? She couldn't find a place to sit -- just that one day -- because there was more than $100,000 worth of lab equipment in the room that hadn't yet been unpacked.
After being caught red-handed on these lies after the first debate, Gore blithely said in the second debate that he may have gotten some "details" wrong but that his message was right. That was clever spin but a lie is not a detail. It doesn't matter what anyone says about any policy if you cannot believe him.
It doesn't matter whether a candidate proclaims himself in favor of a middle-class tax cut or saving Social Security or paying down the national debt, if what he says is unreliable and wholly incompatible with his record. It doesn't matter how forcefully he comes out in favor of stronger campaign finance laws when he himself has violated such laws so flagrantly that three members of his own administration's Justice Department have urged the Attorney General to appoint a special prosecutor to go after him.
A candidate can promise the moon to everyone, as Gore has done, but that tells you nothing about what he is actually going to do. By their fruits ye shall know them -- not by their rhetoric or their debater's glibness.
Gore's long political history is that of a big-government liberal. It is also that of a chameleon who changes positions with the convenience of the moment.
As a member of the House of Representatives from Tennessee, Al Gore blended in with his constituents' views by opposing abortion, gun control and gay rights. But, after he moved to the Senate and now had national political ambitions, he not only reversed himself on all three issues in order to blend in with the Democrats' national liberal constituency, he blithely denied that he had changed positions during a debate with Dan Quayle.
What Gore had said before and how he voted are all in the Congressional Record. But he knew that the television viewers did not have the Congressional Record in their homes. Like Clinton, Gore knows how to take advantage of the public's lack of knowledge.
We would have learned a lot more about both candidates from a one hour interview of each, one-on-one with an interviewer who knows enough to pin them down, than we learned from three staged sessions under restrictive rules. Bush would probably have come out even further ahead.
More important, so would the voters, who need to know the facts, not be dazzled by the