That both sides should be able to claim victory is an indication that Sunday's presidential debate served the nation's voters well, along with the fact that neither candidate made any major errors. Many neutral observers called it a draw, saying that was good for Democrat Michael S. Dukakis since his campaign had stumbled considerably in recent weeks and had been perceived as falling behind that of Republican George Bush. That is a reasonable assessment.
What it comes down to, then, is that this is a highly competitive contest for the presidency. The differences between the two candidates on many of the critical issues, and their approaches to government, were clearly delineated. With six weeks remaining until Election Day, there is considerable potential for the constructive discussion of a whole range of issues--many of which were not touched on Sunday night. There also is considerable potential for nastiness between now and Nov. 8. The media must be alert to personal attacks and attempts to distort facts in the remaining weeks. The media are the only reliable mechanism available for setting the record straight, and quickly.
As for Sunday, the two candidates came across pretty much as they are, particularly if the observer was able to discount some of the rehearsed comments and prepared one-liners. Zingers about Boston Harbor or Joe Isuzu may seem clever, but they do not add to the debate.
Special commendation is due to the debate moderator, Jim Lehrer of PBS' MacNeil/Lehrer News-hour, and the three panelists for asking excellent questions and keeping the discussion moving. The panelists were Anne Groer of the Orlando Sentinel, ABC news anchor Peter Jennings and John W. Mashek of the Atlanta Constitution. It is unfortunate that the reporters could not ask follow-up questions to clarify ambiguities or challenge seemingly erroneous statements, but those were the ground rules set by the campaigns.
Dukakis was more specific on many issues--but perhaps he needed to be, since he still is not a familiar figure to most Americans. Much of the defining of Dukakis has been done by the Bush campaign, and not in flattering terms.
Bush was victorious on Sunday, his campaign manager said, because the vice president managed to come across as warm, human and likable. He also seemed uncertain at times, and was vague on many questions and inaccurate in several statements. Dukakis still comes across as stiff and humorless, even when presented the opportunity in a specific question to demonstrate that he can be passionate. His passionless answer seemed to prove the point. Dukakis also was weak in rebutting Bush charges about his membership in the American Civil Liberties Union.
But Bush and his handlers are off base in their attempts to portray the Massachusetts governor as a dangerous left-winger because of proposals concerning affordable housing or health insurance. Such issues are firmly in the mainstream of American concerns, and they deserve to be debated in detail. They are among the problems that have been neglected for the past eight years. No American can know real economic security unless he or she has the ability to handle the cost of a medical emergency. And owning a home still is an important part of the American dream.
There was no time Sunday for many other topics like energy and the environment, and for aspects of economics, foreign affairs and national security. Nor can they all be covered in the second and final debate in three weeks. There will be ample opportunity, however, for the candidates to discuss these items intelligently and in depth--if they are willing to set aside their zingers and stock speeches long enough.