A Coming-of-Age for Debates : By Defining Themselves, Candidates Illuminated Fateful Issues

Roger Morris, a former senior staff member of the National Security Council under Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon, is writing a two-volume biography of Nixon

It was supposed to be a frothy affair, this first presidential debate of the notoriously issueless 1988 campaign, a matter of background lighting and skin tones, images of wimp versus technocrat--which muted red tie Democrat Michael S. Dukakis should wear, and where Republican George Bush should manfully grasp the lectern.

Yet, when the 90 ballyhooed minutes were over, it was not nearly so vapid or unsubstantial as much of the media had advertised, advised or perhaps even hoped. Bush and Dukakis met in Winston-Salem on Sunday in a clash of policies and perceptions that was often drawn sharply, and sometimes with surprising thoughtfulness. Behind the candidates' inevitable thrusts and rhetoric there were visible fateful issues that truly divide these two contenders for the White House and will command the American agenda for the next decade and beyond.

In that sense this first great encounter of 1988 may well have marked a coming-of-age of the whole gladiator-theatrical concept of modern presidential debates, and of the television journalism that has shaped them. Consider some of the unabashed substance that found its way into the exchanges:

--Early in the going, Dukakis confessed that he would cut not only weapons systems but the vast, largely sacrosanct empire of agricultural subsidies as well--budgetary specifics that both men have been loath to admit.

--In the joust over tax reductions for capital gains, there was the old and still fundamental debate over the larger, longer economic effect of regressive versus progressive taxation, over what makes our economic system go and who should pay the price.

--Just beneath the argument about buying into Medicaid or hospitalization plansin Massachusetts lay the great and far-reaching issues of insurance reform, the cost crisis in medicine and the question of health care as human right or privilege, which still plagues us 40 years after the dilemma was first debated when Harry S. Truman was running against Thomas E. Dewey.

--There also was hardening specificity and consensus about their recognition of the AIDS crisis and their transcendence of the prejudice and ignorance that have hampered our national response.

--The contrast on the homeless and housing issues was vivid--Bush with his emphasis on the private sector, Dukakis evoking the GI Bill and a new government mobilization. "It will require some funds . . . " the governor said quickly but honestly, pitting "Star Wars" against a new middle class of homeowners. And Vice President Bush countered with the disastrous interest rates under the last Democratic Administration and the all-too-visible failure of public housing--all of these genuine issues, real not phony history, and choices to be made.

--Then there were the ancient unsolved wounds of crime and punishment and abortion, both men posing perhaps more clearly than they wished the paradox of a government killing in order to stop violent lawlessness, of a woman's anguishing decision to make or take the life within her.

--Foreign and defense policies were much the less impressive of their wares. But even here were glimpses of issues that voters seldom get to see until it's too late: the CIA making its Faustian bargains with foreign criminals, the all-too-urgent question of whether our political or military intervention against revolutionary change in places like Central America ends uphelping the Soviets more than combatting them.

--Bush was sure of peace through strength, though not so sure of the historic changes in the Soviet Union that have made possible most of our recent progress toward a safer world. Dukakis, like most Democrats, was not ready to say much about Mikhail S. Gorbachev or perestroika , the most important international developments of our era, lest he appear soft on communism. Yet behind the platitudes of both men we could still make out some of the essential substance--the necessity for choice between strategic and conventional defense, between an old enemy and a new rival, between suspicion and trust.

--Finally, there was the perennial question of terrorism and hostages, the endless agony of the Middle East. By then, seemingly exhausted, neither of them could bring himself to ask what lay behind much of this tragedy, why our hostages were taken to begin with. It was again the old underlying issue of Israel and the United States and the Jewish-Arab dilemma, there fleetingly but then quickly pushed off stage.

In the end, it is true, there were far more questions raised and issues posed at Wake Forest than creative policy answers or two-minute flashes of genius. But we should not expect too much of this virtual beginning of serious, semi-sophisticated dialogue. It seems enough that it happened at all. The ultimate lesson of this first presidential debate of 1988 may be that for actual policies and answers we'll have to wait for 1992.

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