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Gore vs. Bush - A Lesson for John Kerry
March 9, 2004
By Brad Peachy

On October 3, 2000, Vice-President Gore stepped up to the podium for a debate against then Governor George Bush. If ever the American people could see a razor-sharp intellect with a deep grasp of fact and policy contrasted with a frat boy who majored in beer drinking, this would be it.

Bush was already notorious for using words such as "misunderestimate" and phrases such as "is our children learning." His stump speeches were a hodgepodge of one sentence bumper stickers that actually included "don't mess with Texas," whatever the heck that means.

Gore on the other hand had already proven his dead-on debating skills. The Vice-President elect had reduced the normally combative and fast-talking Ross Perot to humiliating outbursts of "can I talk . . . can I finish?" in the NAFTA debate on "Larry King Live." In the 1996 campaign, Gore sacked former pro quarterback Jack Kemp in the Vice Presidential debates, neutralizing Dole's most effective ally to take the White House.

An Atlantic Monthly cover story just months before the debates (July 2000) opined that "Al Gore is the most lethal debater in politics, a ruthless combatant who will say whatever it takes to win, and who leaves opponents not just beaten but brutalized." That Mr. Gore didn't annihilate this poster boy for dyslexia and faith-based facts meant in essence that Bush won. How could it happen?

Like reading old magazines that predict a 30,000 Dow Jones average, returning to the Presidential debates of four years ago is an elucidating experience. Mr. Gore's fundamental mistake is illustrated in this telling exchange: Moderator Jim Lehrer asked Gore to explain his claim that Bush didn't have the experience to be President. Gore responded with, "I've actually not questioned Gov. Bush's experience; I've questioned his proposals. And here's why..."

Later the moderator pressed Gore on the question saying, "so I take it by your answer then, Mr. Vice President, that in a interview recently with the New York Times, when you said that you question whether Governor Bush was experienced enough to be President, you were talking about strictly policy differences?" Al Gore's response: "Yes, Jim," and then he launched into another statistics-heavy discussion of Bush's tax plan.

Lehrer was tossing Gore a soft pitch of which he should have torn the cover off, instead he bunted at tax policy. When Gore attacked Bush's experience, he was absolutely right to have done so - why did he back away?

Under Gov. George W. Bush, Houston took first place as the most polluted city in the U.S. Texas under Bush executed 152 inmates, more than all the other states combined. Under Gov. Bush, one of the countries' most regressive tax systems became even more regressive, mentally retarded convicts could be executed, half a million poor children were kept off Medicaid, hate crimes bills were quashed, and polluters wrote their own rules and "voluntarily" complied.

A precursor of the economic devastation he would wreak on the national economy, Gov. Bush pushed through 2.9 billion in tax cuts that left the state with a huge deficit, forcing it to forego more and more of its traditional services, such as school and road maintenance. Texas under Bush - out of 50 states - ranked numero uno in greenhouse gas emissions, pollution from manufacturing plants, home insurance rates, and percentage of children without health insurance.

George Bush's Texas ranked 5th highest in teen birth rates, 44th in home ownership, 44th in SAT scores, 45th in child support collections and mothers receiving prenatal care, 46th in libraries, 47th in spending for social services and for police, 48th in spending on the arts, parks and recreation, and public health. Despite his much ballyhooed support for "no child left behind," George Bush left Texas ranked 48th in high school completion rates. Not surprisingly, Texas ranked dead last in teacher salaries. (source:

In his debate with Gore, Gov. Bush threw his record, such as it was, out on the table. In answering the question, "how would you advise voters to make a decision [between you or Gore]," Bush responded with, "I think you've got to look at how one has handled responsibility in office... whether you've got the capacity to convince people to follow, whether or not one makes decisions based on sound principles or whether you rely on polls and focus groups. I've been the governor of a big state... So the fundamental answer to your question: 'Who can lead, and who has shown the ability to get things done?"

When Gore was asked how voters should decide "which one of you is better suited to make the kind of decisions in military and foreign policy [we've been discussing], he answered, "Well, they should look at our proposals..."

No, Al, please, no. Plans, proposals, abstract possibilities in the future tense - these were the things that float Al's boat, but they are not what lifts a person to the highest office of the land.

Gore spoke as though Bill Clinton had never been President, that the country hadn't experienced eight years of unprecedented economic growth, that unemployment wasn't at a near-record low, that the stock market wasn't at an all-time high, that the budget didn't stand at a historic surplus, that wealth inequality for the first time in decades hadn't narrowed. When Bush viciously attacked Gore on not getting a prescription drug plan despite eight years of trying, Gore felt no need to point out that it was Mr. Bush's party who made sure the plans would never pass.

When Bush accused Gore of moving the sign "the buck stops here" from the Oval office to the Lincoln bedroom and capping that observation with a disingenuous "it's time for a fresh start after a season of cynicism," Mr. Gore felt no need to give voice to the angry and embittered Americans who were seething after eight years of Republican witch-hunts culminating in the partisan farce of impeachment. His response was, "we ought to attack our country's problems, not attack each other." All high-minded, good and fine. But what if our country's biggest problem IS the Republican running for office?

So Bush beat Gore because Bush ran on his record - and Gore let him get away with it, acting as if Bush's record in Texas had nothing worthy of criticism and the man was a bipartisan statesman. In fact, the one comment Mr. Gore did make about Bush's tenure was to commend him on his quick response to fires and floods in the state. On the other hand, Gore, instead of running on his and Bill Clinton's stellar record, couldn't stop talking about future plans, proposals, and provisions, as if he hadn't held the second highest office in the land for the last eight years.

If we could have seen a little bit more of that "lethal debater" and a little less of Mr. Policy Wonk, our beloved country might not be facing another four years of welfare for the rich and wars without end. Perhaps it is a lesson that John Kerry, the current Democratic candidate will not forget.

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