NOBODY DOES SLICK like Bill Clinton does slick, and the president was at his smoothest and most unflappable in last night's debate. Are Americans better off than they were four years ago? The economic indicators slipped trippingly off his tongue -- income up, interest rates down, stock market climbing, unemployment falling. Could he summarize his philosophy of government? Out came a stream of bills passed and crusades launched -- 100,000 cops, V-chip, Brady Bill, family leave. Did he have differences with Bob Dole? Why, Bob Dole voted against Medicare and food stamps and Head Start and student loans.
It was the same old Clinton performance, the polished act we've seen a thousand times: the torrent of words, the practiced wonkery, that I'm-the-smartest-boy-in-class smirk. There was nothing new, nothing memorable, nothing different, and nothing that went more than an eighth of an inch below the surface.
If you were grading on slickness and style, Dole got crushed. The Republican was awkward and nervous, so tongue-tied at times that he stepped on his strongest lines. Yet there was something affecting about Dole's performance. From his opening reference to "the mountains of Italy" where his right arm was shattered to his closing reminder that "I've had my anxious moments," Dole seemed far the more genuine and sympathetic of the two men.
And the more decent: He was visibly unwilling to talk about Whitewater, even when prompted by the moderator. He made a point of calling his opponent "Mr. President," despite the fact, as he pointedly told Clinton, that "you didn't extend that courtesy to President Bush in 1992."
Dole was supposed to sell his tax cut last night. He was supposed to remind viewers of Clinton's untrustworthy character. He was supposed to contrast his own statesmanlike approach to foreign policy with the president's make-it-up-as-you-go-along style. He may have touched on all those points; he may even have landed a few hard blows.
But in the end, this wasn't about beating Clinton in a debate. Nobody does that. It was about sending a message to voters who think America deserves a better president. Dole isn't a better debater, but he's the better man. Last night, that came through.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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