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Instant Analysis with The Post's Robert G. Kaiser

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Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2000; 10:30 p.m. EDT

Vice President Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush face-off in their second debate Wednesday night in Winston-Salem. With the latest polls showing a dead-heat race for the White House, the three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate could prove decisive.

Did Bush stumble? Was Gore too aggressive? Share your reactions to Wednesday's debate with Post senior correspondent and former managing editor Robert G. Kaiser, Wednesday, Oct. 11, at 10:30 p.m. EDT. He will join us immediately after the debate ends. The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Robert G. Kaiser: Welcome to the washingtonpost.com post-debate discussion. Please share your reactions to and comments on tonight's debate from Wake Forest University.

Robert G. Kaiser: I've just read the first two dozen comments and questions, many of which will now appear here in the next few minutes. As usual, washingtonpost.com readers are showing their edge over the readers of all other Web sites. Thanks for the good comments and questions.

Breckenridge, Colo.: How can Bush say government should stay out of peoples lives, when he and his party think they should be involved in a woman's right to choose an abortion or not.

Robert G. Kaiser: The candidates love to find refuge in slogans that -- like the one you cite -- often fail to hold up under close scrutiny. We could spend all night on examples of this.

Boca Raton, Fla.: Do you think Gore sufficiently answered the final question regarding his "history of exaggeration?" I thought his apology sounded sincere, but that Bush did a good job by attempting to show a pattern and that the problem was not just a few misstatements in last week's debate. Has Gore laid this issue to rest?

Robert G. Kaiser: I think Bush is right about this: individual voters will have to decide what to make of Gore's habit of exaggeration. Did he put the issue to rest? No. The Bush people clearly think this is helping them, so they will keep thumping it.

Washington, D.C.: I thought Gore did a much better job this time around. I was not satisfied with Bush's answer about gay rights and hate crime laws. Also, Texas' history of pollution and uninsured children worries me. What do you think?

Robert G. Kaiser: I think I'm grateful for your comment.

Virginia Beach: Looks like Al Gore has given up on his infamous sighs and tried to loosen up. My concern is about Bush's lack of good understanding about foreign affairs. Who in your opinion would be a better foreign affairs president?

Robert G. Kaiser: If you judge by history, this is a really hard question to answer. If knowledge and experience guaranteed a good performance by a president, Gore would certainly look like the best foreign policy president. But history suggests that knowledge and experience are not enough. Harry Truman was in many respects our most successful foreign policy president in this century (with setbacks too, of course); he was no expert, and had very little experience before becoming president. Indeed, most modern presidents came to office with modest previous experience in foreign affairs; Kennedy and Nixon were exceptions. As I've written in The Post, I am not a great admirer of the Clinton administration's foreign policies. But I also think George Bush made a lot of mistakes, particularly regarding Russia and Eastern Europe right after the fall of communism. And George W. has surrounded himself with his father's team. Honest answer: I have no idea who would be the better foreign policy president.

Boone, N.C.: I thought that Vice President Gore took the advice of the people after last week's debate. He wasn't sighing, overbearing, or irritated. George W. Bush was. Also, the advice given to Governor Bush was that he should respond more strongly to statements made by Gore during the debate. He responded weakly, and overtly avoided a question about Texas' rankings in health care twice. How much do you think that will hurt Bush?

Robert G. Kaiser: I agree with you that Bush had some bad moments tonight when he didn't want to answer a direct question. On the other hand, he did quite well in the first 15-20 minutes on the terrain generally thought to be his problem area, foreign policy. Once again I am going to resist the temptation to predict how voters may react to the debate, given my horrendous record in the past when I tried to make such predictions.

Louisville, Ky.: What do you perceive as the meaning of Bush's refusal to address the issue of the gun show loophole?

Robert G. Kaiser: I think Bush has to know what Gore knows: that most Americans like Gore's position on guns better than his. That at least is what polls regularly say. This may or may not be the answer to your question.

Los Angeles, Calif.: Bush often comments about how Clinton and Gore had eight years to get things done but have failed to do so. Why doesn't Gore ever make the counterpoint that Congress has been controlled by the Republicans for the last several years and we have yet to see any salient solutions to the issues that Bush criticizes Clinton and Gore for failing to resolve?

Robert G. Kaiser: Good question.

Boca Raton, Fla.: Is it just me or does Bush all of a sudden seem to be much more articulate and informed?! (Note, I'm already planning to vote for Bush.) Bush's comment about the Kyoto treaty and India & Pakistan's exemption from certain environmental standards took me by surprise. Previously he seemed to avoid such detail.

Robert G. Kaiser: Well, you may be prejudiced! But Bush certainly didn't fall on his face tonight on foreign policy issues.

Boca Raton, Fla.: So far, I'd be very hard-pressed to declare a "winner." It seems that both men are really on target tonight, doing what they need to do.

Gore attacked Texas' health care record and Bush responded very clearly, and kept hammering away on "what's their record after eight years?"

This should quiet some of the comments following the VP debate that the wrong men were at the top of their tickets. Both men look really presidential tonight.

I'm impressed and glad this has been such a substantive debate. I've learned a lot about both Gore and Bush.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks. It will be interesting to see how many of your countrymen and women agree.

Boca Raton, Fla.: Wow! I can't remember a debate in recent years where so much discussion has been devoted to Africa, foreign aid and U.S. leadership in the developing world.

It seems we've moved up a level from number crunching to big picture questions re: America's role in the world.

I think it's great and needed, but it did surprise me given all the prior emphasis on Social Security, education, Medicare, prescriptions, etc.

Do you think Bush has succeeded tonight in alleviating concerns that he is weak on foreign policy? To me he seemed relaxed and much more articulate, especially when discussing the IMF and Russia.

Robert G. Kaiser: Can't say for sure, but see above...

Arlington, Va.: What is Bush talking about when he says "there's a conflict of interest" in Panama/Central America?

Robert G. Kaiser: I thought he was talking about the fact that Panama and the Gulf War were initiatives taken by his father as president.

Brighton, Mass.: Why did Jim Lehrer spend 40 minutes on foreign policy where there is little difference between the candidates? What about starting off with the big issues such as education, tax cuts, and health care?

Robert G. Kaiser: I guess I disagree with your premise. My own hunch is that future historians will wonder why the Clinton administrations did so little with the amazing position America had in the '90s to shape a new world, and that more broadly, we live in a time when foreign policy issues may turn out to have been much more important than issues like tax cuts. But that's just my opinion!

American Law Student, D.C.: Bush Dodged the Africa question, and African-Americans took notice. Just as the US is ready to rush in to save Anglo-lives, they should be ready to save African-lives. There is a significant inequity in this policy. If we are going to save lives, then we should pick in chose like that.

Robert G. Kaiser: THanks.

Washington, D.C.: For Gov. Bush, why do you believe "everyone deserves a tax cut?" If hardworking people cannot afford to send their kids to college or pay for prescription drugs, then perhaps they should be given a break. But those making over a million dollars a year are clearly able to afford these things and the better things in life. It is foolish to believe they are solely responsible for their own good fortune. At a time when we still need to pay off the huge debt of the eighties and early nineties, why shouldn't they give back to our society by carrying a bigger part of the burden to relieve the next generation of this debt?

Robert G. Kaiser: Well, you know the answer to your own question, I suspect: the rich people pay most of the taxes, so when there's extra money around, shouldn't some of it go back to them? That's the rationale. Interestingly, large majorities of Americans have said for a year or more in polls that they aren't interested in getting a tax cut. That is a problem for Bush, obviously.

Pomfret, Md.: Did you think that Bush looked uneasy and confused in discussing foreign affairs?

Robert G. Kaiser: I didn't.

Independence, Mo.: I feel Gov. Bush answered most of the questions by saying he needed to bring something else up and would answer the immediate questions in a moment, wasting most of the time on the question he had the answer to. Did anyone else notice this? I also agree that it is easy to be knowledgeable when you simply agree with a person, who just in detail gave you answers to the questions on foreign policy. Right?

Robert G. Kaiser: Or wrong? I don't know. Thanks for your comment,

Elgin, Tex.: We DO NOT have hate crimes legislation in Texas because Bush was opposed to it -- the Christian Right didn't like the inclusion of gays as protected people.

We have severe problems with education, health care, and the protection of the environment...none of which has mattered to Bush until recently. Why don't the pundits point out these truths?

Robert G. Kaiser: Which pundits are you talking about? Readers of the Washington Post certainly know about these problems in Texas.

Laurel, Md.: One of Al Gore's goals tonight seemed to be to put Bush's record in Texas on the table. How well do you think Governor Bush handled this scrutiny?

Robert G. Kaiser: Personally I thought this was Bush's least successful subject matter tonight. Whether he did himself any significant damage I could not say, but he seemed to me to be very uncomfortable talking about some of the Texas issues, particularly the state's low ranking on coverage by health insurance.

Haymarket, Va.: Of all the people The Post could find to host this forum, don't you think they could find one that was not obviously left-biased?

Robert G. Kaiser: Since these discussions began during the conventions, I've been called a Republican, a dope, and now "left-biased." I confess (I probably shouldn't) that I take some comfort from the variety of these accusations. My goal here is to be straight and honest and modest about my ability to read the minds of American voters. I'll stick with that.

Fishers, Ind.: What happened to Gore? He seemed neutered during the debate. Perhaps he was too reactive to what has been said in the media. Bush really seemed to get the better of him tonight.

Robert G. Kaiser: THanks.

Houston, Tex.: As a fourth-year medical student I think it is necessary to note that the state of Texas faces many unique problems because of demographics and geography in regards to health care. Do you think George Bush evaded the issue of Texas rank in this area or was his answer adequate to support what I think is a strong record in his own state?

Robert G. Kaiser: Your point is an interesting one. Should Bush be blamed for Texas' historic standing as a state that spent little on social services for its people? Or should voters care more about what he himself as done since becoming governor? Did Gore actually ask the right question when he challenged Bush's priorities -- tax cuts for oil companies and other fat cats vs. health care coverage for the poor? Again, voters will have to decide, but I don't think the answer is cut and dried.

Boca Raton, Fla.: It seems that both candidates responded well tonight to criticism voiced after last week's debate.

What would you advise each candidate prior to next week's debate? What weaknesses remain?

Robert G. Kaiser: I welcome this good question, for it allows me to say something about my greatest disappointment from all these debates so far. What are these guys running for, anyhow? How often has any of the four candidates spoken in a way that uplifts the spirit, or takes our eyes off today and sends out imaginations into the future? Gore, talking tonight about his grandson, was the only occasion I can think of when any of them spoke about fulfilling a responsibility to the future. And he was far less eloquent tonight than he was in his own book, for example. My fear is that the modern technologies of politics have driven down the debate. That is, candidates can use polls and focus groups to test small-bore answers to small-bore questions, find which ones people like, then use them to death. That's why Bush keeps saying he can bring Democrats and Republicans together, and why Gore repeats and repeats how Bush's tax cut would go primarily to the rich. I fear we are stuck in these ruts; I don't see what can get us out of them, other than old fashioned leadership from inspired individuals. Seen any of that lately?

Sunnyvale, Calif.: Why hasn't Bush ever mentioned the inconsistency of a desire for high energy prices in "Earth in the Balance," and his advocacy that the administration use the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to knock down a price spike six weeks before the election?

Short-term price spikes are especially potent at influencing behavior without damaging the economy much.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks

Boca Raton, Fla.: Commentators on ABC are saying that the focus on foreign policy helped Bush tonight in that it gave him the opportunity to appear "statesman-like." Do you agree? Has Bush now put fears in this area to rest?

Robert G. Kaiser: I just don't know.

Robert G. Kaiser: Now some readers' comments...

Boca Raton, Fla.: Do you think Bush did any better tonight in responding to Gore's attack regarding his tax cut plan only benefitting the "wealthiest 1 percent?"

Bush tried to address this issue briefly, but I don't think he has yet really clearly responded to Gore's attack.

Do others agree?

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.

Arlington, Va.: Gore is going to have to make the case against Bush, and particularly the Bush record in Texas. Tonight he was too passive, and let Bush coast. However, when Bush gets comfortable he gets cocky and I thought the smart-alecky fratboy SMIRK came back in the second half of the "so-called debate." And Jim Lehrer was weak, weak, weak.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.

Mount Airy, Md.: Interesting how Bush responded once he was put on the defensive and was forced to defend his own record in Texas. Was I the only one who thought that his excuses were unusually poor for a presidential candidate?

Other than that, a civilized and substantive debate.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.

New York: Does anyone else just find Bush uncomfortable to watch? Reagan at least was a trained actor, so his down home at the funny farm shtick came off a little more sincere, but Bush looks like all of his training came from a community college acting class.

Robert G. Kaiser: Community college drama teachers, unite!

Baltimore, Md.: Did you notice how Bush smirked when he mentioned putting people to death, but happily started talking about life-affirming behavior several minutes later? I understand that Gore recognizes that Americans supposedly support the death penalty, but he should still be able to capitalize on (1) the extraordinary number of people who have been executed in Texas in recent years and (2) the recognition by, among others, Governor Ryan of Illinois, that innocent people may be being put to death.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.

Madison, N.J.: I thought Bush definitely seemed more comfortable discussing foreign policy than he has in the past, but it still seemed that he tended to discuss a greater number of issues in broader terms, rather than the more narrow and deeper focus Gore had. Bush has certainly boned up in that area, and looks much better for it, but he still looks like his strength is more in breadth than depth.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.

Portland, Ore.: I still haven't made up my mind about these guys. But one thing I noticed: Bush seemed kind of nervous tonight. He seemed at times to have a hard time with breathing patterns while he was answering questions, and his voice came across with a bit of a trembling timbre. He also tended to run on a bit and trail off at the end of each answer.

Gore projected a much more calm "aura" that seemed to exude much more confidence.

Did you or anybody else see it that way?

Robert G. Kaiser: Let's see if others agreed...

Boca Raton, Fla.: Although a Bush supporter, I do admit that I felt Bush's response regarding humanitarian aid to Africa and intervention in instances of ethnic cleansing was weak. Gore won that exchange in my view.

Unfortunately, I think many/most Americans could care less about Africa, so I'm doubtful that it will particularly hurt Bush. But I hope that many will speak out and encourage Bush to rethink this issue and prove me wrong!

Robert G. Kaiser: Thank you.

Houston, Tex.: Bush was flat wrong when he continually stated the "three men" who killed the black man in Jasper Texas had received the "death penalty." One has only a life sentence. Will the media report this glaring error by the Texas governor?

Robert G. Kaiser: You are right, and I'm sure that reporters are writing stories about this right now...

Fort Worth, Tex.: Does Texas really rank 49th/50th in the medical coverage statistics that Gore quoted during the debate?

Robert G. Kaiser: Yes.

Washington, D.C.: How does Bush intend to "bring people together" in D.C.? He keeps bringing that up, and yet he seems to have no plan for that action. No offense, but better people than he have tried to make the D.C. politicians work together. It seems that Bush just ends up sounding like a naive back-country "let's all work together" politician without a plan. Does he actually have one, or is this just another campaign slogan?

Robert G. Kaiser: This strikes me as an awfully good question. Saying you're going to bring people together does not make it happen, and I personally don't think there's been enough honest discussion about the partisan rancor that now dominates in Washington.

Honolulu, Hawaii: I was confused. I thought that the Texas hate-crimes bill died in committee -- as the vice president said. However, I believe that Gov. Bush said (or certainly alluded) that there already was a hate-crimes statute on the books in Texas. Who's right?

Robert G. Kaiser: I'm told there is a hate-crimes law on the book in Texas, but that the authors of the one that died recently in committee considered it too vague to be meaningful, or enforceable.

Boston, Mass.: I voted for Bradley in the primaries because I was uncomfortable with Gore. I was impressed with Bush after his convention. During the convention, Gore won me over. After the last debate Gore made me uncomfortable with his arrogance (though I want my president to be smart). I feel a lot better about Bush tonight after the debate. I have a feeling that is what he was trying to do.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thank you.

Ian, Ariz.: I think G.Bush did a much better job this evening articulating his position. I thought it was ironic that A.Gore chose to wear the Cheney style blue tie, yet Bush was the one who adopted the short, straight-forward answer style that brought Cheney success in the v.p. debate. Do you think that the third debate will reveal a "dumbed down" Gore, or will he maintain the status-quo? -- this is with specific regard to debate "technique."

Robert G. Kaiser: I want to confess to the author of this question and quite a few others like it that I am ignoring questions on technique and neckties, because I have nothing useful to say about them. Sorry.

Laurel, Md.: Do you notice that Bush can frequently look as though he's smirking when trying to make a point -- like when he was making the statement about the three men receiving the death penalty (according to NBC News. Only two of them actually received the death penalty) -- I thought he was almost smiling as if he was boasting.

Robert G. Kaiser: This is one of a number of similar comments I've received. I'll post a few more below...

Arlington, Va.: I had the weird feeling that I was about to watch a Bush smirk emerge when he discussed the death sentences of the murderers of James Byrd.

Not that I can particularly disagree with the death penalty there... but his "and you know what's going to happen with them?!" seemed just a touch glib. Or maybe that's just me...

Robert G. Kaiser: Here's one...

Virginia Beach: I was surprised by response to Bush's comment, "We're gonna put them to death." I am not decided on the death penalty, but to hear it stated this way, so matter of factly, made me feel uneasy. one of the folks in ABC focus group had the same reaction and i was wondering how widespread this reaction might be.

Robert G. Kaiser: And another...

Fairfax, Va.: I felt that Bush began to look almost "ghoulish" when he kept referring to putting "those three thugs to death." He had a smirk on his face that seemed inappropriate to the subject. It reminded me of Dukakis' fatal error when he was so stoned faced in his response when asked about his wife's hypothetical rape and murder.

Robert G. Kaiser: And another...

Sarasota, Fla.: I was baffled by Bush boasting that the Texas Legislature meets for x number of days every two years seconds after acknowledging that it took a year for the Leg to get the federal children's health care program up and running. How does that demonstrate that limited government works? Sounds like a sleepy government to me.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thank you.

Arlington, Va.: Um, do you have ANY responses other than "Thanks" or "I don't know?"

Robert G. Kaiser: Occasionally.

Great Falls, Va.: How can Bush seriously question the "cause of global warming." Does he believe the earth is flat? This struck me as a major stumbling block -- one Gore is likely to pick up on.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.

Richardson, Tex.: You know the gun lock program Gov. Bush was bragging about tonight was in the local news here. It seems the gun locks the state distributed were defective and unsafe. Just like administering the federal aid to children, Texas just can't do it under its current leadership. If all governments were this inept, I would be rabidly anti-government too.

Robert G. Kaiser: Don't know anything about this, but thanks for the comment.

Baltimore, Md.: Why do you think Gore never calls Bush on the Iraq issue by pointing out that any problems that the current administration has with Iraq stems from the failure of a Republican President, George H.W. Bush, to remove Saddam Hussein?

Robert G. Kaiser: Perhaps because he thinks Americans understand this without making a big deal about it? I don't know.

Pittsburgh, Pa.: Why was Bush being so evasive with the environmental issue? Whenever Gore posed a statement, or question about Houston, for example he never answered the question straight. Bush tended to meander around by jumping to another subject.

Robert G. Kaiser: Judging by our reporting on this issue in The Post, I'd say it was a problem area for Bush that he'd like to avoid if he can. Texas is not a clean state, and Bush has not done a great deal to change that fact.

Madison, Wis.: On TV the snap polls have Bush winning. But last time Gore won and went down in the polls. Does winning a debate necessarily help a candidate, or does coming off looking sympathetic help more?

Robert G. Kaiser: Or do the debates not sway many votes at all, ultimately? I don't know, but I'd bet that in the end, these discussions -- not debates at all, really -- are just one of many factors that the relatively small number of swing voters will use to make their final decisions. In a year like this one when the swing voters appear to hold the balance of power, of course, any factor may prove "decisive." I continue to believe that the election will be decided by those voters' ultimate decisions about the state of the nation now, the degree to which they want to punish or reward the Clinton-Gore administration, and their assessments of the characters of the two candidates. We'll have a final discussion on election night, when we can perhaps draw some conclusions.

Tulsa, Okla.: Is it just me, or have we lowered the bar to the point where all George W. has to do is be competent on the issues to be declared the winner. A good piece of the debate focused on foreign policy, which the media cites as a bush weakness and, because he didn't fumble any question, he's declared the real winner. Is it just me or is that telling about how we elect a president?

Robert G. Kaiser: I have to say I think the Bush campaign has done a brilliant job with the "expectations game," and a lot of the pundits have bought their line hook, line, sinker and poll. Or pole. At the same time, I'm not sure what difference that makes.

Early Branch, S.C.: They came very close to discuss the death penalty, particularly the peculiar way it's applied in Texas and it's value as deterrent, but finally they -both- set the issue aside. Do you think they'll get around to confront it in the final debate, or anywhere sometime in the campaign? After all, it really was a big issue in past, but quite near campaigns. I know both favor it, but the agreement is so complete that doesn't deserve to be mentioned at all?

Robert G. Kaiser: Good question. We have lots of evidence that the death penalty is a live issue in America these days, but politicians decided some time ago that they were all in favor of it, virtually, and would no longer debate it. Hence tonight's performance, and many like it. This will change, some day, I expect.

Laurel, Md.: In response to your question as to whether there was any old fashioned leadership from inspired individuals: Yes, the inspired candidates were either eliminated in the primaries or not invited to the debate

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.

Pound, Va.: I've heard Gore claim over and over that he is for smaller government as evidenced by the 300,000 man reduction in the federal workforce due to his personal efforts to reform government. My understanding is that over 275,000 of those are military cuts. Shouldn't Bush point out this obvious distortion of the facts?

Robert G. Kaiser: Your numbers aren't right, I don't think, but I'm afraid I don't have the correct ones at my fingertips. These are facts: the civilian workforce in the federal government declined under Clinton, having never done so under any other president since World War II at least. But the number of people working indirectly for the government on contracts of various kinds climbed dramatically during the last eight years.

Mt. Sterling, Ill.: Did anyone else have the feeling that Gore was biting his tongue to keep the arrogance, eye rolling, sighing down? I feel that he tried so hard to hide the real Al Gore that he seemed to be mostly on the defensive tonight.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.

Baltimore, Md.: Sir, you need to correct your comment in one response that Harry Truman (who was a great president) came into the office with very little foreign policy experience. Before being picked for VP by Roosevelt, Truman had been a very successful two-term senator very involved in Military and foreign policy issues. Like Vice President Gore (and unlike Bush) Truman was ready for the job. Don't you agree?

Robert G. Kaiser: I don't think so. Truman's experience was on a committee that investigated war profiteering by industries that made armaments and equipment for the armed services during World War II, I believe. He did not have personal experience overseas or dealing with foreign policy issues.

Washington, D.C.: Any chance of Bush and Gore arm wrestling at the next debate?

Robert G. Kaiser: With or without guns? And with or without trigger locks? On this happy note we end tonight's discussion. thanks to all for the interesting reactions and comments. More next week after the last presidential debate.

washingtonpost.com: That was our last question for The Post's Robert Kaiser. For more live online, please join The Post's Charles Babington discuss the latest on the debates and Campaign 2000, Friday at 1 p.m. EDT.

To keep up with washingtonpost.com's live political discussions and the latest political headlines, be sure to register for our OnPolitics email newsletter.

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