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Instant Analysis with The Post's Robert G. Kaiser

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Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2000; 10:30 p.m. EDT

Vice President Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush face-off in their third debate Tuesday night in St. Louis. 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 Tuesday's debate with Post senior correspondent and former managing editor Robert G. Kaiser, Tuesday, Oct. 17. 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 post-debate discussion after the third of these encounters, and for my money, the most interesting by far. Please give us your thoughts, questions, comments, whatever. Well, almost whatever.

Saginaw, Mich.: Dear Mr. Kaiser:

I'm only listening to this debate and Bush sounds outright bored or disinterested or tired. He doesn't sound lively and he sounds like he's trying to remember the "correct" response that he's been coached to say.

What do you think?

Robert G. Kaiser: Anyone else have this reaction? I felt as though Gov. Bush should have had a drink of water, at least--he did sound dry and his voice seemed a little strained. But so what?

Washington, D.C.: Maybe Gore has been doing badly because he is listening to too many people, including the everyday average people. Question maybe spending all that time with these people, has dumbed him down?

Robert G. Kaiser: I think this snooty question was well answered by the citizens in the hall tonight. Compared to Jim Lehrer's questions in earlier debates, I'd say these citizens acquitted themselves with distinction. And I got more from the replies to their questions than I did to the over-rehearsed answers Lehrer provoked the first two times.

Philipsburg, Mont.: Did Bush sign the Texas Patients Bill of Rights? How much credit does he really deserve for it?

Robert G. Kaiser: My recollection is that the Texas patients bill of rights, which Bush did sign, provided some new rights to citizens, but not as many as the Dingle-Norwood bill that Gore is touting. I believe suing an HMO is very difficult under the Texas law, for example. But I'm not a hundred percent confident about this answer. Any experts out there?

Nashville, Mich.: Why does Gore have to be so rude. I mean come on. Has nobody taught him manners. I mean look at him. He gets right next to Bush when he is talking. I think Gore is scared of Bush.

Robert G. Kaiser: Gore clearly decided that he had been a little too gentle last week; he was more aggressive this time. Did others think he was rude?

Hastings, Okla.: Is Gov. Bush proud or not proud of his position on execution?

Robert G. Kaiser: I like the way you phrased the question, and I don't know the answer

St. Louis, Mo.: Do you think that the candidates answered the questions, did the fact that the candidates were asked questions by an audience help? I feel that they avoid to directly answer by repeating the same arguments we have heard over and over during this campaign.

Robert G. Kaiser: Well, they answered some of the questions, and they also said the things they planned to say in advance, whether or not they were directly responsive to a question. This is now S.O.P. in these events. I think it turns voters off, but I have no evidence to prove it.

Pomfret, Md.: Although Bush said that the death penalty deters crime, that is not necessarily true. There are strong arguments that it does not. How does Bush justify this?

Robert G. Kaiser: In fact, social scientists have compiled powerful evidence that the death penalty does not deter murder. By my lights the evidence is convincing. But in politics today, nearly everyone is for the death penalty.

Washington, D.C.: I found it incredibly hilarious that Bush accused Gore of not answering questions; he skipped quite a few -- in particular the point on affirmative action; he looked to Jim to bail him out. He has no integrity; if he isn't for affirmative action he needs to be a man and just say so. Folks already know where he stands with it anyway.

Robert G. Kaiser: This is the first of two similar reactions on the affirmative action issue...

Pomfret, Md.: Bush seemed to dodge the affirmative action issue. Gore pinned him down pretty good about whether he supported the Supreme Court's definition. Bush used the excuse of rules as a way not to answer. Did this show, respect or an obvious dodge of the question? What about his retort to Gore's statement, "I think that speaks for itself?"

Robert G. Kaiser: Here's the second. I would say that affirmative action did not give Bush his best moments tonight.

Reynoldsburg. Ohio: Didn't you think Bush used humor effectively tonight to disarm Gore? For instance, that moment early on when Gore walked right up to Bush and sort of got in his face ( well, his ear, anyway) and Bush turned to him and nodded, and the audience laughed. And near the end, when Bush said that one of the reasons that youth was cynical was that politicians didn't answer the question asked, as Gore had just then failed to do?

Robert G. Kaiser: Once again, I have to say I don't know how voters react to these events, or to particular moments, until long after the fact, if ever. I do think we now know that Bush's sense of humor has served him well in this campaign. Polls suggest lots of Americans find him likeable.

Asheville, N.C.: Did Bush really say he is for background checks at gun shows?

Robert G. Kaiser: I think I heard him say just that.

Washington, D.C.: Do you think Governor Bush's indirect references to the "indignities" of the Clinton administration (which he referred to again in his closing statement in tonight's debate) has worked as a campaign strategy?

Robert G. Kaiser: How do you define "worked"? I suspect there are quite a few voters who support Bush in part because he seems to offer a contrast to the Clinton years. Would they be voters supporting Gore this year absent the Clinton scandals? I guess I doubt it, but I don't know.

Washington, D.C.: I thought Gore came off as more knowledgeable again. I thought Gore's body language was quite good in relating to folks in the audience and he seemed more at ease. I'm a big McCain-Feingold supporter on the campaign finance reform and it seems like reigning in the money in politics would do more to change the tone here in D.C. than anything else.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for your comment.

Irvine, Calif.: According your experience/knowledge who writes these questions? Somehow the style/wording of these questions seemed too professional.
Even a college professor cannot read his "own" question?

Robert G. Kaiser: Something fishy was going on there, I agree. It looked as though the organizers required written questions in advance to that Lehrer could decide who should be called on, based on their questions. My hunch is the citizens were told to ask exactly the same question they had put down in writing before the debate, so were afraid not to read the actual question. But a couple of them just winged it, I was pleased to see. But I have no inside information about this.

Middlebury, Vt.: Did you realize that for most part of the debate, governor Bush was hesitant before answering the questions? Did he forget what he was told to say, or he did not expect intelligent questions from the audience?

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for the comment. I can't answer the questions.

Flatwoods, Kent.: I think Bush seemed aloof tonight. Also, I think Bush was unsure of his position on affirmative action. What do you think?

Robert G. Kaiser: I already commented on affirmative action. Bush seemed tentative to me, Gore, as usual, was super confident. Whether one played better than the other with the target audience of swing voters, I do not know.

Ocean Shores, Wash.: I think that Vice President Gore did an outstanding job explaining his proposals and making the point that under the Clinton/Gore administration the country has been not only economically better off but that also, crime has been at it's lowest in 33 years, welfare reduced etc. Do you think Vice President Gore could have been more forceful in attacking Governor Bush's record in Texas on major issues?

Robert G. Kaiser: I've thought Gore has done a weak job all fall bragging about the last eight years, and I've frankly been baffled by it. G. Bush Sr. left office with huge deficits, and his own budget said they would continue indefinitely. Gore, Clinton (and the GOP Congress) wiped them out, with of course a lot of help from an economic boom. Isn't that something to brag about? Finally tonight he took a stab at it. Was it effective? You be the judge.

Arlington, Va.: Democrats need to formulate a response to Bush's continual assertions that his experience in Texas proves that he can work effectively across party lines in Washington. Most Texas Democrats would pass for Republicans (many, such as Sen. Gramm and the late Gov. Connally, have switched sides, in fact), yet Gore has never challenged Bush on this issue and questionable as it is, it seems to be effective for GWB.

Robert G. Kaiser: I certainly do agree with you. The acrimony in Washington has nothing in common with the political culture of Austin. Of course Bush's fellow Republicans -- the guys who tried to impeach CLinton, for example -- have been among the most acrimonious (but hardly alone). Obviously Bush's polls show that people like this line, which he repeats constantly. But how is it related to what a Bush administration might be like in Washington?

Ann Arbor, Mich.: I think that Bush had problems staying on topic. What do you think?

Robert G. Kaiser: Well, both guys drifted off topic. I wasn't keeping a scorecard. It will be fun to read the transcript and see who did it more often.

Jacksonville, Fla.: By reading your debate responses, would you consider yourself and the majority of the Washington Post staff as well as the media in general, liberal or having a strong tendency towards the left wing? If so, do you think it is a fair and accurate way to view the issues unencumbered by the media's view?

Robert G. Kaiser: Let me answer this one again. I do not believe the Washington Post expresses a liberal ideology in its news columns. We express a sceptical ideology. The only way to read the coverage of this year's campaign in The Post, the NY Times, the Wall Street Journal or L.A. Times and conclude that the press was pro-Gore this year would be with the help of a controlled substance. In my humble opinion.

Arlington, Va.: If nothing else, this was the one debate out of the three where you actually didn't want to leave the room because you were afraid you might miss something. Agree?

Robert G. Kaiser: Yes.

Los Angeles, Calif.: I loved the question about why Americans are apathetic and have little faith in politics. It was too bad there was little analysis offered by the candidates in their answers to this question. I am listening to the TV commentators right now and part of the problem is the way the media covers politics. All too often the media frame politics as a game of strategizing and maneuvering and conflict between the parties rather than offering the public any information of what the potential impacts of different policies may be. When politics are constantly portrayed in the media in such an adversarial and cynical manner it's no wonder the majority of citizens feel disgusted and disengaged.

Robert G. Kaiser: Here, here!

Austin, Tex.: I've heard that the ratings for each of the debates has gone down each time. Do you think that means there was any less riding on this debate than the last two?

Robert G. Kaiser: Interesting question. And we may never know the real answer. But my hunch is the opposite, that tonight was the most important of the three, because if Gore is seen as doing badly a third time running, the momentum in the last three weeks will be strongly in Bush's favor. My own first reaction is that Gore tonight avoided that fate, but whenever I risk making such an observation, I get in trouble. What did others think?

Lexington, Ky.: Did it seem that all of the people asking the questions had their own agendas?

Robert G. Kaiser: Yes, and what's wrong with that?

Douglasville, Ga.: We have had 3 debates, I cant understand why Mr Gore can't just respond to THE QUESTION he is asked, and having to RESPOND all the time makes him look as he is scared that the response of Mr. Bush will make him look bad. I believed that the rules were supposed to allow for both candidates equal time. If someone was debating me and they behaved as Gore did, I would stop the debate and walk out.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for your comment. It makes an interesting contrast to the next one...

Boston, Mass.: I try hard to be objective about Bush, but he HONESTLY doesn't ever seem to directly answer a question. I liked the question of the woman who said she was 34 and asked what benefits she would get from the tax cut. Gore was honest. Bush didn't answer. Bush didn't answer about the Brady Bill, Affirmative Action. When he did answer, he seemed to have another program that was going to cost money. Yet, he accused Gore of not answering questions and overspending.

I hope the press doesn't let Bush get away with this. Maybe his plan is better, but he never answered questions for me to see an honest comparison.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thank you too.

Austin, Tex.: Which of the 3 debate styles did you like the most? The least?

Robert G. Kaiser: I liked this one the best by far. It had an element of uncertainty: you didn't know what to expect from those good citizens, none of them schooled in the inside baseball. I found the first one least satisfying. I think the second format is a good one, but that it would work much, much better if the moderator took a more challenging stance.

New York: Can any please get Howard "Sandman" Simms to sweep George Bush out of the national spotlight? Gore isn't perfect by any measure, but hearing Bush's sleepy-I'm-just-one-of-the-boys drawl just drives me up the wall. It amazes me that this man command 5% of the vote, let alone 40%+

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks...

Fishers, Ind.: Did you find Gore's attempts to intimidate Bush as offensive as I did? At the beginning, he came over almost next to him. Very strange.

Robert G. Kaiser: And thank you...

Philadelphia Pa.: As a Republican for choice, I intend to vote for Gore. Why did the question of the women's right to choose and the Supreme Court not come up tonight. We are outraged!!!!

Robert G. Kaiser: We are curious about your outrage!!! Does everyone have to share your special concern??? I don't think so.

Charlottesville, Va.: So what if Gore broke the rules and asked Bush a question (or 10) -- that does not exempt him from answering the tough questions with a simple yes or no. I hope the public does not let him get away with it. Why can't the press make Bush answer those questions because I obviously will not have the chance to sit down with the man?

Robert G. Kaiser: Interestingly, both candidates rarely give old-fashioned news conferences to answer tough questions from reporters. President Bush was the first presidential candidate to get away with this, now it seems commonplace. This is not good.

Huntington, WVa.: Do you think this format was at all helpful in helping undecided voters to decide? Do you think it is unrealistic to call these "things" debates?

Robert G. Kaiser: I thought this was closer to a real debate than the previous two. Impact on undecided voters? I just can't guess.

Washington, D.C.: It seems as if there is more margin of error for George Bush to make mistakes simply because he represents the status quo - even going so far as to campaign on trampling on human rights with his executions in Texas and his dispensing with any notion that U. S. foreign policy should concern Black people. Do you think George Bush has an edge with certain sectors of the American populace - because he is somewhat of a guardian of the heritage and values of oppression in this society? It doesn't seem to matter how much 'on the money' Gore is. Bush can never be too derisive in his derisiveness in these debates, whereas Gore seems to have to be on his Ps & Qs, because he doesn't represent the conservatism of Bush. These debates seem to draw on the privilege, that a Bush would ordinarily have as an American presidential candidate.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for the comment. Hard to think of Al Gore as an underprivileged candidate, but perhaps that's not what you're saying.

Floresville, Tex.: Part question, part input. I live in Texas and concerning Bush's answer concerning the gun control issues he stated that he was for instant background checks at gun shows and for gun locks and Texas has a program of distributing these locks. If he is so aware of what is going on in the state of Texas, why didn't he also state that the locks that had been given to the citizens are now being recalled because they are ineffective. Information on the recall can be found on his web site. And in reference to instant background checks, his creditability is in question if he is not aware or doesn't want to talk about the fact that Texas failed to perform background checks on 407 people who had prior criminal convictions but were granted hand gun licenses under a law he signed in 1995. Of those 71 had convictions that excluded them from having concealed gun permits, the Texas Department of Public Safety acknowledged. (AP 10/10/2000) Is the NRA in his back pocket.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thank you.

Austin, Tex.: Mr. Kaiser, I would like to correct one misstatement of the facts regarding Texas' Patient Protection Act. In 1995, the Texas Legislature passed, in one bill, a comprehensive Patient Protection Act (HB 2766). Governor Bush vetoed that bill (but had some of the aspects of it he liked put into practice by the state departments of Health and Insurance).

In 1997, the Legislature came back with several different bills that contained the various different aspects of the Patient Protection Act. Bush did sign all of those EXCEPT for one: the right of people to sue their HMOs (SB 386). He allowed that portion of the law to pass without his signature.

Therefore, when Gov. Bush said tonight "People'll be able to take their HMO insurance company to court. That's what I've done in Texas," I have to wonder what he was talking about.
Regards, Mike

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks, Mike. Here's the URL that will take you to a Washington Post story on Bush's dealings with the patients' bill of rights issue: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A61362-2000Feb16.html

Abilene, Tex.: A comment more than a question: I'm baffled as to why none of the pundits noticed that Bush cracked after the affirmative action interchange. Didn't anyone else notice how he rambled way off topic in his response to the woman's question about how she'd benefit under proposed tax cuts? He just nattered on about building up the military . . . not his best moment, I'd submit.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.

Baltimore, Md.: I felt as though Bush looked strong this evening in the debate. He definitely speaks more to the younger voter. He puts forth social security plans that are more in tune with twenty-somethings. He leads Gore in getting the young vote, and I think it's because he actually speaks to us. What is your take on his appeal to young voters?

Robert G. Kaiser: Hey, I'm 57.

Arlington, Va.: I'll cut to what I think is the real, unfortunate chase here: What did the media think about this debate? It's become clear that what matters in these events isn't what is said at the event itself, but how it is portrayed in the media. If the spotlight is put on Al Gore's personality and debate tactics, well, he might not look all that good. But if we were to look at who was really challenging on the issues and answering questions, it makes Gore look much better. What happened here? I'd like to think that Gore did well in drawing the real distinctions, but my record in predicting media reaction thus far is far from perfect.

Robert G. Kaiser: This is one of several similar comments, and I can only agree with you. The general buzz that has come out of the chattering classes after the first two debates has baffled me, both times.

Arlington, Va.: I think that Gore will come out of tonight's debate well for two reasons. First, he actually did well. Second, it seems as if the media likes to find a reason to "pile on" the front-runner, thereby boosting the fortunes of the one behind. Since Gore's campaign has been portrayed as struggling of late, it's Bush's turn to take knocks, just as Gore did after the first debate.

Robert G. Kaiser: Here's another comment about the role of "the media." It may be accurate, too.

Marietta, Ga.: Quite frankly I thought Bush finished very strongly and that tonight more than ever before, we could really see the fundamental differences between the candidates. Do you think the American people can really believe that Gore can deliver all of those Federal Government entitlement style promises he made and continue to generate budget surpluses? The math can't add up.

Robert G. Kaiser: The Post has published several eloquent editorials in recent weeks making it clear that both candidates' math is out of some dream world, not the real one.

Lexington, Ky: Don't you think that two career politicians with as much experience as these two have could appear to be more informed and act like a future president of the united states? They act just like spoiled children.

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks.

Sarasota, Fla.: When Bush focuses on Clinton and Gore not getting anything done on Medicare, etc., I'm puzzled by why Gore doesn't respond with two words, "Newt Gingrich." Didn't politics become much more partisan after his ascension to power? Don't Bush's colleagues share part of the blame?

Robert G. Kaiser: Yes, and yes.

Newport Beach, Calif.: Robert,
You seem to be very vague in answering these questions and at time snippy. While reading, I get this feeling that you are holding something back and that you have been well instructed to stay in the center. Am I correct in saying this and who do YOU think did the best in this debate

Robert G. Kaiser: As indicated above, I think Gore had a good night tonight, and Bush only a fair one. But I know that my reactions are almost always different than the public's, so I have learned, painfully, not to invest too heavily in them. I am not under orders to be in the middle. I do believe in trying to be fair. And in my case, there is special reason for a little modesty about these matters.

Austin, Tex.: I am a "young" voter who voted for President Clinton twice, mainly because of his focus on eliminating the deficit and the national debt. I thought it was crucial for the economic future of the country. I am mystified as to why Gore is not talking more about this and stressing the apparent success of this policy and Bush's totally different take on it. Why has this issue fallen of the radar screen?

Robert G. Kaiser: Evidently, Gore's polls suggest that voters don't like him taking credit for the budget surplus. But I am as baffled as you are...

Hanover, N.H.: What do you anticipate the next "story" of this campaign will be based on this evenings debate? Bush solidifies lead? Gore strikes back? It seems as though the media has formulated a good story after each debate - what will tomorrow's be?

Robert G. Kaiser: I'm here typing away, so I don't get to see the pundits pontificate, and I don't have time to eavesdrop on my colleagues stories for tomorrow, so I honestly do not know. My hunch is that Gore's performance will be seen as tightening the race, again.

Putney, Vt.: So Bush finally admitted that his tax cut plan gives the wealthiest 1% a lot of benefits. Why did it take him so long. Do you think he lost some middle-class votes there?

Robert G. Kaiser: Good question, impossible for me to answer. I believe Bush offered this tax plan as a sop to the conservative wing of his party early this year, without thinking through its implications for the general election campaign. Now polls show few Americans eager for a tax cut, and fewer still in favor of one so tilted to the wealthy. I also think that Gore's "fighting for the Middle Class" line was, in part, a response to what his people saw as the weakness of the Bush tax plan. But how this all plays out, I cannot say.

Robert G. Kaiser: Sorry for the delay. I've been reading fascinating comments and questions from about 100 readers that we won't have time to deal with, for which I apologize. We at The Post are flattered by the intelligence being dispensed in our direction by all of you! Thanks.

Arlington, Va.: I'm a Gore supporter who grudgingly respected Bush's performance in the first two debates. Watching George Bush tonight, though, I thought that maybe he had gotten a bit of a windfall in the first debates just from being a relatively fresher face -- in that a lot of people (like me) had not really seen him before in a long format, while we've been watching Al Gore for 8 years. I think maybe the novelty, and the impact, are diminishing. For example, a number of pundits expressed amazement that he could speak intelligently about foreign policy at all in the second debate. But he repeated the same catch phrases -- "leadership," "on their timetable," and so on -- tonight, while it was Gore who was fresher and more vivid -- tax cut for one person making $330,000 equalling the rest of the room put together, for example, being a nice touch on an issue he's been hitting over and over. For Bush to become boring may be more than just a stylistic issue -- he may be more vulnerable than Gore to getting stale because of the suspicion that he doesn't bring much intellectual heft to the table, so that when he is reduced to repeating slogans it seems thin and desperate, while in Gore it is merely annoying. Anyone else out there up for a bit of "Bush fatigue?"

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for the comment.

Chevy Chase, Md.: What did you think about Bush's comment that journalists don't count?

Robert G. Kaiser: I guess I wish it were true

Oshkosh, Wis.: Where were all the middle east questions, and why did the majority of the questions seem to come from a liberal spin. I.E. Bush's question on capitol punishment and his enjoyment of it.

Robert G. Kaiser: The Gallup organization chose the questioners as representatives of undecided voters. How they did this I do not know.

Atlantic City, N.J.: What was the rationale for having each debate in a different forum (e.g. two podiums, talk show format, and the town meeting)?

Robert G. Kaiser: This was the result of agonizing negotiations between the Bush and Gore camps. Why can't candidates actually debate, I wonder? Ask each other questions, answer them, and rebut the answers? Wouldn't that be interesting?

Kansas City, Mo.: I felt that within the first 2-3 minutes of the debate when Gore basically charged across the floor and stood right next to Gore that it was completely rude and distracting. It is as if he has to try and throw George W. off with those play ground antics. What do you think?

Robert G. Kaiser: Gore has often tried to intimidate debate opponents. I think he was doing that tonight. I think it may have worked, too.

Alexandria, Va.: You don't look 57.

Robert G. Kaiser: That's a 1967 photo. Just kidding. Thank you.

Kansas City, Mo.: I was glad to hear that Bush finally addressed the issue of what happens to the 1% who pay the most taxes after his tax cut proposal. I really don't think most Democrats have the motivation to figure out for themselves that when such a small group pays the vast majority of taxes that something is wrong with that picture. I think Bush clarified that issue. What do you think.

Robert G. Kaiser: He did clarify it, and I suspect that everyone in the top one percent was grateful to him for doing so. How others may have reacted I do not know.

Boulder, Colo.: In you esteemable opinion, what fraction of the questions you receive are spinning debate results and what portion are inquiries?

Robert G. Kaiser: We have a lot of partisan spinners here, but I think you can also see that we have thoughtful citizens who aren't selling a used car...

La Vista, Neb.: I recently moved from the D.C. area where I took and the read the Post for three years. Question: why does the Post lean so far to the left, support Democrat candidates, and give free passes to Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton and their ilk?

Robert G. Kaiser: Now I have a question. Do you know how to read? Who broke the Monica Lewinsky story? Have you read the Post's coverage of Al Gore this year? I don't think so.

Robert G. Kaiser: I'm running out of gas. For those who like to keep score, I can report that after the first two debates, pro-Bush and pro-Gore sentiment in the comments and questions posted here was, very roughly, about even. Tonight, pro-Bush sentiment is much less common than pro-Gore. A better-organized effort by Gore supporters, or a real measure of public opinion? Stay tuned... Thanks again to all of you for making these discussions so interesting. I highly recommend a daily dose of Washington Post coverage of this intriguing campaign over the next three weeks. Good night.

washingtonpost.com: That was the last question for The Post's Robert Kaiser. Thank you to Robert and to all who participated. For more live online, join The Post's Stephen Barr on Federal Diary Live, Wednesdays at noon EDT.
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