AMERICANS -- at least those who didn't tune into baseball -- had their final chance last night to see the two major candidates for president face-to-face. President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry, the Democratic nominee, both appeared confident and competent, and they presented sharp contrasts on issues ranging from abortion to economic policy. Neither, it seemed to us, managed to transcend the cramped format to offer much of a thematic vision of leadership. Both, when confronted with the hardest questions, simply ducked.
That ducking was most evident on one of the most important questions of the night: the future of Social Security. Neither candidate offered anything close to an adequate explanation of how to tackle its looming shortfall -- and they were probably relieved not to be asked about Medicare, where the problem is even bigger and harder to solve.
Mr. Bush, who never pressed for Social Security reform during his first term, said it would be a "vital issue in my second term." But when moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS asked how he would pay for the $1 trillion-plus cost of moving to the private accounts he sees as the solution, Mr. Bush had no reply. Mr. Kerry called the president's plan an "invitation to disaster," but his own solution amounted to repeating his unwise promise not to cut benefits and hoping that economic growth would somehow get him out of the fix. "I didn't hear any plan to fix Social Security," Mr. Bush said of his opponent, and he was right.
Neither candidate was any more credible in discussing their broader fiscal plans. Mr. Bush called for "fiscal sanity in the halls of Congress." That's hard to take from a president who did almost nothing to stop the bloated corporate tax bill just passed by Congress and now seems ready to sign it. It's also hard to take from a president who entered office proposing a tax cut to spend down the surplus -- and now, with the surplus having evaporated and deficits mounting -- insists that the cuts must be made permanent.
Mr. Kerry seemed to put the entire burden of fiscal discipline on restoring pay-as-you-go rules in Congress that would require that both tax cuts or spending increases be offset. That would be an important brake on fiscal irresponsibility -- one that Mr. Bush has fought against when it comes to tax cuts -- but it is no cure-all. Asked more than once how he could pay for his health care plan and honor his pledge not to raise taxes on anyone but the rich, Mr. Kerry didn't give a direct answer.
Mr. Kerry did himself no credit when, like his running mate, he brought up "Dick Cheney's daughter, who is a lesbian," in response to a question about homosexuality. Mr. Cheney has been forthright about his daughter's sexuality, and that's commendable, but it's hard to see why the Democratic ticket should keep bringing it up. Yet unlike Mr. Bush, Mr. Kerry did answer the question, saying he believes homosexuality is an innate characteristic and not a lifestyle choice.
There were a few moments you could only sit back and take as good theater. One was when Mr. Bush asked the country to believe that he really wanted to extend the assault weapons ban, but just couldn't persuade his Republican friends in the House. Then there was Mr. Kerry's apparent effort to out-religion his opponent: "I think that he just said that freedom is a gift from the Almighty. Everything is a gift from the Almighty."
On the whole, though, we thought that both men's statements of their faith, and their reassertion that in America no one need share in that faith, were useful and moving. They both spoke eloquently, but with very different messages, on the best way to relieve the pressure on the National Guard and the reserves. And although the debate was meant to focus on domestic issues, the war on terrorism and the conflict in Iraq managed to weave their way into the discussion at several points, not surprisingly, since those have been the dominant issues of the campaign. In the end, despite the competing claims about Pell grants and border guards, that may be where this election is decided for many voters.