ONE GOOD thing about these debates is that if there is no clear or agreed-upon winner, at the least the thing is not thrown into the House. It is merely thrown into the press and the streets and the bars and the living rooms and metrobuses where people talk about these things. Who looked better? Or -- it seems to be the popular test in this campaign -- who looked less worse? Which one the more sure-footedly avoided whatever awful fate the rest of us had predicted he would succumb to? Which one overcame whatever the rest of us had decreed he must overcome to stay alive?
You could get as many answers to these particular image and impact questions as there were viewers the other night, and we will, as a rare act of mercy -- don't get used to it -- spare you our own. More than was true of the comparable event in Baltimore, where Gov. Reagan and Congressman Anderson had at each other a short while back, it struck as this time around that each debater's strategy was showing, and that it was almost too obvious what each, in these image and impact terms, was trying to achieve. In fact, they stuck to their game plans with a ferocity that on occasion seemed to get in the way of their arguments or to deter them from making killing points.
Mr. Carter seemed so determined to keep hitting at Mr. Reagan with that arsenal of ancient and often slightly cooked-up quotes and to tell people how frightened they should be of Mr. Reagan, for example, that he let pass a couple of good opportunities to engage the Californian in a genuinely tough exchange over the arms issues that are so much on his mind. And Mr. Reagan was so reflexively at pains to point out that he had not said this or that weird thing the president kept charging him with that he too let a couple of obvious ones go by. For instance, he protested that he had not said what Mr. Carter said he said about nuclear nonproliferation. An aggressive debater would have gone on to ask what Mr. Carter was doing harping on nuclear nonproliferation in the first place -- having just given his all in the misguided battle to overrule his own Nuclear Regulatory Commission and send dangerous nuclear fuel to India.
Mr. Carter showed a grasp, which everyone already knew he had, of the myriad details and complications of some of the big troubles facing the country. Mr. Reagan showed an equally familiar and unsurprising feel for some of the valid discontents that are felt in the land and that find form in various government policy failures. Both men showed a very keen grasp of their own immediate political liabilities and needs, at least as spelled out by the experts. They self-evidently knew what they were supposed to do to improve upon their situation, although you could probably argue that Mr. Carter might have shown a little more presidential knowledge and that Mr. Reagan could have pushed Mr. Carter harder on the economy and pulled away from some of his own more eccentric and unsalable ideas.
But knowing all this, we still do not know substantially more about either the president or the governor, in terms of personal qualities or staked-out positions, than was pretty clear before Tuesday night. What people may have learned from the 90 minutes that were (besides the demonstrable fact that the debate format could use a little work) is that there is no divine revelation coming. People know what they are going to know about the two candidates now.