In the old cartoons -- in the cartoons that used to precede Ronald Reagan movies -- one character always thought he had won a fight when in fact his opponent had lit a slow-burning fuse under him. Something like that happened at the presidential debates here. The real explosion may be yet to come.
There was, of course, no immediate knockout. Ronald Reagan proved that 73 is just a number -- not an age ceiling for the presidency. And Walter Mondale showed once again that he is neither a wimp nor just a creature of the Senate cloakroom. He looked into the camera as if it were a friendly interest group.
But the immediate impact -- especially when it comes to presidential debates -- is not necessarily what matters. George Bush proved that when, in the opinion of most observers, he bested Geraldine Ferraro in the vice presidential debate and then went on to lose it in the following week.
Mondale may have pulled off the same feat. He transformed himself into a personification of what the polls say the voters think when it comes to nuclear arms and U.S.-Soviet relations. In fact, the script for what he said in the debate closely follows an article in Foreign Affairs magazine. In it, the pollster Daniel Yankelovich and an associate wrote that time has passed Ronald Reagan by. The militant mood of 1980 has become the anxiety of 1984.
The voters, Yankelovich wrote, both distrust the Soviets and see no choice but to deal with them. They are simultaneously in favor of strength and negotiations. They think that neither side could win a nuclear war or, for that matter, achieve nuclear superiority.
"Americans have experienced a serious change of heart about the impact of nuclear weapons and national security," Yankelovich wrote.
The poll data Yankelovich cited are unambiguous and the majorities enormous. Interestingly, these findings are relatively new and they represent a massive change in public opinion from 1980 when Americans were more harshly anticommunist and more willing to believe that nuclear superiority was possible.
Of course, the poll data are no secret to either the Reagan or the Mondale camp, and both candidates attempted to preach the new gospel. Reagan, though, is handicapped by his record. He has presided over a massive military buildup and has been downright lackadaisical in his pursuit of arms-reduction talks with the Soviets -- aspects of the Reagan record that Mondale repeated over and over again.
Indeed, if there was a Mondale theme to the debate, it was that he, Mondale, was the president the American people seemed to be telling the pollsters they wanted. Unstated, but a part of this theme anyway, was the suggestion that Reagan had done his job and ought to be retired. Reagan had built up the military, suited the harsh anticommunist mood of four years ago, and now ought to pass from the stage.
To emphasize that, Mondale pressed another button of national anxiety -- the fear of weapons in space. Yankelovich makes no mention of this. But Mondale's own polling tells him there is something about weapons in space -- "the heavens" -- that sets people's teeth grinding. Psychiatrists may ponder this, but the fact remains that voters are far more afraid of what Mondale falsely suggests would be nuclear weapons in space than they are about the same weapons buried in silos in the ground. And it certainly did Reagan no good when it came to his own Star Wars proposal. He seemed unsure of whether he was in fact talking about outer space or maybe something else entirely.
A 90-minute debate is never limited to just one or two themes. Both Mondale and Reagan tried to say far more -- Mondale that Reagan was a leader in political commercials only; Reagan that Mondale was a ghost of the Carter administration past. But Mondale, better than Reagan, laid a foundation for the debate that will follow the debate -- the one that will be conducted from now until Election Day. If Mondale has his way, it will be about nuclear disarmament and Reagan's so-called Star Wars initiative.
This is the debate Mondale has wanted all along -- the one in which he, not Reagan, best exemplifies voter sentiment. He could have been sharper when he faced the president here, and God knows it was he and not Reagan who looked tired. But mostly he did what he set out to do: he lit the fuse, hoping his campaign ends with a bang, not a whimper. disarmament and Reagan's so-called Star Wars initiative.
This is the debate Mondale has wanted all along -- the one in which he, not Reagan, best exemplifies voter sentiment. He could have been sharper when he faced the president here, and God knows it was he and not Reagan who looked tired. But mostly he did what he set out to do: he lit the fuse, hoping his campaign ends with a bang, not a whimper.