Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

You Weren't Expecting Lincoln-Douglas, Were You?

Keith Pavlischek


October 9, 2000

The Washington Post headline following the first presidential debate screamed, "Gore and Bush Clash Sharply on Policy Issues in 1st Debate." Another front-page headline proclaimed, "Here's the Difference: Candidates Aren't the Same After All." The candidates certainly differ on some public policy issues. But the most important differences were hardly debated at all last Wednesday.

Since the goal of each candidate that evening was to persuade the "undecideds," a particularly narrow slice of the electorate, the debate predictably tended to exaggerate relatively minor public policy differences over Medicare, prescription drugs, social security, education and foreign policy. Each candidate's language was carefully scripted to avoid offending the interests of this group of undecided voters while appealing to them with just the right sound bite.

Meanwhile, we heard relatively little about one of the biggest divides between Bush and Gore. What kind of justices will either appoint to the Supreme Court? Here's a matter on which each candidate's philosophy of government will likely have a long-range legal, political, and cultural impact. The Court is likely to make a big difference on education, a variety of church-state issues, affirmative action, federalism, and marriage law (gay "marriage"), not to mention disputes over abortion, euthanasia, and the legalization of infanticide. The two candidates advocate profoundly distinct philosophical criteria for judges—litmus tests, if you will. Gore appointees, far more than Bush appointees, will most likely be more separationist on church-state issues, opposed to school choice, permissive on physician assisted suicide, and opposed to any restriction on abortion.

And yet, except for Gore's ringing defense of abortion on demand, the candidates downplayed the significance of their differences over judicial philosophy. Instead, they couched their differences in "code words" (strict construction, evolving constitution, Scalia is good or bad, etc.) so as not to alarm the undecideds, while still reassuring their supporters.

But "code words" do not a debate make. So we got a TV show in which relatively minor differences were magnified and important differences covered over. A real debate would explore conflicting judicial philosophies. But it won't happen, because the can-didates know that the undecided voters will determine the outcome of the election. And these voters apparently care little about the long-term legal, political and cultural implications of Supreme Court appointees.

Even worse, the polls tell us that a large number of citizens will change their vote for the most trivial of reasons. Many shifted their support from Bush to Gore because of Gore's long and passionate kiss of his wife Tipper at the convention, and many of them swung the other way after Bush kissed Oprah Winfrey. When this is your target audience, it's no surprise that fundamental questions are dodged in favor of policy minutia, image, and spin.

Sad to say, the real impact of the debate and the election itself will turn on neither profound philosophical differences nor insignificant public policy differences. The real action is "perception management," which is why the next morning's "analysis" in the Style section of the Post was better than the front page. Tom Shales observed that since Bush "didn't make any outrageous gaffes or bloopers" the debate "will go down as a plus for him." But Gore won the debate because "he conveyed more stature, authority, and poise than Bush," even though he was his own toughest opponent "with his tendency toward hauteur, superciliousness and [his] condescending tone." Are these the considerations on which the future of the Republic rides?

—Keith Pavlischek, Fellow
   Center for Public Justice


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”