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Vice Presidential Debate: Reaction

October 10, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: Now, how this week’s debates look to our regional commentators around the country. We get the views of our regulars, Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Constitution, Patrick McGuigan of the Daily Oklahoman, Mike Barnicle of the Boston Globe, Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune, and Lee Cullum of the Dallas Morning News. Joining them tonight is Robert Kittle of the San Diego Union-Tribune. Welcome all of you. Lee Cullum, starting with you, what did you think of both of these debates?

LEE CULLUM, Dallas Morning News: Well, Margaret, turning to last night, I felt that the Vice President certainly won the evening. His sincerity was obvious. And I for one like his style. I don’t find it wooden. I find it very appealing, and he did speak common sense, as he said. I want to say too that I thought that Kemp was very persuasive. Uh, I think he’s right about economic growth and the need for it. I think he’s right about cutting capital gains taxes across the board, I think he’s right about devising a new tax code.

The problem is that this is a program that will fair better after the year 2000. He doesn’t grasp that. I think the American people really do want to let the clock run on the 20th century. They’re anxious about the millennium. They want to get over the hurdle into the next millennium, and then I think they’ll be ready for his program, so he, he set himself up very well for four years from now. But you have to say the evening belonged to Al Gore.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me just ask you in terms of the two debates taken together, do you think very clear differences emerged for the American voters?

MS. CULLUM: Yes, I think that clear differences certainly did emerge on the matter of taxation. I know that it was more thoroughly discussed last night because it is so close to Kemp’s heart. I want to say that we had the conviction politicians last night. We had the believing people and that’s very exciting. You know, in Senator Dole and in President Clinton, we really do have another kind of politician. You might call them the issue du jour politicians. It’s a different kind of politician. It’s a valuable kind of politician. It’s the sort that makes for compromise, but the people with the body of knowledge appeared last night, and clear differences certainly did arise on the issue of taxes. I think on the issue of Medicare nobody was honest about Medicare.

Uh, I know that Sen. Dole and Mr. Kemp want to have a commission. That actually is a good idea and the right thing to do, but to suppose that’s going to make everything painless is erroneous. The President and the Vice President say they’ll give 10 more years’ life to Medicare. Well, 10 years go by quickly. We need to get to work on it right away.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me ask Pat McGuigan to jump in here. Pat McGuigan, how, how did these debates strike you and how useful do you think they were in terms of outlining really differences between the two tickets?

PATRICK McGUIGAN, Daily Oklahoman: Well, I certainly think that we’ve had a useful change in both debates. I must say that I’m not as impressed with the alleged civility, uh, as some others because I don’t think it’s terribly civil to be describing the Republican plan as a scheme. I suppose, if that’s permissible, then maybe it’s also permissible for some of us to observe that the President is engaged in a protection racket, a scam, in terms of keeping questions away about whether or not he’s going to grant pardons shortly after the election to anyone that might protect himself from being drawn into some of these investigations.

The tone of the debate was civil, but I was a little disappointed that Congressman Kemp did not focus in on these character questions a bit more, and that go into issues that they were posed–they’re legitimate questions, and the American people, a lot of us at least, would like some answers.

MARGARET WARNER: Cynthia Tucker?

CYNTHIA TUCKER, Atlanta Constitution: Well, Margaret, I do think that there were occasions when there were striking differences laid out in the visions of the two parties. There was much more exploration in the vice presidential debate, interestingly enough, about economic policy differences. Almost the entire hour and a half was devoted to tax of economic policy for better or for worse. Those of us who are watching now know all I think we want to know about the differences between the two tickets on those matters.

Uh, I for one was grateful that they chose to stick to the issues, that they were civil and respectful of each other–uh, both the presidential candidates Sunday night, the vice presidential candidates last night. Now there are many conservatives out there who say that Sen. Dole, former Sen. Dole, and Jack Kemp should have attacked much more aggressively on so-called character issues. First of all, I’d like to know what was those character issues are. I’d like to know more about what they think should be explored. Whitewater may be. I’m not sure that there’s anything else out there that’s relevant.

The second thing, though, I think is that it’s pretty clear that many voters, especially women, are not interested in hearing harsh attacks on character and are not interested in conflict. They want questions answered on the issues that are germane to them, and those are mostly pocket book issues.

MARGARET WARNER: Robert Kittle, where do you come down on this point about the tone, the civility of the debate, and whether the two–whether Dole and Kemp should have been more direct on the character issue?

ROBERT KITTLE, San Diego Union Tribune: Well, I’m not sure the character issue would, would provide as much traction for Dole and Kemp as some conservative Republicans think. I think there are a lot of reasons to question things about the character, about the character of the President, and I think to some extent it works when you deal with the question of trust, and the question of why the President promised a tax cut for middle class Americans four years ago but hasn’t delivered it, and isn’t promising it again.

Can we accept that promise? Can we believe it this time? I think those are legitimate questions. But in terms of whether it makes sense to go after the President tooth and nail on Whitewater and other issues, I’m not sure those are the issues that are uppermost in the minds of voters, and I think perhaps Kemp does a much better job for the ticket by stressing the economic issues, and in my mind, he did a better job really than Bob Dole in laying out a strategic vision for the future of America based on tax cuts, on freeing entrepreneurial energy in this country, and giving more opportunity to Americans across the board to improve their economic standing.

So I think Kemp played it right last night in not rising to the, to the urging of some conservative Republicans that he turned this into sort of a mud fight regarding the President’s character.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree, Clarence Page? Do you think both Dole and Kemp made the right decision?

CLARENCE PAGE, Chicago Tribune: Insofar as the civility goes, I think absolutely. With the distinguished, the swing voters from the committed voters, uh, most of us who are in, in the media talk to a lot of committed people, but the voters the candidates are trying to reach right now are the swing voters. I’ve been talking a lot with people, you know, suburban Chicagoans, a bungalow belt working class–people who aren’t committed to one side or another but swung from the Democrats to Reagan in the 80′s and swung to Clinton or to Perot in ’92. Clinton’s doing very well with those folks right now, and you know why?

That first question that came out on Sunday’s debate, are people better off than they were four years ago, that’s the key question, and yes, in the industrial heartland of America, people are much better off, they don’t want to hear people get up there and snipe on TV, snipe at each other, they want to hear some kind of intelligent discussion. But I think viewership was probably down because people are so content right now. Certainly, Ross Perot’s support is down because people are quite content, and, uh, Jack Kemp’s in an odd position for a conservative now. He’s battling against the status quo. He’s saying, no, no, no, things could be much better, all you got to do is look at our 15 percent tax cut.

That’s a big tax cut, and Clinton and Gore are certainly right to call it a scheme if they want to call it that. It is–it is certainly a radical move, and it’s one swing voters are very skeptical of right now. They’re saying, well, you know, we could do better, we could do an awful lot of worse too, why rock the boat?

MARGARET WARNER: Mike Barnicle, how useful do you think these debates were to voters out there?

MIKE BARNICLE, Boston Globe: Well, I think if most voters were like me, they were so stunned by the lack of a fan interference call in Yankee Stadium, they probably didn’t even focus on the debate until it was about halfway through but I don’t know that they have such a large impact on voters, Margaret. I think if you watched last night, if you talked to a lot of people who watched last night. I don’t know that that many were able to follow Jack Kemp’s logic and that if we junked the tax code 19,000 pages of it, or whatever, that some woman in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, is going to build a factory, and things are going to be great, I don’t think you could follow Al Gore through his sycophantish recital of the evening before the invasion of Haiti.

You would think that he was talking about the eve of D-Day, where he talked about being in the Oval Office with President Clinton, and I think, you know, most people view these two people as sincere and, and well versed in what they’re about to say to the country, but almost packaged to the point that the debate is a mere contrivance as you witness the fact that Al Gore’s prepared ad lib on the Niagra Falls barrel, putting the economy in a barrel and rolling it over Niagra Falls, it was prepared in advance. That was not spontaneous.

I don’t think much of these debates are spontaneous, and I think, as Clarence pointed out, people are content, but they’re content as well as resigned, resigned to the fact that this is not much of a presidential election coming up, resigned to the fact that the incumbents are more than likely going to win, and resigned to the fact that things are fairly comfortable, so why rock the boat?

MARGARET WARNER: Pat McGuigan, do you think the debates were useful, or do you think they seem too canned, as Mike just said?

MR. McGUIGAN: Well, I stand by my observation that they were not as clarifying as perhaps they could have been. I certainly think that both Kemp and Dole have made some good points. I thought that Kemp actually was very eloquent, especially in the last question, not his final statement but in response to the last question and on the culture issue, and how he linked that to economic progress yes, but there’s more to it than that, in his remark about justice being something that people learn at least in functional families, that that’s the first place you see justice play out, and that then feeds into the society as a whole.

I thought Kemp was beautiful in the way he expressed that. I do think he did a good job–I want to second one observation–of explaining the context of the $550 billion total tax cut spread out over many years, amounting to only 1 ½ percent of the total economy, but very meaningful to the people that it would impact in, in providing them more resources to make their own lives better. So I don’t want to come across as entirely critical of Congressman Kemp. I think he made some very good points and hopefully made some progress for his ticket.

MARGARET WARNER: Cynthia Tucker, where do you come down on this question of whether voters really got to see the, the real candidates here, and whether they got a really clear view of where they would take them in the future?

MS. TUCKER: They got to see as much as the candidates intended to have shown. You know, Mike is absolutely right. At some point between Jack Kemp’s spouting out a 15 percent tax cut as the answer to every question and Al Gore spouting out 10 million new jobs as the answer to every question, and I thought that, well, I’m watching two fairly animated automatons, I’d rather be watching the baseball games. I mean, they’re–they were very clearly rehearsed, well rehearsed, perhaps even over-rehearsed, but you’re not going to see any spontaneity.

Uh, the strategy for the Democratic side since Clinton and Gore are sitting on a lead is not to make any mistakes at all. Th e strategy from the other side, from the Dole-Kemp side, is not to offend those swing voters, not to launch a cultural war. Nobody wants to hear that. People are concerned about their pocket book issues, and so they want to stress this time for Dole-Kemp–they’re taking up the Clinton mantra of 1992, it’s the economy, stupid, so all they wanted to talk about was economy, economy, economy, economy, and that’s all you’re going to hear. Now, if voters are interested in hearing those plans more clearly laid out, they got a little bit of that in the debate.

But these debates are never going to be spontaneous. They’re about as spontaneous as a campaign commercial is. The candidates are much too concerned about making any mistakes, making any gaffes, to permit a lot of spontaneity to come in.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Bob Kittle, very briefly, because we’re just about out of time, do you think it matters that these aren’t more spontaneous?

MR. KITTLE: No. I don’t think it matters at all, and I think we really had–we’ve had two very good debates, the presidential debate Sunday night, and the vice presidential debate last night. I think the sad thing is that most Americans are not watching. The presidential debate, the viewership was down by 1/3 compared to four years ago. And I think it’s really sad that more Americans aren’t plugged in, and part of the problem of course is that with Jack Kemp and Al Gore you had two real policy wonks talking about the details of issues, and people sometimes I think their eyes glaze over with that, and maybe that’s what you get when you take two vice presidential candidates who actually are former editorial writers.

Jack Kemp actually worked as an editorial writer for my newspaper, the San Diego Union, and Al Gore was an editorial writer as a young man at the Nashville Tennessean, so maybe we’re all boring America, but if you care, if you care about the issues, if you want to learn about the differences, and make an informed choice, the debates are there, and you ought to be tuning in.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. I’m afraid we’re going to have to leave this one there. Thank you all very much.