It was cordial, restrained, rarely snappy and occasionally tedious.
The “B Team” of this year’s presidential campaign - Vice President Al Gore and Republican rival Jack Kemp - stuck to their scripts, touted their running mates and delivered few surprises in their 90-minute debate Wednesday night.
The two tangled most sharply over Medicare, when Kemp blasted Gore and President Clinton for practicing “demagoguery” by insisting that Republicans would cut health care benefits to senior citizens. But Gore kept his cool, stuck to his criticism and the exchange passed without resolution.
Beyond that moment, however, Gore and Kemp hewed to a standard of civility that both men vowed in their opening remarks to maintain - to disagree over policy and philosophy, but not to attack each other personally.
And disagree they did, laying out in detail and great length their differences over tax cuts, economic policy, affirmative action, enterprise zones, foreign policy, environmental protection and regulatory reform, among other topics.
The affair was so cordial and dry that it appeared unlikely to sway undecided voters. The candidates may even have left television viewers bewildered at times by their detailed policy discussions and shorthand use of government jargon.
Each man strove mightily to achieve three goals - to promote his boss, to showcase himself as a potential presidential candidate in the year 2000, and perhaps above all, to avoid an image-shattering blunder. They succeeded, though perhaps at the expense of losing their audience through rote repetition of points each man had tattooed into their brains.
Kemp stressed his conviction that the economy is weak and that cutting taxes is the way to revive it.
“This economy is overtaxed, overregulated, there are too many people suing each other, there’s too much litigation, our education is not up to the standards that the American family and the American people want for their children, and clearly the welfare system is a disgrace to our Judeo-Christian principles,” Kemp said.
Turning to his ticket’s call for $548 billion in tax cuts over six years, Kemp said the nation’s economy “is not doing what it can do.”
Gore emphasized the Clinton administration’s record and spelled out its plans to build on it in a second term.
He boasted of “lower inflation, lower interest rates, more jobs and more growth, all within the context of a balanced budget. We have reduced the budget deficit four years in a row. … This is the kind of growth we want more of. We think we can do better still.”
Gore charged that the Dole-Kemp tax cut would “blow a hole” in the federal budget deficit. And he said the kind of changes supported by Dole and House Speaker Newt Gingrich would hurt the economy, clean air and water and social programs.
“Al, get real,” Kemp responded, using Gore’s first name for one of many times during the debate. “Franklin Roosevelt said in 1932 that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. The only thing … they have to offer is fear.”
More interesting, perhaps, than anything either man said was the image each presented in saying it. The quality each conveyed more than any other was earnestness, but in differing ways.
Kemp, a former pro football quarterback, pressed his points with urgency, restlessly selling each point by pumping his right hand forward and rolling his shoulders almost like he was dodging tacklers.
Gore, by contrast, was as controlled and contained in his hand gestures as he was in his patient, metered tone, carefully explaining each of his points in the schoolteacher-like tone that has given him an image as stiff and didactic.
Gore frequently turned Kemp’s own words against him, trying to drive a wedge between him and Bob Dole by pointing out numerous times Kemp had criticized Dole on issues such as taxes and affirmative action before becoming his running mate - and suggesting Kemp had been right.
Both candidates sometimes used questionable figures to make their cases.
For instance, Kemp said the typical American family is sending about 27 percent of its income to Washington in federal taxes. Not so. According to congressional figures, the total federal tax rate for taxpayers making $30,000-$40,000 is about 17 percent, and for those making $40,000-$50,000 it’s a little over 18 percent.
For his part, Gore subtly distorted the Clinton administration’s environmental record and misstated Dole’s Senate record during an exchange on the environment.
The vice president said the Clinton administration has cleaned up more Superfund toxic waste sites than the Bush and Reagan administrations combined. The statement is true, but since clean-ups typically take 12 to 15 years to complete, the Clinton team has benefited from work done earlier.
The debate between Gore, 48, and Kemp, 61, was more than a brief sideshow to the 1996 election contest between Clinton and Dole. It was a potential preview of the 2000 campaign.
Gore, who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988, is almost certain to seek the top job again in four years and is likely to be the front-runner for his party’s nod.
Kemp, who also ran unsuccessfully for his party’s nomination in 1988, decided not to run this year because he said he did not want to endure the task of raising money. If the Republicans do not win the White House this year, Kemp would be the likely GOP front-runner in four years.