Who won the televised presidential debate Sunday night between George Bush and Michael Dukakis?
Any of the estimated 100 million viewers who watched the debate - which could more accurately be described as a joint news conference - can easily answer that question by looking in the nearest mirror. The biggest winner, as always, is the public because of the unexcelled opportunity voters got to do some comparison shopping.In many ways, the debate can be rated a draw. Both nominees generally were tough on each other, sometimes in a personal way but without being too strident. No punches were pulled. In terms of style, no knockdown were scored. Both showed flashes of humor and came across as personally likable. Both had clearly done their homework. Both seemed confident, competent, and compassionate. In short, both looked presidential.
In the process, the public was presented with a clearcut choice between the conservative policies of Vice President Bush and the liberal policies of Massachusetts Gov. Dukakis. And polls have long showed that people already supporting a candidate generally believe their man wins the debate regardless of his performance.
So it's hard to believe that as many as 37 percent of the probable voters now being surveyed are being entirely candid when they insist they still haven't made up their minds between Bush and Dukakis or have no preference. If the portion of undecided voters isn't markedly diminished after the public has had a few days to mull over Sunday night's debate, it won't be because the two candidates haven't educated the country on where they stand and how they differ.
As Americans reflect on the debate, they also would do well to consider a few questions that were not raised Sunday night but ought to be addressed during the final Bush-Dukakis debate in mid-October or at some other point in the campaign.
Questions for Bush:
- As a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, what is your view of current congressional oversight of covert intelligence activities? Is it adequate or excessive? Would the CIA, in your view, have been the proper agency for getting covert aid to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua?
- When were you first told of possible involvement by Panamanian strongman Manuel Antonio Noriega in the drug trade? What was your reaction? What new steps, if any, would you take as president to bring about his ouster?
- Name at least three major administration initiatives you had a major role in shaping, and specify how.
- In view of current budget deficits, exactly how much would you be willing to spend over, say, the next five years on the Star Wars missile defense program? Would you flatly rule out negotiating limits on Star Wars as part of a future arms control treaty?
Questions for Dukakis:
- Since you have been critical of the way the administration has handled Noriega, what else would you do to remove him from power? Would you end U.S. aid to governments that violate human rights or fail to act against drug runners?
- The House of Representatives has passed legislation that would impose stiff fines on people convicted of possessing small amounts of marijuana and would encourage states to revoke the driver's licenses of convicted drug users. Would you support those provisions?
- Would you veto any legislation that imposed the death penalty?
- Your plan for college loans to be repaid by people over their working lifetime has been criticized as leaving some recipients repaying many times the amount of the original loan. How do you justify that?
- You have called for a national health insurance program based on a new one in Massachusetts. Yet the Massachusetts program is being undermined by rapidly rising insurance rates. How would you, as president, deal with the problem of higher insurance rates?
The point is that Sunday's evening debate fell far short of raising, let alone answering, all the pertinent questions. The challenge for Bush and Dukakis still is to give voters positive reasons to vote for them and not simply against the other man.
The voters have a big challenge, too, in the aftermath of the first of two Bush-Dukakis debates. With only six more weeks of campaigning left, the time in which to do comparison shopping between candidates is starting to run short. Use it well.