The winner? Are you kidding? Do we give a trophy for being a millimeter less tiresome than the other guy?
The debate was a national embarrassment. Michael Dukakis was marginally less embarrassing than George Bush was, if only because his canned thoughts were ladled out in understandable syntax.Boredom and disgust may drive down voter turnout so much that Bush (Republicans are more reliable voters) may benefit from the ennui.
Dukakis wanted to look less than he usually does like an alderman unveiling a bust of himself. He did that, if just barely, by smiling - at least, that probably was a smile - and by a closing statement that made more sense than Bush's.
Bush wanted to prove that he could perform well, or at least passably, when not scripted, as he was in his convention acceptance speech, by a gifted writer like Peggy Noonan. Bush's Sunday-evening performance raised this thought: Why not elect Noonan and cut out the middleman?
Bush and Dukakis witticisms are recognizable by the complete absence of one attribute of true wit: spontaneity.
Their attempts at humanizing humor were heavy enough to be weighed on truck scales and obviously had been tamped into each candidate by handlers. Why should the humor be different than the serious stuff?
Tracing a Bush thought back from its manifestation in speech to its origin in his thinking is like seeking the source of the Blue Nile.
The problem with Bush sentences that reel drunkenly around a topic is not just aesthetic. Neither is the problem only that syntactic chaos is a sign of a chaotic mind. The basic and alarming problem is that Bush's chaotic mind seems to be a consequence of a lack of public purpose.
Sure, he has a purpose: He wants to be president. But he seems to want that only because it is the next rung up, and climbing the ladder of public life is his life.
This is an old axiom: Some people seek office to be something; others seek office to do something. Bush is one of the former. In this, the contrast with Ronald Reagan is complete.
Dukakis has public purposes. Although Bush called Dukakis an "ice man," Bush was more correct when contradicting himself, saying that Dukakis has passions, but the wrong ones.
Indeed the most disagreeable aspect of this campaign is Dukakis' disingenuousness, his disguising of his leftward inclination.
In politics, one does what one is and becomes what one does. Bush skitters like a waterbug on the surface of things, strewing fragments of thoughts, moving fast lest he linger so long that he is expected to show mastery of, or even real interest in, anything. It is well to dwell on him because he is ahead, the clock is running and every indecisive day, like Sunday, serves him.
It is said that about one-third of the supporters of both candidates are so lightly attached to their candidates that they could be detached. Bush left North Carolina in a position to do what the North Carolina Tarheels basketball team sometimes does when it has a lead. It goes into a four-corner stall to kill the clock.
Dukakis, by speaking about medical care and other traditional Democratic issues, is going to find out if there is a Democratic majority out there. And he also has this hope: In the days before the debate, the campaign's dynamics began to change.
The change was driven in part by journalists' impatience with Bush's "flag factory" path to the presidency. Thoughtful television journalists are debating whether they have a duty to put on the air whatever spectacle a candidate decides to make the centerpiece of his campaign day.
But back on the trail, Bush is back on a script. In each of the final 40 days he needs 15 seconds of telegenic thoughtfulness. That totals 10 minutes of mind until the final buzzer. He might just make it.