Now both presidential contenders can let out huge sighs of relief. They made it through the presidential debates without the race blowing up into a foregone conclusion. But were the debates fair?
The moderators - PBS anchor Jim Lehrer for the presidential matches, and CNN anchor Bernard Shaw for the genteel vice presidential seminar - were sober and serious in eliciting information, and gave the candidates great latitude to discuss the issues without directing the attention to themselves. That is good.
But as the debates progressed, how could viewers miss how the questions started tilting seriously to the left? Shaw asked the potential veeps liberal questions about racial profiling ("you are black for this question") and whether homosexuals have "the same rights as other Americans." Lehrer could have balanced Shaw by asking about the federal takeover of police departments by the Clinton-Gore Justice Department, or about gay advocates trying to banish the Boy Scouts of America from public schools and halls. Lehrer chose to do the opposite: he repeated the questions to Bush and Gore.
In the second debate, Lehrer chose to balance questions about subsidized health care for the elderly - by suggesting younger Americans needed subsidized health care, too. Lehrer also pitched this beaut to Gore: "How do you see the connection between controlling gun sales in this country and the incidence of death by accidental or intentional use of guns?"
But the most dramatically skewed debate was the third, town hall-style debate. Lehrer announced that the pool of questioners was drawn from "voters who were identified as being uncommitted by the Gallup Organization." Each of the 130 potential questioners wrote out inquiries on a little card. Lehrer explained: "My job, under the rules of the evening, was to decide the order the questions will be asked and to call on the questioners accordingly."
If the 15 questions that Lehrer chose are in any way indicative of mainstream political opinion, the "uncommitted" voters are stuck between voting for Gore...or Ralph Nader. Six questions were neutral, as in the question about parents struggling with the filth Hollywood puts out. One - one - came from the conservative perspective. The other eight may as well have been Gore campaign press releases.
The first questioner asked: "How do you feel about HMOs and insurance companies making the critical decisions that affect people's lives instead of the medical professionals? And why are the HMOs and insurance companies not held accountable for their decisions?" That sounds more like a DNC talking point than a disinterested question.
Another questioner on health care suggested hopefully: "Would you be open to the ideal of a national health care plan for everybody? And if not, why? If so, is it something you would try to implement if you're elected into office? And what would you do implement this plan?" This lady was not uncommitted when it came to choosing between capitalism and socialism. She just hasn't picked her favorite socialist yet.
Another woman asked, "How will your administration address diversity, inclusiveness? And what role will affirmative action play in your overall plan?" Every obviously liberal question put Bush at a disadvantage. Try either to a) out-liberal Al Gore (a virtual impossibility) and face the serious threat of alienating conservatives - or b) disappoint the questioner.
Most inexplicable for Mr. Lehrer was the fact that he sanctioned two personal attacks on Governor Bush. Lehrer called on an elderly man to ask, "We'd like to know why you object to the Brady handgun bill, if you do object to it. Because in a recent TV ad, it showed that the National Rifle Association says if you are elected that they will be working out of your office." Bush had nothing to do with this and didn't deserve to be tainted by the hyperbole.
The other question was downright insulting. "You seemed to overly enjoy, as a matter of fact proud, that Texas led the nation in execution of prisoners. Sir, did I misread your response, and are you really, really proud of the fact that Texas is number one in executions?"
Is it any surprise, then, that so many journalists swooned over the slanted questioning? On CNN, Bill Schneider said they asked "the best questions in all the debates," and Farai Chideya found them "incredibly piercing, incredibly poignant." ABC's George Stephanopoulos had "three cheers for the citizen questions," and found them the "most revealing."
Yes, they were. They revealed that Jim Lehrer stacked the deck for Al Gore.