As the saying goes, be careful what you pray for. For years observers of American politics have deplored its lack of civility. In their first televised debate earlier this month, President Bill Clinton and his Republican challenger Bob Dole appeared to take that criticism to heart. Ideas and issues took center stage. As a result, the American public got ninety somnolent minutes of remarkably civil thrust and parry.
Despite the wholly predictable, and let's face it, somewhat tedious course of the debate, Americans can still be grateful that both men avoided cheap shots and lurid accusations. Dole, who carried the burden of what appears to be a foundering campaign, made a few cyanide-tipped comments. But none broke the skin. As a result, a clear picture emerged (at least for those who stayed awake) of the differences and, perhaps even more revealing, the striking similarities in the views of these two life-long politicians.
Dole tried to make the antigovernment case espoused so vociferously by Newt Gingrich and the Republican House majority, but his heart wasn't in it. He defended his 15-percent tax cut proposal as well, but again without much in the way of passion or conviction. As a wounded veteran and respected congressional legislator, Dole knows, and to his credit acknowledges, that government has a vital role to play in helping to secure opportunity and meet basic human needs. Noting that his own mother had relied on Social Security and Medicare, and that he himself had benefited from the GI Bill, Dole said, "I've had the best health care in government hospitals, Army hospitals, and I know its importance, but we've got to fix it." Later, concurring in the need for food stamp and W.I.C. programs, he added, "I'm no extremist....I care about people."
Though eager to boast of efficiencies brought to government under his administration, Clinton went a step further than his opponent, stressing not just the need for government but the good it can do. "I believe that the purpose of politics is to give people the tools to make the most of their own lives, to reinforce the values of opportunity and responsibility, and to build a sense of community."
Clinton cited the Family Leave and Brady bills along with environmental protection laws, student loans, and other education spending as examples of where government can make a difference for the better. He criticized Dole and the Republican party for proposed cuts in Medicare funding, and reminded listeners that Dole voted against the founding Medicare legislation in 1965. Conceding the need for restructuring entitlement spending - something his campaign ads are far from honest about - Clinton argued that "we need someone who believes in [Medicare] to reform it."
How either candidate might actually act on the issues once in office is uncertain. Still, some things are clear. In contrast with Republican true believers who preach the devolution if not the dismantling of the federal government, Dole gave no encouragement to such dangerous nonsense. Dole, in a word, is not Gingrich. Still, the differences between the two candidates are instructive. Dole advocates a further retrenchment of government's role. Clinton envisions, if tentatively, a more active federal hand in helping Americans cope with economic and social change.
Both men agreed that campaign-finance reform and the growth of entitlement spending were so fraught with political boobytraps that neither party, was likely to tackle them. Encouragingly, both conceded that an independent commission might be able to diffuse the political costs of reform in these areas. …