Vice President Al Gore announced to the world during the Tuesday night debate that he might not be the most exciting politician.
George W. Bush was not that exciting either, said Bruce Cain, Director of UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, speaking to the group of political science students gathered in the basement of Moses Hall on the UC campus to watch the first campaign debate.
The students seemed to agree, with several in the audience characterizing the debates as “hard to pay attention to.”
“Neither candidate stood out. I’d like to have seen Nader in these debates,” said Ryan Clark, a sophomore who registered for the Green Party a day earlier. “I know that Nader would have brought the death penalty and campaign finance reform issues to the table with him.”
Sophomore Nirav Kamdar said the debate was too centered on issues that did not touch him, such as Social Security and Medicare.
“It seems like it’s mostly their own agenda. Perhaps because I’m young, I don’t understand the details of these issues.”
Kamdar also said he felt that both candidates moved quickly to the political middle, making it difficult for him to differentiate between the two.
“Voting without much sense of their differences is like a blind draw,” he said.
As the debates began, Cain warned students to watch for references to the 12 citizens invited to put a human face on the candidates’ debate rhetoric.
“They brought 12 people from swing (vote) areas. Watch how Bush and Gore use their stories. It’s always a question of whether they’ll get the stories right,” said Cain, adding that the Bush Web site would have fact checkers posting responses to everything that Gore said in his speech.
The more than 100 students roared with laughter when these characters appeared in the candidates’ narration, particularly at the end of the debate when Gore referred to a Winnebago-driving, poodle-walking 79-year-old woman in his final statement as an example of the middle class people his health care policy would help.
Other stock phrases, like “fuzzy math,” “a lockbox on social security” and “the wealthiest 1 percent” drew laughter as students tried to predict when the soundbytes would be used again.
Both candidates touched on education issues. This was a particular sore point for Veronica Terriquez, who graduated last year with a Masters degree in Education.
“Standardized testing was proposed by both of them, and without programs like teacher training, those tests just serve to tell the same story - that rural and poor urban areas don’t perform as well on standardized tests. Then, because these schools don’t perform as well, which we already knew, they get penalized by not getting funding, and the situation gets worse,” said Terriquez.
She singled out Bush’s plan to implement school vouchers as particularly odious.
“Vouchers take money from the public schools, which are already short of funds, and lets middle class kids go to private schools. This means that the gap between poor kids and the rest of the nation will widen,” she said, adding that in California this would perpetuate an unequal achievement between youth of color and white kids.
“There are schools here that don’t even have adequate textbooks,” she said. “How will standardized tests measure that?”
While debating Gore on which sectors of American society would receive tax breaks from the government, Bush drew the loudest laugh of the night when he said “(It’s) not the role of a president to decide right and wrong,” .
Professor Raymond Wolfinger, the Heller Professor of political science at UC Berkeley, said the comment was “ironic when considering the Republicans’ stance on moral issues” during the Lewinsky scandals.
“Republicans have discussed moral issues throughout Clinton’s presidency.
“To say that the president does not decide what is right and wrong at this point....” he said, letting his voice trail off to make his point.
Wolfinger also noted the “Nader effect” on the debate. Saying that Bush “muffled” policy contrasts with Gore to “not be blown away,” in the debates, Wolfinger felt that Gore pointed out those differences clearly.
“I think Gore explicitly pointing out his differences with Bush was an implicit response to Nader’s point that there is no distinction between the parties,” said Wolfinger, a Democrat. “The differences were made clear. Even though I was battling sleep, I got that much from the debates.”
Others felt that Nader and the political climate created by mass protests in Seattle, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles pushed Gore more to the left than he’d have been otherwise.
“I think Nader and the protests were on Gore’s mind. It’s good to hear a politician say that special interests had too much power in Washington,” said Charlene Lee, a junior English major.
Overall, however, the debates and the debaters were considered duds by most in Moses Library.
“There was no winner, no one really stood out. Bush seemed more human than Gore, but Gore seemed more well versed in the issues,” continued Lee, adding candidly, “I’d like to have switched channels and watched some of the A’s game.”