||Jeff Greenfield is senior analyst for CNN. He is providing Web-exclusive analysis for CNN allpolitics.com during Election 2000.|
Jeff Greenfield: Did they connect?
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A lot of what we know in the first hours after the first debate is what
we knew in the hours, days, weeks, and months leading up to the first debate:
Al Gore is a master of policy detail; George W. Bush has a more agreeable
persona; the vice president has a grasp of international mattes that the
Texas governor does not; Gov. Bush is particularly convincing on matter
of education, where his passion informs his talk.
We also know, on matters atmospheric, that the vice president's audible
dismissive sighs are as welcome as fingernails being dragged across a
chalkboard, and that Gov. Bush's pursed-lips listening postures suggests
a certain lack of inner confidence with the subject at hand.
Fine. Now for the really important question: did either of the candidates
connect with an electorate that, in my view, is still essentially uninvolved
with this election?
It's not that citizens don't care about health care, or education, or the
state of the nation's values and morals. It's that, unlike past elections,
there is no sense of urgency about what the government ought to do.
If surveys are any guide, most Americans are reasonably satisfied with the state of their
health care and their kids' schools; and the dilemmas posed by people
without health insurance, or poor kids in failing schools, don't admit of
simple solutions. And for all the concerns about our moral decline, it's not
precisely clear what a president could or should do about it.
So the question from the first debate remains: did either of these
candidates connect with voters, millions of whom are either genuinely
undecided or only loosely allied with a candidate? The instant polls, which
should be taken with a ton of salt, suggest that Gore outpointed Bush, but
that voters felt a lot more comfortable with Bush than they were before the
What the polls can't measure, by definition, is what will go on today
and tonight and tomorrow: the tens of thousands of conversations that will
take place in offices, factories, coffee shops and beauty parlors, beneath
the radar screens of the media.
Will citizens be telling each other that, "You know, Bush really does
understand about schools and taxes"? Or, "Gore proved that Bush's numbers
don't add up"? Will they be telling each other that Gore was condescending
and arrogant? That Bush's criticism of Gore was just more of the same old
politics Bush pledged to end?
But you know what? These may not be what Americans will be talking about
at all. Maybe they will be telling each other that neither of these guys was
talking about anything real; that it was another exercise in politi-speak
that has nothing to do with how we live our lives; maybe they will be
deciding that there is really no reason to pay much attention to this battle
at all...at least, not until the World Series ends.
I don't think, to use the cliche, is that a whole lot of minds were
changed by this first debate. And it's useful to remember that in some
election years (1976, 1984, 1992), the later debates mattered more. But for
me, the key questions are different: How many watched? Will the next debates
attract a bigger or smaller audience? Has the public decided, at long last,
that this is an election worth caring about?