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Bush Can Trump Gore on Education

October 02, 2000|DAN SCHNUR | Dan Schnur is a visiting instructor at the Institute of Government Studies at UC Berkeley. He was the national communications director for Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign

If presidential candidates ran the Olympic high hurdles, the finish line would just be coming into view for George W. Bush. But in politics, the hurdles become gradually higher as the race wears on. Bush confronts the most difficult hurdle of all on Tuesday night, when he faces off with Democratic rival Al Gore in the first of the three presidential debates.

But unlike an Olympic sprint, there is rarely a clear winner to a presidential debate. The candidates jockey for position, continually pushing and shoving in an attempt to knock their opponents off-balance. The presidential campaign may be a road race, but the debates themselves are more like a well-dressed version of Greco-Roman wrestling.

In truth, presidential debates don't have winners. They have losers and survivors. And it only takes 15 seconds to lose a debate. One misplaced fact or poorly phrased response will become the sound bite of choice that replays endlessly for days, months or years afterward.

Both Bush and Gore have convincingly demonstrated their ability to engage in verbal self-immolation while on the campaign trail. But a memorable gaffe during a high-stakes debate would be seen by the entire country and create an unflattering impression that can't be erased before election day.

The most successful debaters are those who are able to pressure their opponents into a mistake, leading them into a discussion of unfamiliar or uncomfortable matters that results in a defensive candidate saying something he wishes he hadn't. The only way to convincingly win a debate, in other words, is to make your opponent lose.

For Bush, the temptation will be to play the character card--talking about the various Clinton scandals and Gore self-inventions are a sure crowd-pleaser on the fund-raising circuit. And it's great fun to crack one-liners about inventing the Internet and starring in "Love Story."

But this is a trap into which Republicans have regularly fallen during the Clinton years. After weeks of fighting precisely this battle, Bush moved ahead in national opinion polls last week by talking about the differences between himself and Gore on policy matters, not scandal. Bush's recent discussion of the nation's "education recession" reminds voters that the strength of the economy rests on the shaky underpinnings of an unsatisfactory school system. This is where Gore is most vulnerable.

Education is Bush's signature issue: He can point to a significant record of achievement in Texas and discuss it with authority that he doesn't always possess on other topics. It's also an area that is dangerous for Gore, for despite an array of his own reform initiatives, he is constrained by his relationship with organized labor from more aggressively challenging the status quo.

The most obvious difference between the candidates is on the issue of school choice. Bush believes that underprivileged children should have the option of attending private school, a position that Gore vehemently rejects. Gore's own children attended private schools, though, and months on the campaign trail have yet to provide Gore with an acceptable answer to the question of why his own children deserve a better education than those from less-fortunate circumstances.

But the silver bullet for Bush is teacher testing. Both candidates agree on the need for more accountability, in the form of strenuous testing, for both students and teachers. However, while Gore talks of the necessity of testing new teachers before they are hired, he is silent on the subject of measuring competency for teachers already in the classroom. This is an issue that would unsurprisingly concern the unions, which have made the protection of all teachers--qualified or not--one of their highest negotiating priorities.

Yet most parents would agree that removing poor teachers from the classroom is just as important as ensuring the quality of new ones. Let Bush put the question to Gore; the exchange has the potential to create the kind of memories for which presidential debates have become known.

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