AL GORE has often been mocked for his speaking style -- even by himself, in wooden jokes about his wooden manner. He stopped telling those jokes a year or two ago. Through this year's presidential campaign he has become more aggressive and animated on the stump. Yet oratory is still classed among Gore's liabilities; like the elder George Bush in 1988, he is a Vice President who inevitably suffers when his speeches are compared with those of a sitting President with unusual rhetorical gifts.
But Gore has accomplished something Bush never did. Over the course of the 1990s, so gradually and methodically that it was not fully appreciated, Gore emerged as America's most lethally effective practitioner of high-stakes political debate. Political debate is not, of course, like other forms of debate. It is not primarily a dispassionate contest of logic, in which ideas are pitted against each other to see which is most compelling. It is debate as political combat, in which the contest of ideas is subordinate to the struggle for dominance between the debaters. Victory requires knowing all the details of the opposition's proposals, and it's no surprise that Gore should excel at that. But it also requires a taste for face-to-face confrontation, and a sense of showmanship. In these, too, Gore has, less predictably, excelled.
Debate has also been the medium in which Al Gore has displayed the least attractive aspects of his campaigning style: aggressiveness turning into brutality, a willingness to bend the rules and stretch the truth if necessary. A generation ago Gore was a divinity student who said he was repelled by the harsh realities of politics. Now he is the political combatant most likely to leave his victims feeling not just defeated but battered. He is also the one best able to change, purely through debate, the momentum of a political or policy contest.
• One week before Gore's televised 1993 debate with Ross Perot over the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Clinton Administration's prospects for getting NAFTA through Congress were chancy. Perot, with his talent for simplifying the economic arguments against NAFTA into punchy one-liners, was heavily favored to bring public opinion to his side. Ed Rollins, a consultant who had worked with Perot, predicted on TV, "He's going to kill Gore." One week after the debate many of the previously undecided Democrats in Congress had lined up in support of NAFTA, many of them citing Gore's performance as the decisive factor, and Perot was on the way down as a serious public figure.
• When Bob Dole chose Jack Kemp as his vice-presidential candidate, in August of 1996, Republicans hailed Kemp as a quick-tongued charmer who would not only buoy Dole but also appear in attractive contrast to the stolid Al Gore. Two months later Gore sailed through ninety minutes of an embarrassingly one-sided exchange with a flummoxed Kemp, effectively quashing Kemp's ability to lead a Dole comeback.
• Four months before this year's New Hampshire primary Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan endorsed Bill Bradley as the Democratic nominee, saying what many Democrats believed at the time: Gore was simply not electable. In a series of debates Gore repeatedly crushed Bradley -- defining the topic, playing to the crowd, throwing Bradley off balance time and again. In October, a few weeks after Moynihan's endorsement, with polls showing Bradley ahead by eight points in New Hampshire, Gore and Bradley held their first face-to-face debate, at Dartmouth College. Gore lit into Bradley's health-care plan, saying that it was costly and would badly hurt the poor. Bradley, staying grandly above the fray, pooh-poohed the attacks. Within a week Bradley's lead in New Hampshire had disappeared. Gore won in New Hampshire and every other contested state.
Campaigns are not necessarily good vehicles for candidates to demonstrate the best of their true governing potential: that the elder George Bush could assemble and lead an international coalition; that Bill Clinton could cooperate with Republicans, bankers, and entrepreneurs to set the conditions for the longest-ever economic boom. But some of a President's essential character is always revealed in the campaign. The part that's revealed is the negative part: Nixon's vindictiveness toward enemies, Reagan's detachment from the details of decision-making, Clinton's evasiveness about truth. We can't be sure what will be best about Al Gore if he becomes President. But what will be worst is probably closely connected to the way he has learned to destroy opponents in debates.
GORE'S current climb to success as a debater began seven years ago, when he decided to take on Ross Perot over NAFTA. At the time, this decision seemed reckless. Although Perot's standing with the public had been diminished by his temporary withdrawal from the 1992 presidential race, a year before his debate with Gore he had received 19 percent of the total popular vote for the presidency -- half as many votes as President Bush. And the Gore-Perot debate was to be held on ground familiar to Perot -- the CNN program Larry King Live, on which Perot had originally allowed himself to be "drafted" for a presidential run and which he regarded as a second home.
Perot had spent the early months of 1993 running ads in favor of deficit reduction, which had been his main cause in the presidential campaign. He had grown increasingly upset about NAFTA. With Pat Choate, an adviser who later became his running mate in the 1996 campaign, Perot wrote a manifesto called Save Your Job, Save Our Country: Why NAFTA Must Be Stopped -- Now! It was published as a paperback original in mid-August of 1993 and reached No. 2 on the national best-seller list (behind Rush Limbaugh's The Way Things Ought to Be). As he had done with his deficit presentations, Perot spent his own money -- at least $5 million -- to buy infomercials denouncing NAFTA. His argument was that free trade might make sense between fundamentally similar societies such as Canada and the United States, but that adopting it between countries on such different economic levels as the United States and Mexico would create a "giant sucking sound" as American jobs and industries zoomed southward. Former Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Bush had lined up beside Bill Clinton in the White House to say that the agreement should be passed. But in September, as the deadline for a vote drew near, NAFTA was, as Gore's longtime adviser Roy Neel recently told me, "on the ropes." National polls showed that more people were against the agreement than for it.