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Subject to debate.

Subject to Debate

As Gertrude Stein lay dying, Alice B. Toklas approached her deathbed and asked tearfully, "What is the answer?' Miss Stein, it is said, managed one last mischievous smile and replied, "What is the answer? In that case, what is the question?' The exchange between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale last week hardly evoked the quality of that expatriate repartee in postwar Paris, but it did make a similar important point: that a good question can set the terms of debate, while even the best answer can only follow the leader.

Mondale's winning moment came with a wrenching reversal of the two candidates' customary roles. Turning and addressing the President directly, he said, ""There you go again.' . . . Remember the last time you said that?' Reagan could manage only a wan "um hmm' as Mondale reconstructed the context of Reagan's famous quip in his debate with Jimmy Carter. When Carter badgered him to tell the truth about the "secret' budget cuts he had in store for Medicare, Reagan said, "There you go again,' and insisted he had no plan to make cuts in the program. This time, after Reagan used the line again, Mondale took the offensive and pointed out that Reagan had indeed tried to cut Medicare, by $20 billion.

Unfortunately, there were few other points in the ninety minutes of rather pedestrian conversation between the candidates when Mondale took command. If Mondale won, as the polls and pundits suggest, he did so by remaining sensible and coherent, while Reagan seemed to lose his wits, his train of thought and his legendary charm. Mondale's victory, then, is incomplete, and he should be thinking hard about a better strategy for next time.

He cannot redesign the structure of the debate or arrange for more engaging interrogators. But he can expand the panel's questions and thereby take hold of the event. Last time, he talked to Reagan's issues: the economy, the defense budget, prayer, religion and politics, farm policy, "leadership.' Although he gave his own answers--some of which were reasonable; most, unexceptionable--Mondale never conveyed the impression that he had an agenda for America. He hardly mentioned blacks and racism; he limited his discussion of sexual equality to a defensive answer to Diane Sawyer's questions about abortion; he took Sawyer's other silly points about God and religion at face value and never went beyond them, as he could have, to present an alternative vision of the national conscience and culture.

What if he had said this: "Abortion is a red herring dragged across the hustings by the Republicans, Diane. The issue is the government's support for women's equality and its promotion of programs to encourage it. What have you, President Reagan, done for day care, for equal pay for women, for equality in federally funded schools and colleges, for women in the armed services? This Administration is trying to roll back the most momentous social movement in recent American history, and mine will advance it.'

Similarly, perhaps it was good politics to be polite in the closing minutes of the debate, praising Reagan for the spirit and faith he had instilled in a cynical and despairing land, but he should have lambasted him for his right-wing ideology, his dangerous jingoism and his divisive rhetoric. Mondale may like Reagan personally, as he said, but Reaganism is a moral disaster and a political nightmare, and Mondale should have denounced it for the horror it is.

Next time, when the debate turns to foreign and military policy, Mondale should be wary of getting trapped in Reagan's cold war world view and imperial perspective. There is another agenda that can be projected; it raises questions about detente and not just negotiations, about the Third World's struggle for economic and political independence and not just foreign aid, about state terrorism and not just the private variety, about black Africa and not just white Europe, about peace in Central America and not just a victory for U.S. interests, about a settlement in the Middle East and not a preservation of a brutal status quo. The reporters on the press panel may not think of such things, but Mondale can ask those questions, and demand, this time, that Reagan answer.
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Title Annotation:presidential debate on domestic affairs
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:editorial
Date:Oct 20, 1984
Previous Article:Absence, not age, matters.
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