Bush won't let Gore shake `big government' label

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C.--When Al Gore and George W. Bush debated here on the Wake Forest campus Wednesday night, the 2000 election emerged more clearly than ever before as a choice between a liberal and a conservative. That is good news for Bush and a problem for Gore.

The Washington Post-ABC News poll released on the eve of the debate showed that by a margin of 58 percent to 32 percent, registered voters said they preferred a smaller government with fewer services to a larger government offering more services. Six out of 10 identified Bush as advocating smaller government; seven out of 10 said they thought Gore was for larger government.

If that was the view going into the debate, those watching must have had it underlined and put into capital letters.

Whether it was the environment, health care, hate-crimes legislation or any other topic, Gore happily claimed the role of the governmental activist. And Bush lost no opportunity to counter with the observation that he would prefer to avoid what he called "top-down Washington directives."

This is the classic debate that has divided Republicans and Democrats at least since New Deal days, two-thirds of a century ago. But it is a choice that President Clinton tried to finesse with his "Third Way" politics and especially his declaration, following the Republican takeover of Congress, that "the era of big government is over."

Gore and his running mate, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, are devotees of the Democratic Leadership Council, the headquarters of "Third Way" thinking. But on this night, at least, Gore sounded more like a traditional Democrat than an advocate of a new way.

At one point, he seemed to sense the danger and insisted that "I want a smaller, smarter government," not a behemoth on the Potomac. He referred to his "reinventing government" project, but did not have an opportunity to explain how he has been trying to improve the performance of the bureaucracy. And when Gore went after Bush for skimping on health care, environmental controls and protection of minorities who are targets of hate crimes in Texas, it sounded like the typical liberal critique of any conservative in office.

It is well known, of course, that many voters who say they want "small government" turn right around and endorse expanded budgets for education, health care, medical research, veterans benefits, etc., etc. But the agenda of Wednesday's debate gave Gore few opportunities to identify himself with popular spending programs. Social Security, Medicare and prescription drugs were barely mentioned. Only in his closing statement did Gore find a way to argue that Bush's tax cuts would come at the expense of school-improvement programs.

Even the foreign policy discussion, which dominated the first half of the Wake Forest debate, unexpectedly played into Bush's hands. This is one policy area where Gore clearly has the advantage of years of experience. But Bush appeared far more comfortable--and less programmed--in Wednesday's extensive conversation on that topic than he had been in the brief exchanges that took place eight days earlier at the University of Massachusetts.

Moreover, the Third Way leaders, including Clinton, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Gore and Lieberman, have been far more interventionist in foreign affairs than most congressional conservatives. In the debate, it was Gore who defended the use of troops for "nation building" in places like Haiti and who argued that the United States could not turn away from the challenges of genocide or "ethnic cleansing" anywhere in the world.

Bush was the skeptic, enunciating a "national interest" test that would reserve deployments for those instances where vital strategic assets of the United States and its allies are at risk.

On the international scene, this is metaphorically the difference between "big government" and "small government" thinkers. And, once again, public opinion clearly supports a more confined role for the United States.

Two other things were notable about this debate. The biggest concerns holding undecided voters back from supporting Bush are their fears about what he might do to the Supreme Court and the economy. Not a word was said about either subject. Gore has to find a way in the final debate to put these issues back on the agenda.

For most of this year, people have been asking, "How could Gore not win in a time of peace and prosperity such as we now enjoy?" But voters have been telling me and other reporters all year they give Gore almost no credit for helping create these conditions.

And if he allows the debate to be framed as a choice between a big-government liberal and a small-government conservative, he could lose.

David S. Broder's column appears Sunday on editorial pages of The Times.