IT IS a moot point what impact the unruly television debate between Al Gore and Ross Perot will have on the wavering Democratic congressmen who hold the fate of the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) in their hands. But it was rip-roaring political entertainment. And most important for a delighted Clinton administration, the honours on Tuesday night went unarguably to the Vice-President.
Amid the sound and fury, anyone who was not a Nafta-buff will have gained little elucidation. Statistics were shamelessly distorted. 'Don't talk while I'm interrupting,' was the order of the hour. But by any objective yardstick, a cool, slightly condescending Mr Gore won out over a petulant Mr Perot, by a mile.
Such plainly was the belief of the White House yesterday, as an elated Mr Clinton called a news conference to build on Mr Gore's success. The House vote on Nafta in six days' time would be 'a defining moment'. And, he added, 'I honestly believe we're going to win.' He derided Mr Perot's threats of 'awful retaliation' to congressmen who defied him and voted for the pact.
After the 90-minute spectacle on CNN's Larry King Live a survey in the newspaper USA-Today adjudged Mr Gore the winner by 59 per cent to 32 per cent. By margins as large or larger, he was deemed more believable, more responsible, and better at communicating the facts. The proportion of viewers saying they favoured the pact leapt from 34 to 57 per cent.
In short, it was not the Texas billionaire's finest moment. More than ever, he seemed as he has been dubbed, 'a handgrenade with a crewcut'. The familiar one-liners were spiteful, the slogans hollow. When pressed he was evasive. In his relentless portrayal of Nafta as a mortal threat to American jobs, he seemed whiny, even slightly mad.
In one withering riposte, Mr Gore recalled his opponent's prediction three years ago that 40,000 Americans would die in the Gulf war, and that 100 banks would close if the Democrats won the presidency. 'The politics of negativism and fear only go so far,' he said.
Earlier too, he dumbfounded Mr Perot by wheeling out a black and white photo of the two 1930s congressmen who introduced the protectionist Smoot-Hawley Act of 1930, widely blamed for causing the Great Depression. Rejection of Nafta would be more of the same, Mr Gore insisted, pointing out for good measure that the Texan had backed the pact before running for the presidency last year. A briefly silenced Mr Perot could only sweep the photo to one side, in scarcely contained anger.
Even the Perot railing against the lobbyist blight on Washington politics was turned against him. Had he himself not paid lobbyists, Mr Gore inquired, to influence the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee in the 1970s? 'You're lying,' came a twangy splutter of righteous Texan indignation. But when the Vice- President challenged him to deny it, Mr Perot never did.
Now the administration must cash in on Mr Gore's performance. Had he lost on Tuesday night, Nafta would have been doomed. Even so, the White House remains some 20-odd votes short of a majority, and foes of the pact claim they already have victory in the bag.
The televised public conversion to the pact by one Florida Democrat immediately afterwards had far too obviously been stage-managed in advance to be convincing. Mr Perot may not have advanced his cause. But waverers must still reckon with union hostility to Nafta as they consider their prospects in the mid-term congressional elections, less than a year off.
Nafta, in short, could yet come to grief. But Mr Perot's own longer- term credibility and ambitions may have been fatally damaged by his poor showing. A political career born on the Larry King show in February 1992 may one day be judged to have died at the hands of Larry King - or rather Al Gore. Andrew Marr, page 23
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