Asked to identify who won our first presidential debate, I shall break the rules and answer affirmatively, "Jim Lehrer." By focusing the candidates on where they differed on the issues, Lehrer simplified our view as voters. By not over-enforcing the rules or overemphasizing the format, the venerable PBS news man allowed the debate to breathe. And with the increasing accountability of the Internet to force truth-telling like never before -- we've seen it in stocks and we'll see it in politics -- we are going to be watching smarter, more truthful debates this week and in future. Tuesday's debate was refreshingly intelligent (mostly), dispassionate, and respectful -- more so in this combination than any in recent memory. Herewith some quick thoughts on the first debate:

The Ghost
Where was Clinton mentioned? Surprisingly, he practically wasn't. We observe that the Republicans perceive him to be too popular, so there was no attempt at connecting Gore to this popular fellow. And the Democrats were probably worried about Gore being tied too closely and identifiably with the sometimes embarrassing chief executive. Hence, I'm not sure you've ever seen or will see another presidential debate that makes less mention of the current president.

The Demagogue Tally
A quick tally -- what I call my Demagogue Tally -- works like this: He who uses the phrase "the American people" the most is the greater demagogue. If used in excess of 10 times by a single candidate, that candidate is officially a demagogue. I am surprised and happy to report that Gore used the phrase just twice, and Bush not at all (by my count -- though Bush did say "my fellow Americans" once). Neither relied upon that pretentious, pandering, and threadbare phrase, "the American people," to make his points. The world is getting better, politics apparently included.

That said, is anyone else a bit tired of this now hackneyed approach? It begins, "Let me tell you about Susan Monongahela. Susan is 65 years old, worked in the Air Force for 32 years making winches, and today is laid up at home. She wrote me recently to say..." etc., which always ends, in conclusion, "... AND SUSAN IS HERE TONIGHT."

Yadda yadda yadda. Yes, I understand that personalizing things and telling a narrative make for effective communication. But when everyone's doin' it, everyone else begins to tune it out. Perhaps you're seeing here the formation of my new Demagogue Tally, now that the parties seem to become wise to our repeated criticism of the phrase "American people." If you have your own Demagogue Tally, I'm interested.

The Look
Both candidates, in case you didn't notice, were dressed identically. It appears the campaign strategists are both reading off the same market research: Wear a red tie, white shirt, and dark suit. Keep an eye on this in future debates to see if either man (or his running mate) radically innovates off the formula.

Bush, clearly not as smart as Gore (the latter would win two out of three games of chess, I feel sure), nevertheless comes across as more sincere. He occasionally shrugs his shoulders or simply chuckles, whereas his opponent always has a composed, coherent, impassioned, though sometimes plastic response. Gore is an outstanding debater. But lots of makeup and lots of hair dye -- in contrast to little makeup and honest gray hairs -- provide the only contrasts we can find for The Look.

"Fuzzy Math"
George, if you're going to claim this (repeatedly) next time, do everyone a favor and specifically explain what is fuzzy. And why. As my creative writing teachers at the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill) constantly emphasized, "Show, don't tell."

The Real Deal: Restrain "Da Man"
This Rule Breaker's view of our political scene today is that the parties as they are ultimately lack much differentiation. Why are they more alike than different? Because the nature of politics is to use government as a sword or a healing potion, and the nature of power is to desire more power (bigger sword, additional healing potions). Thus, we will tend toward big government because the stake of both parties (and the self-worth of all politicians) is based on "being Da Man." It's the phrase cheered by any gallery surrounding a Tiger Woods tee shot, and it's what we're all after, aren't we? (Gender neutral.) To be told we're great at what we do. To really, really make our mark.

The founders of our country understood this, which is why they built out a model that checked itself. It undercut arrogance, kept political puissance on a leash, emphasized "small is beautiful" in government. But the responsibility for that is ultimately on each of us, up to you and to me, to make sure the checks stay in place and that capitalism (free enterprise) crowds out socialism (government control, statism -- which we watched fail over and over again in the 20th century). This mandate speaks most of all to investors, of which our society is increasingly composed! Because the tendency toward big government will come directly from the government establishment itself, this leaves the rest of us to ask, for instance, "Do I really want to be taxed a substantial amount of my own salary in order for it to be invested FOR me by Uncle Sam -- at 2%-3% historical rates of return -- rather than being trusted or allowed to make my own decision?"

The debate on Tuesday over Social Security was a debate as to whether "one in six Social Security tax dollars should be invested in the stock market." That is picking nits. The deeper question, unasked, is whether we should be doing that at all. Again, you the Rule Breaker investor are being compelled to invest a substantial portion of the sweat of your labor in the Crummy Mutual Fund of all Crummy Mutual Funds, with a really high load (used to support present retirees) and a shockingly low rate of return, which compounds at a flaccid rate over time.

Thus, for me the real deal is that the really important and interesting debate about Social Security (as one example) is at present too creative, outrageous, or contrary for our political parties to consider or espouse: Why, in an age of 401(k) plans and IRAs and Americans getting educated to learn how to invest and save for themselves, by themselves, are we throwing greater numbers of dollars into the maws of an ever-hungrier, and ultimately insatiable, beast? It is Wisdom, laid bare. Arguing over whether one in six of those dollars should be "diverted" to the stock market misses most of the point. I'm not an alarmist, but it's rather like debating what color the tablecloths should be in the Titanic's dining room. (Again, I'm not an alarmist, so I include the analogy primarily for purposes of amusement.)

So, given the nature of government and power, as outlined above, government will tend to view itself as broadly necessary and relevant to many or all aspects of our society. That's the way your friendly politician can be "Da Man."

As Foolish investors, as Rule Breakers, we must constantly look at our world with fresh eyes and look toward not just incremental improvements but occasional revolutions. Mail-order catalogues are incremental improvements; e-commerce is a revolution. Which do you prefer? With regard to some of the pressing issues of our day, if Gore is right that "we stand at the brink" of an incredibly "important time in history," we need something more significant than, say, a comparatively tiresome debate over prescription drugs for seniors. It's an interesting topic, as was educational testing for public school teachers and students (despite the fact that the federal government is granted no authority over education in the Constitution -- remember "You Da Man?"). But where are your priorities?

I am firmly independent and not an admirer of either party, and know that I am sure to receive (as I usually do) the requisite number of impassioned pleas from members of BOTH parties saying it's obvious that I'm too sympathetic to the OTHER side. (Always, the other side.) Once you receive enough of these, one after another making diametrically opposed, mutually exclusive claims, you come in time to learn to just speak your own mind, keeping your eyes wide open to the world at-large and ever-present possibility that you might be wrong. That's my Foolish promise.

Oh, by the way, Gore will win the election. It's as I wrote months ago, exposing bare to the world my Foolish Presidential Predictor. When the out-of-power party lacks real gripes about the state of the economy and the markets, it does not win. One thing that unites the Wise and the Fools everywhere, it's safe to say:

We vote our pocketbooks.

Fool on!

      -- David Gardner