Sunday, September 26, 2004

Watching the Presidential Debates

Thursday, September 30th may be the turning point of this year’s Presidential election. The first of three scheduled debates between President Bush and Senator Kerry promises to be the biggest event of the election season thus far. Since it is a close race, and the audience for the Presidential debates (especially the first one) is usually very large, the 2004 debates have an even greater chance than usual of influencing the outcome on Election Day. While there will certainly be pre, post, and even simultaneous debate analysis ad nauseam, the actual debates themselves often prove less dramatic. Wary of a huge mistake, the candidates often stick relentlessly to message and engage each other in extemporaneous conversation as infrequently as possible. The moderators are even less helpful, because they are, by their very design, assigned to moderate the conversation rather than drill down on the key differences between the candidates.

To be sure, there have been huge mistakes during debates, most memorably President Ford’s laughable comments about the lack of Soviet presence in Poland. Other dramatic and comical exchanges include President Reagan’s witty rejoinder about not making age an issue in the 1984 campaign, or Lloyd Bentsen’s powerful reply to Dan Quayle’s remarks about how much JFK and the young Vice President had in common.

But recent debates have been less interesting. The Bush/Gore debates weren’t half as exciting as Bush vs. Gore in the Supreme Court, but were remembered for Gore’s repeated sighing during the first debate. For whatever silly reasons, the media declared Bush the winner, and for very important reasons, that matters a lot. As we know well now, Bush is the master of low expectations and his campaign brilliantly cast Gore as a skilled and successful debater who would crush the bumbling and dangerously under-qualified Bush. Of course, anything more than that was a victory for Bush and that’s exactly what they got. Bush was barely passable, Gore looked petty, and Bush won the debate.

Kerry cannot and will not let that happen again. He has tried hard to mention that Bush has won every debate he has ever been in, even while the Bush campaign has trumped up Kerry’s debate credentials from prep school and the Senate. The ex-Clinton aides in the Kerry campaign are obsessed with correcting everything Al Gore did wrong, and while they cannot in fact let Bill Clinton debate Bush, they will make sure that Kerry does not sigh or use too many big words. Since the first debate is on foreign policy, expect Kerry to hammer Bush on the situation in Iraq and the broader failures in The War on Terror. Bush will try hard to stay optimistic, focusing on some of the tangible successes in Afghanistan and Iraq. There are 2 possible results. Kerry will look negative and overly aggressive, while Bush will be seen as an idealist who does not flip-flop. Or, Kerry’s critiques will finally get to Bush and voters will realize that Bush is in denial and/or out of touch with the situation on the ground.

While I have been pessimistic on Kerry in the past, he is a much different debater than Gore. Think prosecutor and not college professor. Bush, on the other hand, has not faced serious questions about Iraq and the War on Terror in this type of environment before. He will not control the debates the way he controls a White House press conference, and Kerry will be onstage beside him to present the appropriate contrast. Bush will be able to get away with platitudes to a point, but Kerry will at least have the chance to call him out on it. Since Kerry also trails in the polls, I see a comeback kid type story being constructed by the media starting October 1st. I pick Kerry to win the first debate.

Some other things to watch for:

1.Will Bush get snippy?

President Bush does not like to be bothered by know-it-all reporters, Democratic partisans, or anyone with actual facts when it comes to his policies. When he is boxed into a corner in unfriendly territory, he can get agitated and short. He will look at the questioner as if the person is slow and repeat part of his stump speech in an annoyed tone. Kerry needs to push Bush into this mode as early as possible. When Bush is on the defensive, he looks scared and incompetent. See his most recent Meet the Press interview for examples.

2. The visual

One of the most interesting aspects of the debates is when the two candidates, who have been campaigning against each other all over the nation for months, finally share the same stage, shake hands, and directly engage each other. When they sit down for the 2nd debate, Kerry and Bush may be close to each other, close enough to grab an arm or get in each other’s face. Remember when Gore invaded Bush’s personal space in 2000 or when Admiral Stockdale wandered over to the other podium during the middle of a question in 1992? Body language will be key here. Kerry has a few inches on Bush and will tower over him, a visual that will likely please Democrats.

3. Can Kerry dumb it down?

Kerry needs to stop saying stuff like “If the American people want to know where I stand on this issue, I will tell them clearly and without hesitation…” First of all, stop announcing what you are about to tell us. Second, just saying that something will be clear and forthright does not mean that the next few words that come out of your mouth will be clear and forthright by definition. Kerry cannot change over night but hopefully he can be more direct and easy going than usual.

4. Who will spin the press better?

The winner of the debate is usually anointed by the media sometime after they decide what storyline works best for tomorrow’s news. The two campaigns will both have their chance to work the press, but Kerry’s team has media savvy aide Joe Lockhart which should help.

5. Will there be a “gotcha” moment?

Democrats are hoping for something big here. This is Kerry’s first real chance to catch Bush in a lie, a delusion, or misstatement. Don’t hold your breath. Bush is nothing if not on message. He knows his limits and will avoid getting dragged into anything too complicated by Kerry. He will respond to Kerry’s detailed criticisms with broad generalities and frustrate any attempt to use statistics by obfuscating the issues with some strange but genuine non-sequiturs. Democrats will be frustrated to no end by this, but there is a reason that this guy has never lost a debate.

So, in the end, don’t expect to learn anything new from the debates. And please, don’t keep score. Just watch, enjoy, and read the paper the next day to find out who won.



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