A Matter of Debates
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Now that the schedule and format for the three presidential debates appears to be set, the conventional wisdom seems to be that President Bush won the debate about the debates by a small margin, much like many predictions of how he will fare against John Kerry on Nov. 2.
Sure, Bush gave up on his demand to have just two debates, but insider accounts suggest his representatives, led by James Baker III, didn't really put up much of a fight on this front, so it can't be that much of a loss. This seems more like one of those things you give up in a negotiation to get something else.
So what did Bush get? Two things. One, the first, and typically most watched, debate will focus on foreign policy and national security, issues where polls show he has a solid advantage over Kerry, and which voters typically trust Republicans more than Democrats.
Two, the "town hall" format of the second debate will be heavily regulated. The regular folks asking questions will have to submit their questions in advance to the moderator; the audience will be comprised of either "soft" Bush or "soft" Kerry supporters instead of pure undecideds; and there will be no follow-up questions.
(Microphones will be cut off immediately after the question is asked, and then presumably some UPenn thug – not to be confused with the three Quaker grads that edit and produce Gadflyer – will drag the miscreant out by the hair and beat them to a bloody pulp.)
While it's true that these things may be advantageous to Bush, it's also quite possible that this may be a case of "be careful what you wish for."
Whose bar is set low this time?
Start with the first debate on security and foreign affairs, slated to be in Coral Gables, Fla. True, these are issues voters think Republicans are better at handling than Democrats, and on which they have more confidence in Bush than in Kerry. Bush will no doubt pound Kerry as a flip-flopper too indecisive to lead the country in wartime. And no one – not the White House, not voters, and certainly not the press – thinks Kerry can offer a concise, coherent explanation for his seemingly contradictory positions on the war in Iraq over the last two years.
And therein lays his opening. Despite the fact that debates are the most substantive moments in a presidential campaign, the best chance for voters to really learn something from the candidates about what kind of leader they would be, the press doesn't report on any of that. Instead, they play the "expectations game," reducing their post-debate analysis to who "won" or "lost" instead of whether what they said made any sense.
In this case, it would be difficult for the bar to be set any lower for Kerry. The consensus is that he has already proven that he simply cannot give a direct answer on Iraq.
But as President Bush knows better than anyone, exceeding what might be called the soft bigotry of low media expectations is remarkably easy and pays huge dividends politically.
After all, the one question that will define this debate is the one Kerry knows is coming: How do you reconcile your vote giving the President war authority with your vote against funding that effort, or your statement in August that you'd still make the initial vote if you had it to do over again with your comment on the Imus show that there is no circumstance in which this war was worth fighting?
But precisely because he knows it's coming, Kerry should have an answer. Frankly, I'm not sure what it could be, or how he could reduce it to a soundbite as he will have to. But Kerry has proven in the past – notably during his hotly contested race for reelection against William Weld in 1996 – that he can be a highly skilled communicator during a debate.
Let's be clear: The August comment seemingly contradicting his entire critique of Bush's waging war in Iraq could be enough to cost Kerry the election. The Coral Gables forum is thus quite simply his last, best chance - before the largest audience he will ever get - to explain himself, offer a reasonable alternative plan for Iraq and the war on terror, and prove to voters he's capable of being commander in chief.
If he doesn't pull it off, the election truly could be over. But if he does, if he answers that one question deftly, he will have "won" the debate by exceeding media expectations.
At that point the debate could become Bush's worst nightmare. In addition to being about expectations, debates come down to which candidate rises above the negative stereotype hung on them by the press and their opponent, and which one has that image reinforced. Swatting away the "flip-flopper" label would allow Kerry to turn the attention on Bush, casting him as a stubborn Pollyanna who misled the American people and has tragically mismanaged not one, but two wars.
Make no mistake, the president is very vulnerable on this point. Polls show voters know Iraq is a mess and think Bush is responsible. Only a small minority think he's telling them the truth about the situation. Yet Bush's comments on Iraq of late are so wildly optimistic he runs the risk of opening a credibility gap between his rosy portrait and what people know to be true.
This became glaringly obvious on Wednesday when Bush gave his upbeat speech to the United Nations at virtually the same time terrorists beheaded the second American hostage in two days.
Bush hasn't had to face tough questions about these things (or anything else) on the campaign trail, where his audiences are carefully screened to make sure he isn't challenged. In these situations he's looked smooth and relaxed, leading to fawning media stories about how he's "hit his stride."
But this lack of practice dealing with pointed questions could backfire on him. We got a glimpse of this Wednesday when reporters asked him about the criticisms of his Iraq policy by conservative Republican Sens. Chuck Hagel, John McCain and Richard Lugar, and a gloomy CIA report on the future of Iraq. Bush's response to the former was pique and obfuscation: Both men "want me elected," as if that was the issue.
His answer to the latter bordered on delusion: "The CIA laid out several scenarios and said life could be lousy, life could be okay, and life could be better." In fact, the options were "tenuous stability," "further fragmentation and extremism," and "civil war." Merely lousy would be a dramatic improvement on any of these.
If Kerry can bring out in Bush this combination of belligerent tone and fantastical disconnect from reality it will be the president that looks foolish and will thus be playing defense into the next debate.
That match-up, tentatively scheduled for St. Louis, has been stripped of the kind of true spontaneous give and take that tripped up Bush's father in 1992 (where he got peevish with a questioner and looked at his watch twice to see how much longer he had to endure "10 more minutes of this crap" as he later described it). And the apple doesn't fall far from the tree: the only debate Bush lost to Al Gore in 2000 was the one in which ordinary folks were allowed to grill the candidates.
Which raises an interesting point about these debates missed by many analysts. Recent research shows that Gore drew on the momentum from his "win" in that third and final debate in 2000 to surge from a solid deficit to a popular vote victory over Bush. Why? In large part because that debate focused on domestic issues, especially Social Security, that typically favor Democrats.
Gore spent the last two weeks of that campaign attacking Bush on Social Security, and received an accompanying windfall of largely positive news stories. Unfortunately for him, that coverage only served to boost his support in non-battleground states. Bush ran many more ads than Gore did in the competitive states and, studies show, thus won the Electoral College.
(Apologies to those who think that last sentence is based on a false premise.)
This year the last debate, although not a town hall format, will reportedly also focus on domestic issues. Assuming Kerry is still in the race, this could be a huge advantage: These are precisely the issues that favor Democrats and on which polls show Kerry has an advantage over Bush. If, like Gore, he can dominate that discussion and then parlay that win into two weeks of keeping the campaign agenda on his terms, he will have the advantage going into Election Day.
(And Democrats appear able to at least keep pace with GOP advertising in battlegrounds the final two weeks, so we shouldn't see a repeat of Gore's mistake in 2000.)
To put this in horse-race terms reporters would understand, this means the debates come down to this: Bush is hoping for a quick knockout, exposing Kerry as a hopeless flip-flopper in front of probably the largest audience of the campaign. But if Kerry can give a succinct and believable answer to just one question – how do you reconcile all of these apparent contradictions? – he will be in perfect position to put the President on the defensive and seize the advantage for the final month of the election.
Sean Aday is a Senior Editor at the Gadflyer.