Spinning W's Debate

The last thing I expected on Debate Night was to bond psychically with MSNBC blowhard Chris Matthews.

Not long after the clash between Al Gore and George W. Bush had ended, Matthews was telling anchor Brian Williams that Gore had won big-time, as Bush's running mate, Dick Cheney, might put it. "I have to say he dominated the debate," said Matthews, a world-class Clinton-basher who is no fan of the vice-president's. Matthews even went so far as to assert that Bush showed he has "a little bit of Michael Dukakis in him" by letting Gore's broadsides on his tax proposal and his prescription-drug plan go unanswered.

Matthews, in other words, had watched the same debate I'd just watched. As for the majority of the punditocracy - who gravely intoned that Bush had held his own, that he'd shown he has the stature to be president, and that he came off as more affable than Gore - well, maybe I just don't get it. "I thought Gore won the debate," an obviously disgusted Matthews repeated just before MSNBC went off the air for the night, "but that doesn't seem to be the scorecard anymore."

To be sure, Matthews wasn't alone. On the Internet, in particular, Bush came in for some harsh assessments. In a piece titled "Boston Massacre," Slate's Jacob Weisberg wrote: "Bush got his clock cleaned. . . . I don't think Bush won a single exchange all evening." Conservatives, presumably Bush supporters, were especially nasty. On National Review Online, Ramesh Ponnuru put it this way: "Al Gore was at his obnoxious best . . . And he won the debate." Added the Weekly Standard's Christopher Caldwell, "It was a bloodbath. Never has a presidential candidate entered a debate with lower expectations than George W. Bush. He managed to fall short of them."

But that wasn't the consensus in the mainstream media. Rather, what quickly emerged as the correct view was that Gore had probably beaten Bush on debating points; that Bush had nevertheless established enough of a presence, a projection of gravitas, if you will, to show that he belonged on the same stage as Gore; and that, in contrast to Gore's smarmy, supercilious performance, Bush managed to connect with viewers by coming off as an ordinary guy. "Gore may have won on substance, but Bush clearly won on style," said David Gergen on ABC's Nightline. Added CNN's Bill Schneider: "More people feel comfortable with George Bush." (Obligatory plug for open debates: maybe the commentariat wouldn't have felt obliged to score the outcome on the basis of such ephemera if candidates with genuine differences on the issues - that is, Ralph Nader, Pat Buchanan, and Harry Browne - had been allowed on stage. As it turned out, Nader wasn't even allowed inside the media center.)

Leaving aside the matter of whether it's possible to win style points for going into occasional brainlock, and why people feel comfortable with a potential president who comes off as pretty damn limited, the post-debate spin reveals some interesting things about the media.

First of all, the press wants to be seen as fair above all else. Thus, absent some unusually addled gaffe tumbling from Bush's mouth, there wasn't a chance that a serious commentator - as opposed to the buffoonish Matthews or the online pundits - was going to whack Bush for his abysmal performance. The media had fed expectations that Bush might actually start drooling at the podium, so the fact that Bush came off as an adult - if not an especially bright or well-informed one - was enough to declare the debate a virtual tie.

Take, for instance, the lead of John Harris's unintentionally (I guess) condescending lead to his Washington Post analysis: "Republican George W. Bush did not bobble the names of foreign leaders, lose his train of thought in the middle of some policy discourse or seem like an impostor of a candidate . . . To the contrary, he took some punches and gave some back in return, becoming especially spirited when the discussion turned to the tax cuts and the education plans at the heart of his agenda." Well, let's award little George an "E" for effort, shall we? Even more stunning, in a way, was what Reagan-era transportation secretary Drew Lewis said of his man Bush. "I was pleasantly surprised by how well Bush handled his material," Lewis told the New York Times' Johnny Apple. "He wasn't overwhelmed at all."

Second, the media, terrified of leading public opinion, slavishly follows it, no matter how doltish or ill-informed it may be. Two snap polls showed the public thought both candidates had done well, with respondents to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup survey finding that Gore had won, 48 percent to 41 percent, and ABC News reporting that Bush had won, 48 percent to 45 percent. (CBS News's quickie poll, putting Gore up by a substantial 56 percent to 42 percent, was the exception.) These mixed verdicts - hardly a surprise, since they mirror the results of recent presidential-preference polls - were reinforced by shockingly ignorant focus groups of undecided voters assembled by CNN and MSNBC. (I might have missed one or two, since the cable company in my blighted community doesn't carry the Fox News Channel.) For example, on MSNBC, a young African-American man who had favored Gore came away leaning toward Bush because Gore "didn't come across as the type of leader I was expecting to see." Thanks for sharing. Never mind that Gore came across exactly the way he has come across his entire career. Indeed, as Frank Bruni noted in the Times, Gore even continued his rich tradition of invoking tragic moments in the lives of family members, this time an uncle who had supposedly been gassed by the Germans in World War I.

With vox populi sputtering stupidly, the pundits apparently believed they had to follow suit. Good thing they didn't in 1976, when the first snap polls showed Gerald Ford had beaten Jimmy Carter, despite Ford's liberating Poland from Soviet domination approximately 14 years too soon, or 1984, when the public initially handed victory to Ronald Reagan over Walter Mondale even though Reagan had exhibited all the early signs of Alzheimer's disease. In the matter of Gore versus Bush, you could make a solid argument that, rather than trying to figure out why viewers thought Bush had held his own, the media could perform a greater public service by explaining why they were wrong. Surely that would be better than this, from the Boston Globe's estimable David Shribman: "The public saw two men whose eyes, gestures, and manner suggested that they were ready, willing, and maybe even able to take command, not only in the pastoral duties of the president but also in the persuasive, even evangelical role." I want to know what channel Shribman was watching.

Another explanation for the media's and public's wrongheaded view of the outcome is the curious role of presidential debates. On the one hand, most viewers - 83 percent, according to a survey released on Tuesday by Harvard's Vanishing Voter Project - say they've already made up their minds, and that it's "not at all" likely they'll change their vote as a result of anything that happens during the debates. On the other hand, for a public that is increasingly disengaged from politics, the debates are the first occasion that tens of millions of people have seen the candidates for more than a few seconds on the news or in a commercial. To such casual observers, Bush's attempting to parry Gore's very specific criticisms by accusing him of using "fuzzy math" may have seemed quite a bit more clever than it should have.

Yet if the public's inattention to politics helped Bush during the debate, he also failed pretty miserably when it came to exploiting that reality. Gore, knowing that he was reaching a far bigger audience than he did in his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, recycled his best lines - the ones about not being an exciting politician, about being willing to fight, and the like. No doubt he would have arranged to French-kiss Tipper again if he could have. By contrast, Bush delivered a flat closing statement that drew nothing from his own effective convention speech. What's more, in talking about education (an area in which he actually did okay, sort of), Bush never used a phrase he has repeated countless times, to much smaller audiences, during the campaign - "the soft bigotry of low expectations," which is a wonderfully lyrical way of charging liberals with hurting minority kids by not holding them to high standards; never mind whether it's true or not. Bush also let Gore invoke the still-popular John McCain's name so frequently it was beginning to look like McCain had supplanted Joe Lieberman on the Democratic ticket. You might think Bush would have had the wit to work in, at least once, the news that McCain has endorsed him. Apparently not.

Of course, the way Gore-Bush I is perceived could change over the next few days. In Northeastern University journalism professor Alan Schroeder's new book, Presidential Debates: Forty Years of High-Risk TV (Columbia University Press), Washington Post political reporter David Broder talks about the key moments of past debates - and about how surprised he's often been by what those moments turn out to be, such as Ronald Reagan telling Jimmy Carter "There you go again," or George Bush Sr. looking at his watch. His point was that the key moments are not always apparent at the time but, rather, often take a day or two to congeal. At this writing - about 6 a.m. on Wednesday - it may still be too soon to tell.

Maybe, if we're lucky, the spin will settle on what the candidates actually said. My favorite post-debate media sighting was something called "Debate Referee," on WashingtonPost.com. Inserted into the text of the debate was a series of hyperlinks; when you clicked, you received a short explanation by Charles Babington showing exactly how someone had strayed from the truth. For instance, Babington noted that Gore, despite his denials during the debate's opening moments, really had questioned Bush's experience in an interview with the New York Times; and that when Bush claimed he would not favor ordering the Food and Drug Administration to revisit its approval of the abortion pill RU-486, he was contradicting a position his spokesman had articulated just several days earlier. Now there's some useful debate spin. (MSNBC did something similar but less thorough, with Lisa Myers heading up the "Truth Squad.")

It's more likely, though, that the Broder moment will turn out to be something unimportant, even ridiculous. My nominee: Gore's heavy breathing. During the debate, I heard someone take a breath on several occasions. I didn't think anything of it, and I certainly gave no thought to who it might be. Yet those infernal focus groups settled on that as evidence that Gore was being disrespectful and overly aggressive. Brian Williams laughed at the absurdity of it, yet saw fit to mention it several times.

For the media, it would be the perfect outcome to a debate they don't seem to know how to evaluate: take a guy who battered his opponent on the issues for 90 minutes and pronounce him the loser because he sighed in exasperation.

Now that's what I would call fuzzy math.

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