Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Roger on strategy for the debates

Dear Ed,

Now we turn our attention to the presidential debates to be held in a month or two. How many will there be? Between whom? How will they be structured? Who will moderate? What will the concession stand out in the lobby be selling?

Paul Waldman of The Gadflyer posted about this the other day. Because he sets the scene quite well, let me reprint a bit of it here, and then offer a modest suggestion afterward.

It may seem early for this, but we've gotten at least one hint of the Bush-Cheney debate strategy: they'll be doing exactly what they did in 2000. [...] What [can we see based on the evidence so far]? That Bush doesn't want to debate? Hardly. Rather, it tells us that Bush wants people to think he doesn't want to debate.

Here's how the strategy works:

1. Drag out the negotiations over the terms of the debates in order to convince reporters that you're terrified you're going to lose the debates.

2. Propose fewer debates than the other side wants, in order to convince reporters that you're terrified you're going to lose the debates.

3. Start talking about what a mediocre debater your guy is.

4. In progressively ridiculous terms, talk about how great a debater your opponent is.

It worked in 2000, so why wouldn't it work again?

In order to save myself some typing, I offer this excerpt from my book about the President:

The press accepted two premises in setting expectations for the first debate, neither of which was true: 1) Bush was both inexperienced and unskilled at debating; and 2) Gore was an extraordinarily skilled debater. Bush aide Karen Hughes called Gore "the best debater in politics today," a laughable assertion but one bested only by aide Karl Rove, who called Gore "the world's most preeminent debater, a man who is more proficient at hand-to-hand debate combat than anybody the world has ever seen." Similarly, Time magazine described Gore as "one of the most effective debaters on the political scene," while the New York Times said, "Mr. Gore is a far more accomplished debater than Mr. Bush." "Gore, a seasoned debater, is widely expected to have the upper hand when he faces off with Bush, who has gained a reputation for vocabulary flubs and speech stumbles while on the campaign trail," said the UPI. In fact, Bush had participated in debates in both his gubernatorial races and the presidential primary campaign, and in not a single case did he utter a terrible gaffe or acquit himself so poorly as to indicate a lack of debating skill. Gore's performance in debates in which he had participated, on the other hand, was competent but never spectacular. Though he had bested Ross Perot in a debate on Larry King's television show, his performance in the vice-presidential debates of 1992 and 1996 was barely satisfactory, and he was nowhere near as skilled as Bill Clinton.
And here we go again. Expect to hear Ken Mehlman, Karl Rove, and the rest of the gang begin to go on and on about how John Kerry's debate skills make him a breathtaking combination of John F. Kennedy and Clarence Darrow. If reporters buy it (and I'm guessing they will), expectations for Kerry will be unusually high, and expectations for Bush will be unusually low. And after the debates are over, all reporters will care about is who did or didn't meet the largely arbitrary expectations that were set for them.

Waldman goes on to cite, approvingly, a recent article in The Atlantic Monthly by James Fallows, in which Fallows notes that he was surprised -- after viewing videos of old Kerry debates -- to realize that he was "sorry when they were finished, because it was a treat to see this man perform." (About how I've long felt about listening to Bill Clinton take on an issue during informal interviews). Fallows says that Bush is impressive for sticking like glue to his main points, but it's boring to watch. But, "Kerry under pressure was engrossing in a way that reminded me of climatic scene in a Scott Turow novel, in which a skillful prosecutor eventually traps an evasive witness. You could see him maneuvering, thinking, adjusting, attacking, applying both knowledge and logic, and generally coming out ahead." He added, "Kerry was usually effective without being ugly or unfair. Kerry's lightness of touch, compared with Bush's relentless plodding, is a surprise considering what we all know about their backgrounds."

Now this is very interesting, and it gives rise in my mind to an interesting tactic that Senator Kerry and his campaign people might like to adopt. The fun thing about this is that it ought to work even if the Bush people happened to ALSO read this blog, and recognized that the Kerry team was doing it. They'd have almost no defense.

First, let's look at the obvious defenses the Kerry campaign might mount in this "war of expectations." On one hand, his campaign people could start putting out the word that Bush is really a far better debater than he's frequently given credit for. Two gubernatorial campaigns, and the 2000 primaries and general campaign, all featured him in debates, and he held his own without gaffes or straying off message. This is absolutely true, and if widely discussed could raise expectations for Bush: "If he just holds his own, he's not really rising to the challenge of this unique situation where he's about to be defeated and removed from the White House." There's nothing wrong, and possibly much right, with this tactic, and the Kerry people should be doing it.

The other side of the coin would be to try to minimize expectations about Kerry's debate skills. But that, I think, is a hopeless cause. No one would believe it, and Fallows' own words are a perfect example. The record of Kerry-as-excellent-debater already exists -- it's true, he IS a good debater. So trying to reduce expectations for Kerry in the debates is probably not only unlikely to work, it could actually backfire precisely because it's so obviously untrue.

That's why Kerry's campaign should instead adopt a tactic of jujitso, of using an opponent's own strengths against him. In this case, the Bush Campaign's well-oiled system for putting their preferred view out into the mainstream media. Since you're not going to stop that meme from popping up everywhere, embrace it. In ways big and small, make it well known that -- indeed -- Kerry IS an incredible debater.

For one thing, this is sure to unnerve Bush and Rove. They know that Kerry knows what their strategy is. If he suddenly seems to be helping them in their strategy ... well, they're going to wonder what the hell is up.

But, of course, there will be something more going on. Even as Kerry surrogates spread the word about their guy's incredible debating skills, they need to spread another meme as well: some terrible fault that Kery has as a debater, something that if he can't control will hurt him bad. In truth, it has to be something that he can easily avoid ... and which, on cue, every Democratic advocate will start pointing at the instant each debate is over. Fallows gives us a clue what one such thing might be: Kerry is, he says, "usually effective without being ugly." Okay, fine, so the story that goes out is that Kerry is a former prosecutor and was trained -- TRAINED -- to be ruthless, to humiliate his opponent, to tear him down, to be "ugly" at times. But this isn't who Kerry is as a man, and so he's really working hard to restrain himself, to see if he can get through this debate without going nuclear. And, of course, he WILL get through the debates without being "ugly." Thus will he exceed expectations in his own way.

Now maybe this "being mean in debates" handle isn't the best one to use. Even as I'm writing this, I'm having doubts about it. But if the handle isn't right, the overall tactic may well still be. Find something that Kerry can use as a sign to observers that he's "in control," and "performing better than anyone who's watched him over the years would have expected." It's not that this is the most desirable situation, but -- again -- there's no way that Kerry is going to go into these debates viewed as any kind of verbal underdog.

(Or, maybe Kerry can figure out a way to use Bush's tenacious single-mindedness about staying "on message" against him. That won't be easy, unfortunately, since Bush's strategy is effective in great part because dimwitted single-mindedness really DOES resonate with millions of citizens as being, somehow, a good quality.)

Of course, there is one other thing Kerry can do: go into the debates and pulverize Bush. Just mop the floor with him! Make W look like a sissy and brain-dead dimwit. Perform, in short, way beyond expectations ... and decimate Bush so thoroughly that no one can doubt who won the debate.

-- Roger

[I have mixed feelings about the whole debate thing. I was aware that the GOP had lowered expectations for Bush in 2000, so that by just not gibbering like an idiot Bush was credited with a win, but I was relatively unaware that they were also behind the whole "Gore is a great debater" meme, and I accepted that as given, as did, I think, most of my liberal e-mail correspondants. But even without that, based on Bush's obvious problems in communicating anything more complicated than the contents of the back of a book of matches, I fully expected Gore to clean Bush's clock, but it didn't turn out that way.

Gore was obviously much more knowledgeable and on top of the issues, but his demeanor was pretty annoying and I think one had to be already committed to him in order to accept inviting this guy into one's house for four years of speeches, press conferences and soundbytes. I scored the debates as wins for Gore, but, especially in retrospect, I can see where scoring them for Bush made sense on a level having nothing to do with communicating ideas and policy.

I think things are different this time. I don't think that the GOP is going to be able to dumb down expectations for Bush, because everyone pretty much knows by now exactly what (very low) level of discourse he's capable of, and they either accept that in him, or they don't. I'm also not sure that they can simultaneously pump up Kerry's debating skills and keep the "flip-flopper" meme going as well, as they seem in many ways antithetical to each other. (In fact, the whole Bush campaign against Kerry seems scattershot and not integrated, the equivalent of throwing a lot of stuff against the wall and seeing what sticks.)

The idea of political jujitsu is great, using Bush's assumed strengths against him, but (as you say) it difficult to know what the best affordance is to accomplish that. Kerry's advantage is that he's as conversant with the issues as Gore was (and Bush has probably not became any better than he was), but he's less obviously wonkish than Gore, and therefore (despite his well-known personality deficits) has something of an advantage in that respect, at least in relation to Gore's disadvantage. Whether that's enough to blow Bush away, I'm not sure, but I'm heartened when I hear from those who've lived through Kerry's campaigns in Massachusetts how good he really is at debating, and how, in general, strong he is at closing the campaign.

We also have to take into account the differences between the message Bush was "staying on" 4 years ago, and the message he's "staying on" now. Back then, he was the "compassionate conservative" advocating a "humble foreign policy" and promising to return our money (i.e. federal tax dollars) to us. He can hardly cloak himself in those ideas now, and has to go with "we've turned the corner" and "let's stay the course" which are inherently less appealing to most people, because they don't promise change, just a continuation of the status quo. Even people who support Bush's policies can't be entirely thrilled about that, since the status quo (war in Iraq, isolation from the world, economy not doing all that well, constant fear of terrorist attacks) just isn't all that great.

Knowing what we know about Bush now, we can see that his message in 2000 was a variation on the Big Lie, and I think he and Rove will be inclined to do that again, but the Big Lie is harder to accomplish when people have lived through what you're trying to deny.

(Incidentally, the Commission on Presidential Debates website has more info on what the outstanding debate proposals are: formats, sites, dates and moderators.) -- Ed]

Ed Fitzgerald | 8/18/2004 08:56:00 PM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


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