Someone suggested that I should write something about the upcoming presidential debates that draws on my background as a debate judge, coach and theorist (yes, there is actually such a thing as debate theory and I’ve actually published on it). It brought to mind 1988, when I was in college and coaching a high school debate team, and the Detroit News asked me and a couple of other coaches to evaluate the Bush the Elder vs. Michael Dukakis debates. I said much the same thing then as I do now, which is that they’re really not debates at all. At very best, they are little more than simultaneous press briefings. There is virtually no interaction between the candidates, who merely repeat the pre-scripted answers that their handlers have given them. Much has been made of the fact that the debates can make a major difference in swaying the all-important swing voters who are still undecided, and that is certainly true. But it should also be recognized that those undecided folks whose votes are determined by the debates are rarely swayed by well thought out and detailed policy positions given during the debates (because, of course, there are none), but by primarily superficial things that happen during the debate. The campaign strategists all recognize this fact, which is why the negotiations for such debates focus on seemingly inane factors.
In the negotiations between the two campaigns, all sorts of things that the public never thinks about consciously were matters of much yelling and screaming and compromising, reflected in a 30-some page document that spells out how the debates will be administered down to the last detail. They negotiate not only the format of the debate, but such details as who will moderate them, how long the answers can be, whether the questions will be known in advance, and even the height of the podiums and the temperature of the room. Temperature, you say? Yep. John Kerry has been known to sweat more than Bush, so the Kerry team insisted that the room be kept at 70 degrees, while the Bush team wanted it a bit warmer, both remembering the disaster of Richard Nixon’s debate with JFK in 1960. The Bush team won on that one. The size of the podiums is important because Kerry is taller than Bush, and height is a key factor in the primal evaluation of alpha male traits. The Kerry team wanted more debates, the Bush team wanted fewer. That’s standard – the team in the lead always wants fewer debates, which means less risk of saying something really stupid, while the team that is behind wants as many as they can get to increase that risk.
The Kerry team also wanted one of the debates to be “town hall” format, where questions are taken from the audience. Why is this important? Because Bush is notoriously bad at extemperaneous speaking and audience members are more likely to ask an unexpected question than a moderator from the major media is. So the Bush team agreed to one town hall style debate, but insisted that the questions had to be submitted in advance and that the moderator would cut off the person asking the question if they deviated from the text that they had submitted before the show begins. And yes, I find it frightening that the most powerful man in the world cannot be allowed to speak for 2 minutes without a teleprompter lest he say something boneheaded and incoherent. I find it even more frightening that so many people seem not to be bothered in the least by it.
The political wrangling over the details of the debate pales in comparison to the political spin that goes on both before and after the debates. The Bush people are out in force today trying to lower expectations. The standard line is something like, “The President wasn’t a champion debater in high school and college like Senator Kerry was, but he welcomes the opportunity to talk directly to the American people.” But in point of fact, Bush is very effective in such situations, primarily because his handlers have learned how to phrase his answers to take advantage of the weaknesses of someone like John Kerry. Kerry is a guy who sees nuances in things, and combined with his political cowardice (Kerry is probably the single most spineless politician I’ve ever seen), this leads him to give long answers that lead people to ask, “What exactly did he mean by that?” at the end. Bush is the ideal person to draw a contrast to that and his speechwriters have taken full advantage of the fact that people don’t view him as being a complicated guy. They phrase every answer in pseudo-populist everyman language – “Now I may not have the fancy education that my opponent has, but I know right and wrong when I see it” – and that is reassuring to the public, which doesn’t like people who talk down to them, even if they deserve to be talked down to.
The intelligentsia makes fun of Bush’s cowboy image, but that image is carefully crafted and quite intentional on the part of the Bush team (they didn’t buy the ranch until 1999, folks. You don’t really think that Bush likes to get out there and slop the hogs and move the hay around, do you?). Cowboys are an archetype, one with alpha male appeal, and that’s exactly what people are drawn to when they feel unsafe. The flip side of that is how successful they have been at feminizing John Kerry, who, as Aaron Magruder pointed out last week, might as well show up for the debates in a bra and panties. The fact that a former male cheerleader cum high society dilettante has managed to paint himself as the tough guy while a guy who got awards for valor during the Vietnam war is made to look, to quote Magruder again, “like a little bitch” is testament to the power of skilled campaign consultants and their political marketing campaigns. But you will certainly see more of the same thing tomorrow night and throughout the three debates. If Kerry manages to change his image and sound decisive and iron-willed, he can win and he can swing some votes his way. If he doesn’t manage to do that, I predict a fairly easy win for Bush in November.