Presidential Debates

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.


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You're definitely right in your analysis. I've been holding out hope that Kerry gets his act together by tomorrow, but I don't think it will come as any surprise that my expectations are not high. I was only eight in 1988, but I still remember the Dukakis/Bush Sr. disaster. This is all feeling disturbingly similar. If Kerry keeps going as he is now, I expect him to lose to Bush by at least 15-20 percentage points. Considering how long the race has been virtually tied, this would be utter humiliation for the democrats.

By Chris Berez (not verified) on 29 Sep 2004 #permalink

As a current debate coach, I agree wholeheartedly. If Bush got up and started ranting about "kritiks," or Kerry cited a "counterplan," Nader would actually have a chance.

LOL Jim. I'm actually going down this weekend to judge my first debate tournament in about 12 years. When I quit, kritiks were just coming in to use (Jon Brody of Kincaid was the first to do one that I can remember, which would have been around 1990). I've been studying up on some of the changes that have happened since I stopped coaching so I can at least give a rational answer when teams ask about my judging philosophy.
I don't have a problem with kritiks as an argument form, but I don't imagine I'm likely to find a really general kritik compelling. Make it specific to the topic, say hegemony or new world order, and there's solid ground for argument. But I don't wanna hear about Heidegger or Foucault in a policy debate.

So they're going to take a randomly drawn questions from a set of previously submitted questions?

Ed, when you sit down to judge your first policy round, I think you will be, um, surprised.

Crazy stuff is all over the field. If you see a "performance Neg," let me know.

Crazy stuff is all over the field. If you see a "performance Neg," let me know.
Oh, my buddy who is running this tournament took his team to Wake Forest a couple weeks ago and he saw a poetry aff. I'm putting that right in my up-front judging philosophy before the round - "I'm a policy maker judge. I have no problem being tabula rasa about the substantive arguments, but not about the activity of debate itself. If you want to do dramatic interp, go do dramatic interp, but don't do it during a debate round or you're going to lose."
Does your team travel nationally at all? I'm thinking I may go down and judge the Glenbrooks later in the season as well. I have good memories of that tournament.

Right now I'm listening to the debate.

So far the answers bear little relationship to the questions.

They seem to be listening to some key word and then going into some canned response.

Ouch....Kerry just tried a joke and it was bad.

Jim Lehrer: What misjudgements has Bush made?

Kerry: Where do you want me to begin?

"Kritiks?" Is there a blog or website that explains this crumbling of a once-noble enterprise?

I regard my days in competitive forensics as my real education. But when I started, we were still in Vietnam, and the first topic I debated was the draft (and a proposal for universal service of some sort). We were debating our immediate future.

By Ed Darrell (not verified) on 30 Sep 2004 #permalink

Gotta say I'm pleasantly surprised. Looks like Kerry did O.K. after all is said and done, after a bit of a shaky start. Not brilliant, but positively aglow next to GWB. I think Bush's lack of practice in non-scripted events (even though this one was scripted as much as possible) hurt him. That's what you get for not holding press conferences. If Kerry keeps it up, there might be an actual contest come November.