Wednesday, September 8, 2004

Debate Prep

James Fallows has a fascinating look into the debate styles of George W. Bush and John Kerry in the July issue of The Atlantic Monthly (subscription required). He details the evolution – or the devolution – of Bush’s debate style from the time he was a candidate for governor of Texas in 1994 to his campaign in 2000 and his current SNL-caricature-generating tortured thrashing of the language. In the 1994 debate with incumbent Ann Richards, Bush was articulate, on-point, and always able to turn the question to his advantage.

He spoke quickly and easily. He rattled off complicated sentences and brought them to the right grammatical conclusions. He mishandled a word or two (“million” when he clearly meant “billion”; “stole” when he meant “sold”), but fewer than most people would in an hour’s debate. More striking, he did not pause before forcing out big words, as he so often does now, or invent mangled new ones. “To lay out my juvenile-justice plan in a minute and a half is a hard task, but I will try to do so,” he said fluidly and with a smile midway through the debate, before beginning to list his principles.

Richards’s main line of attack—in fact, her only one—was that Bush had done so poorly in a series of businesses that he would be over his head as governor. Each time she tried this, Bush calmly said, “I think this is a diversion away from talking about the issues that face Texas”—which led him right back to the items on his stump speech (“I want to discuss welfare, education. I want to discuss the juvenile-justice system …”). When talking about schools he said, “I think the mission in education ought to be excellence in literature, math, science, and social science”—an ordinary enough thought, but one delivered with an offhand fluency I do not remember his ever showing at a presidential press conference. When Richards was asked about permitting casino gambling, she replied with a convoluted, minutes-long answer with details about Indian tribal rights. Bush, when asked the same question, had simply said, “I’m against casino gambling”—and when asked, after Richards’s discourse, if he wanted to elaborate, said, “Not really.” For years I had been told by people who knew Bush from business school or from Texas politics that he was keenly smart—though perhaps in a way that didn’t come across in his public statements. Perhaps! The man on the debate platform looked and sounded smart and in control. If you had to guess which of the two candidates had won the debate scholarship to college and was about to win the governorship, you would choose Bush.

So what happened in the intervening years? How did this apparently intelligent, engaged, and (gasp!) nuanced candidate turn into Gabby Hayes? Could it be something organic? (In a letter to the editor of The Atlantic, a neurologist speculates that it could be the onset of pre-senile dementia – a form of Alzheimer’s. That’s fascinating, but a little far-fetched without any other evidence.) Or could it be that being the governor of Texas doesn’t require much more than canned responses and stump speeches, as opposed to being the President of the United States.

John Kerry’s debating skills are well known. He has a record as an articulate and persuasive speaker, a skill honed over thirty years of public speaking and his career as a prosecutor. His most famous debates were those with William Weld in the 1996 senate race in Massachusetts.

In some ways Weld and Kerry were absurdly similar. Both were aristocratic-sounding, though only Weld came from a rich family. They were the same imposing height and nearly the same age. They had grown up eyeing each other as rivals in Massachusetts politics, and their showdown had the jocular, insider quality of a Harvard-Yale football game. “I brought silver golf markers to one of our debates—an H and a Y,” Weld told me when I visited him recently at his offices in New York, where he is an investment consultant. Kerry was Mr. Yale of his era; Weld’s family is so closely connected to Harvard that a dorm, a boathouse, and an endowed chair are named Weld. “I handed him the Y and held on to the H, and I said, ‘Let’s go play a round when this is all done.'” Both men were very sure of their ability to think on their feet.

[…]

“He is an acrobat,” Weld told [Fallows], summing up Kerry’s performance in the debates. “He is well informed, and he’s not easily stampeded. And he is very, very quick. Don’t think for a moment that he and I did not throw eighty-five surprise kitchen sinks at each other in the course of eight debates. And I don’t recall him ever getting flustered or ever being seriously thrown off his pins.” Kerry’s performance is remarkably consistent—question by question, debate by debate, year by year. Few dramatic highs, but even fewer embarrassing lows.

“I’ve wondered in the past whether, outside New England, Senator Kerry’s voice would strike people as too aristocratic in tone or choice of words,” Weld said. “I wondered whether because of that he was ever going to travel in the South or the Bible Belt. But certainly in the Democratic primaries that issue seemed to be behind him. If anything, he came across as the tough guy. Good tough, not bad tough.”

Weld’s question gets to the heart of the challenge for John Kerry in these debates—indeed, in the campaign as a whole. That is, the challenge of making people like him. George W. Bush has barely even tried to convince voters that he is the master of details or policy. But he has consistently and effectively conveyed two more-basic themes: that he will be strong—or “resolute,” as he often puts it—in defending the nation; and that he is a likeable man. Few find him as likeable as, say, Ronald Reagan; and a significant fraction of the public does not like him one bit. But enough Americans like him sufficiently to have kept his job-approval ratings high throughout his Administration, despite obvious problems with the economy and in Iraq.

John Kerry will leave no one wondering whether he is in command of details and policy. Sitting through his debate tapes was like watching a multi-day champion knock off challengers on Jeopardy. However obscure the topic, he had a policy—and a criticism of his opponent’s. But Democrats are well aware that although expertise was part of Bill Clinton’s appeal, it is not enough by itself. It didn’t save Jimmy Carter against Ronald Reagan, or Michael Dukakis against the first George Bush, or Al Gore against the second. And it won’t do the job for Kerry without some combination of strength and likeability.

I wouldn’t discount Bush’s abilities as a debater, regardless of his current record (witness his press conference last spring). That will actually play to Bush’s favor; unless he foams at the mouth or does a Chevy Chase pratfall, he will have exceeded expectations.

The first debate is September 30 here at the University of Miami.