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Great debates rarely are (Scripps Howard News Service) September 28, 2004

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.
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The great debates between presidential candidates are generally neither great nor even debates. Nevertheless this year’s three-round match-up, which begins this week, affords John Kerry his best opportunity to close the narrow but steady lead George W. Bush holds in the polls.

Like the NFL Superbowl, which often culminates an exciting football season with a dull and predictable championship game, presidential debates feature risk-averse contenders and generate little drama. The 32 pages of debate rules negotiated by campaign lawyers prohibit the candidates from confronting each other or even asking their opponent a direct question. For this reason the debates are more accurately referred to historically as “joint appearances” by the candidates.

With the incumbent president having the most to lose in televised debates, it is a bit surprising that the Bush campaign agreed to as many as three debates. But Bush has been a strong debater in the past and the first round, which draws the largest audience, plays to his strength by focusing on foreign policy.

The challenger has the most to gain since sharing the stage with the most powerful leader in the world can be a great equalizer. As the lesser-known candidate, Kerry also has his best opportunity, with some 40 million Americans watching, to define himself and his campaign.

After Richard Nixon arrived late and tired for the first televised debate in 1960, candidates now spend several days prepping for their performance. The preparation focuses more on avoiding mistakes than on delivering knockout punches. Indeed the most memorable moments in presidential debates are the gaffes and mistakes: Richard Nixon’s sweaty appearance in a pale gray suit; Gerald Ford’s puzzling statement that Eastern Europe was not under Soviet domination; or Michael Dukakis’ cold policy response to a question about his wife.

At a more subtle level, success or failure is about meeting or beating audience expectations. For example, George W. Bush, with his reputation for mangled syntax and simple answers, exceeded voters’ modest expectations when he debated Al Gord in 2000. Ronald Reagan, who had been portrayed as an extremist when he opposed President Carter in 1980, allayed fears when he came off as gentlemanly and reasonable in the televised debates.

Likewise voters respond negatively when the debates confirm their concerns about a candidate. Al Gore may have won the 2000 debates on points but lost it on style when he was too aggressive physically — invading George W. Bush’s space — and seemed condescending as he signed audibly during Bush’s remarks. George H.W. Bush appeared to be disengaged, as some voters feared, when he twice looked at his watch during the 1992 debates with Bill Clinton.

How does debate history guide our current candidates? John Kerry must avoid reinforcing voters’ concern that he is aloof, complex and wishy-washy. For example, he has articulated several positions about the war in Iraq, saying variously that whether he would have invaded is too complex and hypothetical to answer to later agreeing he would have invaded but done it differently. Most recently he has said that Iraq has been a distraction from the larger war on terrorism, implying that the invasion was a mistake.

In the debate, Kerry will have to pick a position and stick with it. Having debated in both prep school and college, he will need to resist winning debaters’ points at the expense of making unfavorable voter impressions.

George W. Bush will seek to play it safe and protect his lead. An unorthodox debater who has never lost a political debate, Bush essentially needs to be himself, something he has always done well. Viewers will watch for his trademark foibles and irritating mannerisms – misstatements, smirks and arched eyebrows. But barring a major gaffe, voters know these Bushisms and have already factored them into their assessment of him.

The big question is what impact the televised debates will have on the outcome of the election. Historically the answer has been, “very little.” Although a Pew Research Center poll reports that as many as 29 percent say the debates would make a difference in their vote, other polls showing fewer undecided voters than usual this year do not support that conclusion. Besides, the typical conservative, predictable debate will not change much.

What can be said is that, with three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate in the next two weeks, we are entering the period that — barring something unforeseen — represents John Kerry’s last real chance to overtake George W. Bush. Let the “joint appearances” begin.

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