My theory about the upcoming elections has been that the country cannot remain in such close contestation for too long – that something will happen that will prove to be the tipping point and, well, Kerry will win in a landslide. I believe that (barring any “revelations”), the presidential debates will be that point. Think back to the debates in 2000. The CW was that Gore will cream this dolt Bush guy who didn’t even know who Pakistan’s newest General was. But the press changed its tune really fast since Bush didn’t drool on camera or adapt Don King’s particular brand of eloquence. Bush’s “competence” seemingly free’d him from any serious criticism and he won the debates according to that new, amended CW.
So, how does the KE’04 deal with this lowered-expectations criteria when it comes to the upcoming debates? In July’s Atlantic Monthly, James Fallows had a preview of the debates entitled When George Meets John which is a must-read [thanks moacir!].
It is not available online but I can put up a fair-use pdf if people want to look at it. It is available now. Fallows lays out the Bush team strategery used against Ann Richards (and later):
Every external signal sent by the Bush campaign underscored the idea that Richards would romp through the debate. After a consortium of major Texas media outlets agreed to host a debate in Dallas, Bush representatives balked at the idea that half the questions would come from a citizens’ panel rather than from reporters. Perhaps they remembered that the first George Hush had done poorly against Bill Clinton in a similar “town hall” debate two years earlier. Perhaps they worried that citizens might ask left-field questions for which George W. Bush was not prepared. The Bush team eventually agreed to the format, but not before reinforcing their underdog image.
I think someone in the Kerry campaign is paying very, very close attention to the Fallows article. For one, they used the exact same attack on Bush by McCain detailed in the article as an answer to the SBVT (Swift Boat Veteran’s For Truth) crap. Secondly, they are going after the ONE thing that saves Bush every time – attacks on his intelligence or competence (something CM prides itself of never having done). On last night’s Daily Show appearance, John Kerry had this to say about the debates:
JOHN KERRY: Well, that’s the test of debates. I mean, look, the President has won every debate he’s ever had. People need to understand that. He beat Ann Richards. He beat Al Gore. So he’s a good debater. And debates are sort of formulaic. But I believe that– the truth is what people are looking for. I have a better plan. I have a plan to put America back to work. I have a plan to provide healthcare to all Americans rather than see Americans lose it and pay more for it. We can go down a different road.(emphasis added)
Kerry hits directly at the lowered expectations meme in the press-corps. Which will, I think, get reinforced in the coming weeks (esp. after Bush’s speech at RNC). Now, that still leaves open the question about Kerry. Will he come across as a pompous know-it-all in the debates? Again, Fallows has something to say:
As for likeability, there is no disguising this problem for Kerry. American aristocrats come in a wide variety of political personalities: those so cool they inspire envy (John F. Kennedy); those whose raucous enjoyment of upper-class privilege has a kind of mainstream appeal (Teddy Roosevelt, William Weld); those with an august, patrician duty to serve (the Taft and Stevenson dynasties); those who reinvent themselves as average Joes (the first George Bush, with his pork rinds; the current President Bush, with a Texas twang shared by none of his siblings).
By family background, John Kerry is less an aristocrat than many of these people. Despite some Winthrop lineage, he is seen as upper-class mainly for two reasons: because he sounds that way, and because both his wives have been very rich. His fancy educational pedigree ó St. Paul’s, Yale. Skull and Bones ó was more a way of entering elite levels than a reflection of his having started there, like Weld or Bush. Unlike the Bushes, who reinvented themselves as normal Americans, Kerry reinvented himself as an American aristocrat, with the cool bearing that comes with the role. He will never be a warm character. But I liked him better after seeing his controlled, intent mastery of the virtual combat of debate.
In a dose of realism, I must state that the electorate may continue to remain convinced that 50/50 is the way to go. And the swing voters never swing and the independents stay home. I state that, but I doubt it. Kerry in a landslide.
update Sep 13: Moacir lays it out at dailyKos.