The Tipping Point

Posted by sepoy on August 25, 2004 · 8 mins read

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):

One was brilliant management of the "expectations game" ó the political world's counterpart to beating the point spread in professional sports. "What was their secret in that debate?" Mary Beth Rogers, an adviser to Ann Richards in her campaign, said when we spoke recently. "It was how they stage-managed the whole process. They constantly set expectations so low against the 'brilliant,' 'silver-tongued' Ann that if he didn't fall on his face in the debate, he 'won.'"
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:

JON STEWART: Do you think you'll-- when-- when you get into the debates with him is this going to be-- will you be able to do that? Or-- or will he-- I've seen he's very shrewd in debates of saying, "Look, this is a choice. It's a-- it's a very easy choice between-- a man who loves-- Fidel Castro and-- (LAUGHTER) and someone who-- loves America." You know? How-- how do you-- do you think you will ever be able to have an honest discussion?
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:

I was surprised to find that the more I saw of Kerry in action, the better I thought of him on both counts. He has pushed his Vietnam record so hard for so long that many people are tired of hearing about his courage and readiness for conflict. But the warrior persona that comes through in his debates is appealing. He is not a happy warrior in the political sense, like Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, or John Edwards. Instead, as the vanquished William Weld put it, he is "good tough." In his words and arguments Kerry is always attacking and moving forward, but in demeanor he is unruffled ó like a confident detective or prosecutor relentlessly building his case.
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.


tsk | August 26, 2004

while i too hope and pray that bush gets defeated, i'm just not as confident in a landslide. interesting thing i noticed: kerry is only two years older than shrub. so they must have been skull and bones together. kerry should just release pictures from shrub's initiation ceremony, then maybe there would be a landslide. if what kerry did in the 60's is now relevant, then we should all let the world know how g.dub is a cheerleader who plays dirty.

Morcy | August 26, 2004

Skull and Bones is an org just for Seniors. Kerry was already en route to Vietnam on Shrub's Tap Day (or, well, at least in OCS or something)

jay | September 04, 2004

What's a CW?

sepoy | September 04, 2004

CW is Conventional Wisdom.

don hersey | September 05, 2004

figured out CW, lost on sbvt. I'm a yank, but whenever I go to Canada they can always tell because my speech is littered with TLAs and FLEAs. Go easy on the acronyms, they aren't saving you much, and they can be hard on the reader.

sepoy | September 05, 2004

don: The curse of assuming that everyone is reading kos ( My apologies. SBVT: Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.