In Presidential Debates, a Duel of Wits and Styles
September 21, 2004
By R. W. APPLE Jr.
The first of this year's three presidential and one vice-presidential debates will take place a week from Thursday, on Sept. 30, at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla., under an agreement announced yesterday by the representatives of the major-party campaigns.
For John Kerry, running behind in most polls, the debates will offer a chance to show exactly who he is and what he stands for. For President Bush, they will offer a chance to win over some of the skeptical voters who still consider him a lightweight, even after almost four years in office. But if they resemble past debates, the impact this year will go well beyond a mere judgment of who won and who lost. The results are usually much more complex, political scientists have come to believe in the quarter-century since 1976, when such debates became a firm fixture on the electoral calendar.
Wendy Rahn, an elections scholar who is an associate professor at the University of Minnesota, suggested in an interview that debates have become rituals - rather like conventions and the Labor Day opening of the general-election campaign - that "convince the voters that they are important, that they are wanted and needed.'' Her research, Professor Rahn said, indicates that in recent years they have functioned as glue to hold society together.
In a year in which politicians of both parties believe that turnout could tip the results in pivotal states like Ohio, Minnesota and Wisconsin, reluctant voters newly convinced of their importance might well be likely to go to the polls in larger numbers. On the other hand, Professor Rahn asserted, increased fragmentation of the television audience with the decline of the networks and the rise of cable channels might diminish the viewership for the debates and thereby change their effect.
Recent studies of the debates four years ago by Prof. Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and others indicate that it matters whether a voter actually watches the debates or forms an opinion from reading media commentary devoted to them. Those who watched the first debate, Professor Jamieson said, tended to think Al Gore won, while those who merely read about it reflected the view of many journalists that Mr. Bush had succeeded in making Mr. Gore look hypocritical.
This year, Professor Jamieson asked, will people come away from the debates and what is said and written about them believing that Mr. Kerry is indecisive - the flip-flopper pictured in Republican commercials and speeches? Or will they conclude that Mr. Bush is a rigid ideologue who inhabits a fantasy world, as the Democrats would have it?
"Debates give voters a chance to assess the accuracy of the charges and countercharges, to see whether the picture painted by television advertising matches reality," Professor Jamieson said. "They're not so much about gaining a tactical advantage as about modifying and increasing the voters' knowledge level. They don't necessarily bring about major shifts in voting patterns, but they deepen impressions.''
In a paper published 10 years ago in The American Political Science Review, Professor Rahn argued that while debates captured voters' attention in ways that ads and speeches did not, they affected different people in different ways. Political sophisticates, she wrote, can extract new information from a debate with considerable facility, while "nonsophisticates may find their capacities overwhelmed by the additional demands of a more complicated, debate-focused presentation format" and rely instead on what they can pick up from candidates' ads.
Past debates have offered guidelines for this year's. Candidates live in terror of factual gaffes or tactical missteps, and they can be very costly, if relatively rare. The most famous may have been Gerald R. Ford's assertion in 1976 that there was "no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe." Played up by the press, it stalled Mr. Ford's campaign for a time, until Dick Cheney - then his chief of staff, now vice president and as such a scheduled debater himself this year - persuaded Mr. Ford to issue a "clarification."
In the vice-presidential debate that year, Bob Dole cemented a public view of himself as a savage infighter with the comment that 1.6 million Americans had been killed or wounded in "Democrat wars in this century." He has never entirely shaken off that impression. Nor did Dan Quayle ever recover from the wounding shaft of Lloyd M. Bentsen, his vice-presidential rival in 1988. When Mr. Quayle suggested that his political experience was comparable to John F. Kennedy's, Mr. Bentsen shot back: "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."
Sometimes a gaffe is wordless, as when the elder George Bush looked longingly at his watch at one point in 1992.
Walter F. Mondale unintentionally gave Ronald Reagan an opening in 1984 when he demanded: "Who's in charge? Who's handling this matter? That's my main point." To which Mr. Reagan replied, "I know it will come as a surprise to Mr. Mondale, but I am in charge" - a rebuttal that Mr. Bush might consider this year.
In 1984, facing Mr. Mondale, Mr. Reagan said, "I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience." Mr. Mondale later said he knew at once that he had lost.
Another tactic from the past that might serve Mr. Bush well was one his father used in 1992, even though the elder Mr. Bush ultimately lost the race. In an important debate late in that year's campaign, he did his best to make voters think about character and trust, rather than about the number of jobs lost in his administration, even invoking Horace Greeley to the effect that character counts most.
As for Mr. Kerry, he, too, could borrow from Mr. Reagan, who himself borrowed from Mr. Kennedy's summation in 1960, a challenger's classic. "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" Mr. Reagan asked in 1980. "Is there more or less unemployment than there was four years ago? Is America more or less respected?"
One thing is clear: Both men are effective debaters, though their styles differ, as Mr. Bush proved against Ann Richards in the governor's race in Texas in 1994 and against Mr. Gore in 2000, and Mr. Kerry amply demonstrated against William F. Weld in a series of clashes in Massachusetts in 1996.