Second Thots

Sometimes one has to step back, take pause, and have some "second thots"

Sunday, October 03, 2004


John Kerry won the debate

It's still early. It's still to be determined how this impacts the general dynamics of the race. But if there is an initial perception that has taken hold, it's that George Bush didn't look good standing next to John Kerry in the debate Thursday night. In other words, early indications are that John Kerry won Round 1 of this year's presidential debates.

This does not appear to be spin either. I have already provided some of my analysis of this first event. However, as I listened to some early reactions from non-partisan sources, then some focus groups on US network morning shows, then some conservative observers, then even Rush Limbaugh, it became clear that the single most widely held view of the debate was that George Bush was shaky.

He looked tired. He kept repeating himself. He was hunched over his podium. He took long pauses in order to gather his thoughts. He made facial gestures as his opponent was speaking. He lacked confidence. He wasn't reassuring. On and on and on.

Unquestionably, John Kerry himself helped solidify that commonly held attitude of Bush's behaviour on the night. He stood tall and straight. He was articulate. He was confident. He said what he wanted to say. And, perhaps most importantly, he did not come across as he has on the campaign trail or as the GOP has been depicting him over the course of the last month. If people came away from Thursday night uneasy about George Bush's performance, it was in part because they thought they saw something better standing across from him.

I have to say, I am surprised that this has become the prevailing perception of the debate. Bush has never been a debater with style, and I thought his heart-felt beliefs would trump his usual fumbling around of verbal efforts. Yet there must have been a fundamental shortcoming - even for Bush - for there to exist such an almost universal perception that he could have done better. Where before he was resolute, now he was stubborn. Where before he was likeable, now he made people nervous. Where before he was on message, now he kept repeating the same message over and over again. Where before he was a disciplined communicator, now he struggled to find the words that mattered.

So, the consensus appears to be that Kerry won. What is less clear is just what impact it will have on the race in general. The same overnight polls showing a Kerry victory also failed to show a Kerry bounce. Democratic hacks Carville and Greenburg did a poll showing a two point bounce for their guy. But Newsweek is about to release a poll showing a complete evaporation of the lead Bush has enjoyed since his bounce coming out of the Republican Convention.

The dynamic resulting from that first debate, at the very least, appears to have Kerry with the momentum. Bush needs to fight back. There will be some campaign sparring in the days leading to next Friday's town hall debate. John Kerry's surprisingly good performance the first time around will most likely have people eagerly waiting to see if he's capable of doing it all over again.
It may be obvious, but the last thing Bush needs to do is to panic. As this first debate displayed convincingly, the candidate who appears the most presidential wins. So, instead of a rush to dissect talking points, strategy, rebuttals, or spin, what Bush needs to do is start looking like the man who must lead America through the challenges ahead. Simply stated, he needs to get rid of all those things people saw which made them uneasy about him. He needs to stand straight, speak straight, and talk straight. He needs to come better prepared for the job for which voters are interviewing him. Just as little personal presentation bad habits can scuttle any job interview, we saw how they can scuttle a candidate's momentum towards re-election.

His appearance the day after during a campaign event wasn't reassuring. He often paused to look at notes. He seemed to have the same halting way of speaking as he had during the debate. If there is something I have observed about Bush, and it goes back to that press conference months ago when he could not come up with an answer for a question about being sorry for anything, it's that he seems to be stuck in one mode, which is something independent voters seem to be seeing as well. He seems to be stuck with a certain perception of his presidency and of events in Iraq which have left him determined but have also left him feeling the need to brood over his plight and the plight of his country. He may see it as thoughtful resoluteness. Others may see it as nervous stubbornness.

While Bush backers may hope that Thursday was an aberration, I have seem some signs that it's part of a pattern. If it is, it won't be so easy to stop - or to even recognize from the people around him partly responsible for it.

Beyond the personal impression he gives off, Bush also needs to strike a different chord with his message. And if there was one glaring weakness in this regard on Thursday night it was that he completely failed to differentiate his vision from that of John Kerry.

George Bush is not a precise debater. He didn't beat Al Gore because he picked apart his arguments. But he still needs to communicate the very real differences that do exist between the two men and even the two parties.

The differences voters came away with Thursday were this: while both men want to win in Iraq, Bush is stubborn, but Kerry is willing to make changes on the go. Although Bush did try to address this point specifically, his weak performance clouded an otherwise decent message in this regard. Bush also allowed Kerry to get away with the flip-flopping.

Instead of telling people, repeatedly, that Kerry sends a "mixed message", Bush needs to tell people why this matters. He needs to tell people what kind of leadership is needed for the road ahead. He needs to tell people what kind of vision is needed for the road ahead. He needs to tell people why he's different than Kerry on these counts. And he needs to tell people about the consequences of making the wrong choices on these counts.

He also needs to address the stubbornness issue a little better. Some of this should be done through a better overall performance. Yet he needs to communicate better the difference between stubbornness and resoluteness. A better articulation of these differences is better than a simple repeating of the same slogans throughout the course of discourse. Stubbornness means you keep doing the same things over and over again regardless of their effectiveness. Yet that's exactly the impression he left with viewers by saying the same things over and over again. Resoluteness means you have the leadership qualities to get things done no matter what the difficulties or obstacles. Bush needs to convince people that he's that kind of leader. He also needs to convince people that John Kerry is not. That's why the flip-flopping matters.

Now, before anyone gets the impression that this is George Bush's last stand, getting carried away with one of the three debates in not an example of good political analysis. Yes, Bush needs to get it into gear if he wants to win a referendum on his vision of America in this world. But he's certainly nowhere near being yesterday's man. That's silly. Even a significant Kerry bounce would mean a very tight race. And Bush is the master at overcoming lowered expectations. If Thursday's debates have accomplished one thing for him, they have accomplished lowering expectations. His supporters, and independents, go in next time with a more critical eye of what to expect from him, and even a more exaggerated perception of what to expect from his opponent.

Which leads me to Bush's other leverage for next time. Pitfalls for Kerry.

I have already seen some signs of cockiness from him. Not only did he appear triumphant during a campaign appearance since the debate, he has mocked the performance of his opponent. We saw some of that from Stephen Harper during the Canadian election. What some saw as a strong debating performance was turned into a call for a majority government. He dipped in the polls quite quickly as a result. It's even dumbfounding how challengers who appeared so diplomatic and cordial during a debate can turnaround and appear cocky and arrogant the very next day. If I were one of the people handling John Kerry, I'd tell him to cool it - and to cool it fast. Bush got into trouble in the debate by telling people what they should think. If voters get the notion that you're not leaving it up to them, they can certainly punish you in a hurry.

Kerry also left himself vulnerable on what he said during the first debate, versus how he said it and the impression he made saying it. He got lucky that Bush didn't feel a need to challenge him on a number of assertions he made during the course of the evening. Yes, there was the "global test" gaffe. There were also some factual inaccuracies that were pointed out later. But John Kerry has yet to provide positive reasons for why he should be president, or even provide a logically consistent explanation of his stances on Iraq. This provides plenty of opportunity for Bush to warn people of the dangers involved in simply voting against him. Just as Paul Martin began defining Stephen Harper as someone with a "hidden agenda", Kerry has left the door open for Bush to define John Kerry as someone with a similarly hidden agenda which would bring uncertainty and risk to the Oval Office. Bush can tell voters that they know what they're going to get with him as president. It would also help if he threw in some humility along the way. He knows he's not perfect. He should instill that self-doubt more convincingly without shedding the resoluteness. But voters still probably don't know Kerry. And Kerry doesn't seem to be telling them much either. This could be an Achilles' heel to the Kerry candidacy. If he doesn't fill in the gaps, George Bush might do it for him.

Nevertheless, John Kerry has helped make this presidential race a bit more interesting again. Bush saw to that with a performance widely perceived as weak. Round 2 will be a fresh opportunity for both.

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