Campaigns/Elections

Miami Vices

Lessons from the presidential debate

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The verdict on Thursday's presidential debates appears to be in: While the new expectation had been that Bush would score a victory by outperforming the previous low expectations, polls suggest that he didn't. And, to borrow a phrase, Even the Conservative Jay Nordlinger , Richard Brookhiser, and Janice Shaw Crouse are conceding, over at National Review, that the Boston Brahmin took this one. (Though trans-dimensional political junkies take note: In the parallel universe from which Hugh Hewitt gets satellite TV, it was a rout for Bush.)

Does it matter? Surely it's important that Kerry is perceived as the winner in a debate on a subject—international relations and the War on Terror—where Bush's perceived advantage is greatest. The group for which the debates had the biggest impact will likely be the sizable swath of voters who've soured somewhat on Bush but found Kerry an uninspiring alternative. Though his central alliance-building theme sounds a bit thin on even minimal reflection—does anyone imagine that Jaques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder will be more willing to commit troops to Iraq now than they were a year ago, regardless of who sits in the Oval Office?—Kerry's choice to answer policy questions with relatively simple declarative sentences, delivered in a self-assured tone, may help him shed the flip-flopper moniker.

Bush's renowned message discipline, a prime rhetorical advantage James Fallows noted in his Atlantic Monthly cover story, worked against him on Thursday, telegraphing a lack of ideas, perhaps even a hint of desperation, more than the single-minded resoluteness he'd doubtless hoped to convey. While one more data point confirming the president's uneasy relationship with spoken English isn't likely to hurt him in itself—Bush's chronic case of stumbletongue has been a part of his narrative for too long to make a difference now—his awkward pauses and defensive body language have the added effect in this case of providing a potentially damaging contrast to his "be strong, stay the course" language. Both candidates had their share of departures from reality on Thursday night, but it's Bush whose "straight shooter" image is central to his appeal to voters, and who therefore stands to lose most by making verifiably inaccurate claims. And Karl Rove must have been massaging a scrunched brow when the president continually held up Poland (which he incorrectly asserted had been part of the initial invasion force) as proof of his coalition-building prowess. Poland's president, recall, has said he was "taken for a ride" on the issue of weapons of mass destruction, and the country will soon reduce its troop commitment in Iraq.

Regardless of their impact on this election—voters typically claim the debates are an important influence on their electoral decisions, but the same voters also purport to be unswayed by negative advertising—the debates appear to confirm my colleague Charles Paul Freund's thesis that in an age when the Argus-eyed media strips candidates bare, emoting drives voting. Especially striking here is Bush's use of a mode of argument that had once been a liberal staple, one conservatives delighted in mocking. Certain lines of argument in defense of social programs, for instance, betray a sense that whether or not they're effective is secondary: These programs are (as philosopher Robert Nozick famously noted in his essay "The Zig-Zag of Politics") a way of signaling a kind of collective caring about the plight of the badly off. Opposition to them was taken as a sign that Republicans are mean, regardless of whether any particular critique is on point. Similarly, any suggestion that some people are badly off because of bad choices they've made risks "blaming the victim." That position always struck me as a kind of metastasis of a good rule of interpersonal etiquette: If a friend calls to tell you he's lost his job because of poor performance or chronic lateness, your first response (even if you might more gently raise this point later) is not to say, "Well, it serves you right, slacker," but to commiserate.

We now see a surprisingly similar line used against critics of the war in Iraq. The problem with negative appraisals of the situation there isn't that they're wrong, as such, but that it's somehow cruel to the families of soldiers to suggest they've died for an error. And if you point out that the U.S. is bearing the brunt of the war costs in both blood and treasure, you're debasing the contributions of our allies.

While Thursday's debates proved surprisingly substantive, a bit better than the "joint press conference" many wags had predicted, I doubt that policy details will be the most important thing conveyed in these exchanges. Anyone committed enough to sit through 90 minutes of candidate sparring already has a cornucopia of better venues in which to seek out concrete details on how the candidates would govern, from official and unofficial campaign websites to the political Niagra spewing from the cable news channels. In the last two debates, after all, the most serious blows candidates suffered were self-inflicted—an inopportune glance at a wristwatch, a huffy roll of the eyes. Someone who wants to gauge the impact of the next debate may want to try watching it on mute.