Tags: Bush: | Debate | Blunder?

Bush: Debate Blunder?

Friday, 24 September 2004 12:00 AM

There are those who say that they show the candidate under pressure and the public gets an opportunity to see the candidate in an unscripted scenario where he is challenged. To that extent, they can give undecided voters a glimpse of the ability of a president or would-be president to comport himself while under fire.

Then there are those who will argue that debates in the television era are not what they were in the famous pre-Civil War Lincoln-Douglas era.

Television, according to this argument, lends itself to the over-simplified “sound bite” treatment of serious issues. Moreover, this encourages grandstanding. That in turn leads to de-emphasis of substance, opportunities for the gaffe patrol, and the minimized consideration of serious issues.

In this writer’s opinion, the latter view has the better part of the argument.

To the surprise of many, President Bush has agreed to three debates with his opponent John Kerry. It was thought that his negotiator James Baker would come back with an agreement for just two presidential debates, plus the vice presidential encounter.

In the relatively young history of televised presidential debates, there are just two instances where an incumbent president participated in three debates: Gerald Ford facing Jimmy Carter in 1976 and George H.W. Bush facing Bill Clinton and Ross Perot in 1992.

In both cases, the end results were electoral disaster for the incumbent.

Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, the only two-term presidents in the TV debate era, insisted on just two debates in their re-election drives in 1984 and 1996 respectively. From their standpoint, this made basic political sense. An incumbent president is at a disadvantage in according his challenger the opportunity to appear on the same stage as an equal with the most powerful person in the world.

Why did George W. Bush agree to it?

“The president is a good debater,” a strong Bush supporter told me. “He wants these debates.” Reportedly, one factor was the president’s concern that the “town hall” format in one of the debates - at Washington University Oct. 8 in St. Louis - not be eliminated, given that the folks in Missouri — a battleground state - had gone to great lengths to prepare for it.

“This is a mistake,” one political veteran of the Reagan campaigns told NewsMax.com. The more debates, the greater advantage to the challenger, he opined.

Another cause of concern to some Republicans is that Bob Schieffer of CBS News is to moderate the Oct. 13 debate at Arizona State at Tempe. This consternation is directed less at Schieffer personally than the very idea that anyone from CBS News would participate in any debate at all, period.

Driving this argument is the charge that CBS and its lead anchor Dan Rather had in effect contributed to the Kerry campaign through their use of forged memos regarding the president’s service in the National Guard. But the Bush campaign apparently is comfortable with it.

Incumbent Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon refused to give their challengers a debate forum from which to level the playing field. They were both successful in their re-election drives. Nixon even refused to debate when he and Hubert Humphrey were running for an open seat in 1968. Nixon won.

There is yet another reason why any candidate of the political right has a disadvantage in any face-to-face debate. No matter how much sense he makes and no matter how skilled a debater he might be, there is no way he can outbid the left when it comes to promising handouts or pork of all kinds.

Government spending has gone up almost every year no matter who is in office. Both candidates will agree that deficits are bad. But the very culture of the political left is more attuned to the notion that all kinds of government handouts and the very growth of big government are good. If a debate devolves into a bidding war, the more conservative candidate loses. That may sound cynical, but it is reality.

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There are those who say that they show the candidate under pressure and the public gets an opportunity to see the candidate in an unscripted scenario where he is challenged. To that extent, they can give undecided voters a glimpse of the ability of a president or would-be...
Bush:,Debate,Blunder?
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2004-00-24
Friday, 24 September 2004 12:00 AM
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