Kerry Hopes for 1980 Debates

(This column first appeared in The Hill)

As President Bush and John Kerry pore over their briefing books, in preparation for a series of debates that each must believe could decide this year’s election, their spinmeisters are out playing the expectations game.

This strikes me as particularly difficult for Kerry’s people, who not long ago were touting him as a great candidate for reasons that include his quickness at debate.

Story after story has been written about how he came from behind when he ran for reelection against then-Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld by besting him in a series of eight debates. Now we are told that it was an exaggeration and that if Kerry manages to survive three debates with Bush he should score it a win.

Is this the same George Bush Democrats have been deriding as dumb as a rock for the past four years? One wonders, but Terry McAuliffe had no problem with this inconsistency last week when he told reporters, “Let’s face it, George Bush is a great debater. He has never lost a debate.”

Apparently, in McAuliffe’s world you can be a dumb incompetent who’s always wrong about everything and still whip the pants off any Democrat. He apparently believes that his candidate should get high marks — and our votes — for showing up and having the courage to take on this superman.

For the record, however, it would be wise to remember that McAuliffe is at least partially right. Bush has proved himself in debate against numerous opponents, including several to whom his detractors have given the pre-debate intellectual edge. He is no slouch when it comes to political debate.

On the other hand, Kerry did win the race against Weld in large measure because of his performance in those now-famous eight debates and has, throughout his career, been praised by friends for quickness on his feet and performance as a debater.

Historically, of course, presidential debates rarely have much impact on the outcome, but Kerry’s managers have to hope these three will be different. Their candidate continues to slip in most polls, and, while the race remains close, he needs something to reverse current trends to win. The question is what that “something” might be.

People are going to tune in to see just what these two men have to say on the issues, but they know where Bush stands and they have had four years to judge his abilities as a leader.

They can’t be quite as certain of Kerry’s stands, but, far more important, they still don’t have a real sense of the man.

They’ll be tuning in to see Kerry and to evaluate him, his demeanor and his character. He has to make them comfortable with him and to convince the so-called persuadables that he is up to the challenge of the presidency.

Viewers will be looking beyond one-liners and specific proposals, although the debates could give Kerry a chance to break through the confusion about where he stands and why on Iraq and its relationship to the overall war on terror. Some suspect Kerry’s slippage generally and among women in particular dates from the horror and fear generated not by the Bush campaign’s rhetoric but by the terrorist killing of scores of schoolchildren in Russia. Kerry must, on Thursday, convince people that he can do a better job than the incumbent at keeping the sons and daughters of America’s moms safe — and that will be a tall order.

Still, Kerry has to approach this debate as Ronald Reagan’s managers approached their man’s debates with an incumbent president in 1980. It is difficult to recall, but Jimmy Carter was running ahead of Ronald Reagan going into those debates because people weren’t sure they could do what most of them wanted to do, which was to fire the incumbent. As the debates ended, they knew they could and they did.

Kerry has to bet that this is in some ways like 1980. He has to go into the debates believing that there is a majority out there that would fire Bush if they could and that he can convince them in three debates that Bush can be fired safely because Kerry can and will provide a safe and comforting alternative.

A few months ago, that majority may have been hiding out there somewhere, but whether it’s there today is debatable. If such a majority is out there, can Kerry, formidable a debater as he may be, convince people who think Bush is the problem that Kerry is the answer? Such is likely to prove very, very difficult.