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Past Debates Offer Clues to Presidential Candidates’ Style

September 29, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: When President Bush and Senator Kerry face-off tomorrow night at the University of Miami, each will bring years of experience to the podium.

SPOKESMAN: Tonight, in a live one-hour town hall, incumbent Anne Richards and opponent George W. Bush.

RAY SUAREZ: Both candidates have faced formidable debate opponents in the course of their careers and won– and maybe proved they were paying attention back at Yale in the ’60s when they studied oratory with the same professor.

George W. Bush surprised many Texas viewers when he bested Governor Anne Richards in a 1994 Gubernatorial debate. She was considered a skilled politician and an excellent public speaker. They debated just once, when Mr. Bush was pressed about his claim that he was a political novice, he used his answer to hammer home a few key themes.

PAUL BURKA: Isn’t it a little disingenuous to say… to portray yourself as an outsider?

GEORGE W. BUSH: Well, I’ve never held office, Paul. I mean, I’m only telling you the way the facts are. I’m not proud of the fact that I got whipped in ’78. I did come in second in a two- man race. (Laughter) Here’s my point: My point is that if you want someone to think the way it’s been all along in Austin, they should not be for me. I am not happy with the welfare system.

I think we need to reform the welfare system to end dependency upon government. I am not happy with the fact that nothing has happened in the juvenile justice code in our state. We have children who do not fear the consequences of the law in the state of Texas because nothing has been done to change a code which is outdated, outmoded and totally ineffective. I want to decontrol the school system in the state of Texas. I believe that the only way to achieve excellence in the classrooms of the schools of Texas is to free teachers, and parents and principals from the constraints and rules of the Texas education agency.

RAY SUAREZ: Many of his answers were short, like this response to a question on casino gambling.

TRACI TONG, KERA: First, are you in favor of it, and if you are, would you again propose dedicating those funds for education?

GEORGE W. BUSH: No, I’m against casino gambling.

TRACI TONG: Okay. Governor Richards?

ANNE RICHARDS: Well, I think it’s a kind of cheesy way to make money, frankly.

RAY SUAREZ: Richards expounded on the issue for nearly two minutes, and then…


GEORGE W. BUSH: I guess I shouldn’t answer so shortly next time. What’s the question? My answer was I was against casino gambling.

SPOKESMAN: Did you want to elaborate on casino gambling?

GEORGE W. BUSH: Not really. ( Laughs )

RAY SUAREZ: Clues on how Senator Kerry will perform can be found in a series of debates from 1996.

SEN. JOHN KERRY: He thinks it’s fair; I don’t.

RAY SUAREZ: That’s when he ran for a third term in the Senate against the popular and articulate Massachusetts governor, William Weld. The exchanges, like this one on Medicare, were no holds barred.

WILLIAM WELD: My question is: Why should people who have worked hard and earned wages and paid into the system their entire life, why should that be where you go looking when you are trying to balance the federal budget? Why should you be raising Medicare premiums or taxes on our senior citizens?

SEN. JOHN KERRY: Governor, as I listen to you, it’s really extraordinary. You talk out of both sides of your mouth more than the Budweiser frogs. It’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen in my life.

WILLIAM WELD: You must have stayed up all night thinking up those lines.

SEN. JOHN KERRY: I’m surprised… I’m surprised you want to talk about Medicare outside the confessional, to be truthful with you. ( Laughter ) You went down to Washington lobbying Newt Gingrich and pushing for a $270 billion cut in Medicare. It’s documented. You lobbied for it. You were part of the team. Newt Gingrich was cheering for you, and you tried to do that.

Now you are trying to run away from it, Governor. You’re trying to run away from the fact that you supported doubling the premiums on seniors. I stood on the floor of the United States Senate and voted against that, and the only reason I voted for $156 billion was it was the only alternative to your $270 billion. That’s the only reason. (Applause)

RAY SUAREZ: Campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination last October, he turned an attack on his wealth by John Edwards into an opportunity to talk about his military record.

SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: We grew up a very different way, Senator Kerry and Governor Dean and myself. What I would say to the American people, if you are looking somebody to stand on a stage with George Bush in 2004, which I intend to do, and make our case to the very group of Americans who he has to get in order to be reelected, the working middle class of this country, that we have a more powerful case to make if in fact our advocate, our voice, is somebody who has grown up with it, lived with it and fought for those very people their entire life.

SEN. JOHN KERRY: Can I say that when I was serving in Vietnam on a small boat, the one thing I learned was nobody asked you where you came from. Nobody worried about your background. You fought together, you lived together and you bled together. What I learned there is an indelible lesson, that what matters in life is what you fight for, the principles and values that you carry into the struggle. And I will tell you that throughout my life I believe I have stood up for Democratic values, I fought hard to hold government accountable. And I think I stand here with a broader base of experience both in domestic affairs and in foreign affairs than any other person.

RAY SUAREZ: In the 2000 presidential debates, Vice President Al Gore hammered one theme over and over, that Mr. Bush’s tax cut plan would benefit only the very rich. The governor used the opportunity to state and reiterate a simple theme.

GEORGE W. BUSH: I believe the people who pay the bills ought to get some money back. It’s a difference of opinion. He wants to grow the government and I trust you with your own money.

JIM LEHRER: Governor, just to reverse the thing, what do you say specifically to what the vice president said tonight? He said it many, many times, that your tax cut benefits the top 1 percent of the wealthiest Americans, and you’ve heard what he said.

GEORGE W. BUSH: Of course it does. If you pay taxes, you’re going to get a benefit. People who pay taxes will get tax relief.

RAY SUAREZ: Sometimes the debater’s manner is as interesting as the words spoken. Governor Bush and Vice President Gore frequently stood up to engage the audience and occasionally each other.

AL GORE: Which one of those promises will you keep and which will you break, governor?

RAY SUAREZ: For tomorrow nights debate, the rules specifically prohibit the candidates asking each other direct questions, and the two men won’t be allowed to stray from behind their lecterns.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on the skills and the distinctive styles of President Bush and Senator Kerry, we’re joined by two students of the debates. James Fallows is a national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly. He recently watched dozens of hours of those old debates for an article that appeared in the July/August issue of the magazine; and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

Well, James Fallows, it’s one of those you did it so we didn’t have to assignments, but what did you learn about the strengths and weaknesses of John Kerry and George Bush in the discipline, the odd discipline of debate?

JAMES FALLOWS: I think the most surprising finding is each of these people is very good. The reason that’s surprising is that because President Bush has had trouble in informal speech in the last year or two — people would naturally think he wouldn’t be able to stand up against a lifetime champion debater, which John Kerry has been.

But, in fact, you know, President Bush has gone into all of his debates starting ten years ago in Texas as the underdog and has prevailed because of one consistent strategy which is he has been resolute and ironclad and robust in sticking to his two or three main points. In the clip we saw when he was asked about parts of his background, he fobbed it off with a joke and said “here’s my point. My point is:” Then he got to his three or four agenda items for Texas.

Senator Kerry, by contrast, has the strengths we saw in his clip with William Weld. Almost any attacker comes at him he turns around very quickly and turns against his opponent and I think we saw even in these clips the image which again and again and again occurred to me in watching Senator Kerry, which is that of the courtroom prosecutor. He had the demeanor of the prosecutor. It will be harder for him directly to address the president tomorrow night because of the rules, but he’ll find other ways to indirectly ask rhetorical questions and that’s the way he’s shown his greatest strength.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Jamieson, talk about persuasion and the use and marshalling of facts. Is it always the guy who has the most facts at his fingertip who wins and is that how we figure out who won?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: No, actually there are moments in which candidates get so bogged down in the facts that they don’t find themes. They don’t actually create a coherent message and it makes it very difficult as a result to get the message across. There’s a famous moment in the Carter/Ford debate in which Carter gets lost his facts and in some ways that moment predicted a presidency that couldn’t find its central themes.

RAY SUAREZ: So when you look at John Kerry and George Bush, at the senator and the president, what do you see them bringing to the lecterns tomorrow that will help or perhaps hurt them?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: I see a clash, a rhetorical clash between a person whose strength was rhetorically as a governor and a person whose strength is as a senator — a businessman versus a lawyer. So for example, what the president is very good at is articulating the clear, coherent theme and coming back to it relentlessly. He’s also good at setting an agenda and staying on message and he argues from principle and not so much from fact.

On the other side, Sen. Kerry brings the strengths of a lawyer and a senator. He works through facts and moves to conclusion. He’s very strong in rebuttal. And, as a result, what you have is a clash of styles — the thematic individual as opposed to the person more rooted in fact. For Bush, the problem is sometimes finding the fact and for Kerry the problem sometimes is finding the theme.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, taking that point, James, are there strengths that line up or match up with weaknesses on the other side? Are there things that the president is particularly good at that will go right for the senator’s Achilles heel or vice versa?

JAMES FALLOWS: And I think it’s more — it’s less the president being able to attack the senator than vice versa and you do have an almost, you know, irresistible force, an immovable type of showdown, because what the president has been really very good at is whatever people bring up as an attack on his record, on his personality, on his competence, within a few seconds he turns it back, as Professor Jamieson was saying, to the three or four main points he wants to stress whereas Sen. Kerry’s strength has been finding those openings, as we saw with Governor Weld.

The reason I think this debate for all the complaint about its histrionics and being judged as a dramatic contest, the reason it really matters is what they’re going to be talking about is essentially the issue on which the election probably will and should turn, which is the conduct of the war in Iraq and the war on terrorism and you will have a match up of President Bush’s resolute defense of that, that it’s necessary to secure America and Sen. Kerry’s argument that it’s not — in fact that it’s weakening us. So I think we have one of the more publicly useful debates than we’ve had in quite a long time because they’re debating what actually matters.

RAY SUAREZ: What you called the resolute defense on the part of the president, how does something like that get exploited if you’re standing on the other side of the stage?

JAMES FALLOWS: Well, there is a way in which historically– by historically I mean the ten years of the president’s performance as a debater– the time when he can most be thrown off by that high – you know — the commanding heights is either by losing his temper, as he has occasionally done. Sen. McCain was particularly effective in making him do this. And then he sort of snaps and reveals a side of himself that’s out of character with the way he presents himself otherwise. Or if he can be pushed hard enough either by the moderator, your own Mr. Lehrer, or by Sen. Kennedy to sort of back up what he has to say and not just rely on the two or three main points. Those are the two times when his resolve has been weakened and his armor has been chipped.

RAY SUAREZ: What constitutes a bad moment for John Kerry, Professor Jamieson?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: A bad moment for John Kerry would be one in which the sense of the answer is not decisive. The problem that the senator has is that he has a complex position on Iraq and it’s difficult in the short form of the debate to articulate that in a way that is going to seem decisive. This is a debate about truthfulness– the Kerry charge against President Bush, and decisiveness– the charge of President Bush against Senator Kerry. And if anything either does in what they say or how they say it underscores the attack of the other side, it will be a weak moment in them for the debate.

RAY SUAREZ: Just a short moment ago, Professor, we saw both Vice President Gore and then Governor Bush ranging across the stage almost physically interacting. That won’t be allowed tomorrow night. What are some of the wins and losses visually and also rhetorically by the way the rules have been drawn up?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: The way the rules have been drawn up makes it more difficult for the challenger to launch an indictment against the incumbent because short-form answers don’t lend themselves to the need that the challenger has to make the case against and then make the argument for. There’s also a problem because the Bush advertising has been more effective against Senator Kerry than the advertising of the senator against the president in lodging in evidence previous ads that can now be recapped by the president. The senator, on the other hand, will still if be in a position to put evidence forward. Short form hurts. Also, because they can’t question each other, the biggest strength that Senator Kerry showed in the debates with Governor Weld is something he can’t use in the debate.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you agree, James, that this is a net loss in the rules for John Kerry?

JAMES FALLOWS: I think there are aspects of it which actually are good for him. I think that over the last two or three weeks… well, if you start back several months ago, the president has clearly honed his message about Iraq and the war on terrorism. We’ve heard that since the Republican Convention that these are the same thing; we are safer because of the war in Iraq.

Senator Kerry only the last two weeks or so has begun to develop his message, and we’ll see tomorrow whether he’s reduced it to the same kind of simple clarity, but the need for relatively short answers actually will force him to do something that he needs to do anyway, which is to distill his message. And so I hope and assume that’s what they’re working on now — hope for rhetorical purposes.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor, will we understand the full import of these events the minute the credits start to roll, or is this something that really shifts shape as the days go out into the future, as we’re preparing for the next one?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Well, first we know that people learn from debates. And so the amount of knowledge the electorate will have after the debate– the electorate that views — is going to be higher than it was before. But the debates should really be viewed as a multi-act play. For example, Vice President Gore in the first debate makes the charge that there’s a shortfall in the transition to the proposed Bush privatization or partial private accounts for a Social Security plan in the first debate. He makes it again in the second debate but it doesn’t actually take hold until the third debate. We saw across our 2000 survey, in other words, that the effect began to build but it ultimately took hold in the final debate. Had he not made the point in the first two debates that might not have happened.

RAY SUAREZ: But does the audience drop-off sort of negate the value of the learning curve to a certain extent?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Part of curves outside the debate itself. Yes, the audience is expected to drop off and that’s unfortunate, but news replays central moments in the debate, and if news picks important moments, clarifying moments to tell us about significant similarities and differences on issues, the learning if news can also be a follow-up. And as a result, if news does a good job, we would expect that there would be learning after the debate but nonetheless about the debate in the news coverage. If it focuses on strategy and tactics and meaningless win-loss and stupid overnight polls, it might extinguish some of that learning.

JAMES FALLOWS: I guess I would say first compared to most past debates, I think in this one the first one will be relatively more important because it’s about the issue of the campaign. Second, following on the idea of what Professor Jamieson was saying about the spin, I think two hours after the debate ends in a way are more important than the 90 minutes when it’s going on because that’s when there’s going to be all this talk on TV about who won, who lost. And I think — I would hope members of the commentariat who will be doing this on TV would take seriously the responsibility and the power they have and I hope they think at least for a second about trying to, you know, weigh their words and say this is a very, very important act of public life they are witnesses and assessing, and emphasize what the candidates actually said as opposed to getting into pure sports judgment.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, has the commentariat gotten it wrong in the past; have they misunderstood what they just watched?

JAMES FALLOWS: Well, the commentariat has often differed from people who actually saw the debate thought. There’s all sorts of famous illustrations: People who listened to John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon on the radio in 1960 thought that Nixon did much better but the visuals were a different effect. I think the Ford and Carter debate in 1976 was an important one where the commentariat did really rub in Ford’s misstatement about Poland in a way that was very harmful for the ford campaign, more so than the performance of the debate.

RAY SUAREZ: and those are the things that are remembered all these years later, Professor Jamieson, right?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Yes, and sometimes unfortunately so. In the first debate of 2000, for example, it really wasn’t going to make any difference regardless of who was elected president whether the vice president went to see fires with Jamie Lee Whit or his deputy or whether the young woman in Sarasota was still standing in her classroom or sitting down. But it did matter that in that debate, President Bush, then candidate Bush, forecast his positions on such important actions that he would take as education reform, prescription drugs and tax cuts to the extent that we talked about the former and not the latter. We missed some of the opportunity to connect campaigning to governance.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor, Jim, good to see you both.



RAY SUAREZ: Just a reminder that PBS will provide live coverage of the first presidential debate, moderated by our own Jim Lehrer, tomorrow night at 9 p.m. Eastern Time.