Man Without Qualities

Monday, October 04, 2004

It's Cul-de-sac All Over Again

Yogi Berra never said that, of course, but if he extended himself to the last Thursday's presidential debate and its punditocracy aftermath, he could have. I do not believe Senator Kerry's performance in the Presidential debate will prove to be effective in a lasting manner - for reasons similar to those that rendered his acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention, and that Convention, ineffective. Many of the same pundits who proclaimed the Senator's dead-end acceptance speech a success are now declaring what I believe to be his equally dead-end debate performance a success. Yes, in the case of the first debate Senator Kerry has seen an ambiguous, modest bounce in some polls - a bounce a little clearer than the ambiguous, modest bounce he may have received after his all-but-disastrous convention and acceptance speech. But his debate performance probably wasn't a meaningful success - although not for the reasons most of his critics have focused upon to date.

The Man Without Qualities has not previously commented on the first Presidential debate because I assumed (apparently incorrectly, but there is so much I can't review) that my view would be reflected more or less accurately among the huge outpouring of commentary. There are those who think the Senator was awful - but these commenters write too much like college debate judges or theater reviewers. A presidential debate is not a college debate and definitely not an entertainment. There are those who think not not only was the Senator terrible, but that the President did a wonderful job - but these writers are focusing on substance and ideology, not on effectiveness of the performance. Bill Clinton, for example, was always essentially substantively contentless in his debates, but he was very effective. RealClear Politics offers an interesting set of considerations as to why the Democratic "bounce" will, or won't, last. I largely agree with the "won't" factors - but I would like to offer a somewhat different focus.

To begin with, one should ask why Mr. Bush was gaining, and Senator Kerry losing, altitude in the weeks before the election even though the media has been presenting Iraq developments as negative? Of course, those developments are by no means as negative as the media has stressed. Iraqi elections are coming, and they will likely work out, just as the Afghan elections are probably going to work out. And the "insurgency" is probably focused on the US elections, and is not a structural instability at all. And the Swift Boat Veteran stories have surely had some effect on Senator Kerry's image - at least with some voters.

But in my view the big reason that President has been gaining ground is that this election is 97.5% about the domestic economy, which has been steadily improving. That means that Thursday's debate did not touch the main factors determining how this vote will come out.

What did ordinary people think? There are the apparent majorities who think Senator Kerry "won" the debate - but that "winning" seems to be determined on grounds quite separate from the only reason the debates are held, changing votes, a question left for a later news cycle. There are the fast-out-of-the-box Newsweek poll and USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll, each of which detects a fairly substantial swing in electorate preference in his favor, apparently as a result of the debate. But those result are not harmonious with another Gallup poll, which suggests that the debate changed very few votes. Nor are they easily squared with what's happened so far in the Rasmussen Poll:

Monday October 04, 2004--The latest Rasmussen Reports Presidential Tracking Poll shows President George W. Bush with 49% of the vote and Senator John Kerry with 46%. ... These results are based upon a survey of 3,000 Likely Voters conducted since Thursday night's debate. Overall, they show that Senator Kerry has so far gained one percentage point from the debate. ... In addition to winning the debate, the Kerry team won the post-debate spin.

Nor is a big swing consistent with the Zogby Poll, which shows at best a tiny increase in the Senator standing in a two-man race, and no change at all in a three-man race. A swing of anywhere near the magnitude detected in the Newsweek Poll, especially, should have manifested itself strongly in first Gallup take and especially in the Rasmussen and Zogby trends.

My guess in this case is that Rasmussen, Zogby and the earlier Gallup results are closer correct. [And consider this update: President Bush continues to lead Sen. John F. Kerry among likely voters ... according to a Washington Post tracking poll. In the aftermath of last week's debate, Bush leads Kerry 51 percent to 46 percent among those most likely to vote...] That's not just because of reputation and poll methodology (Rasmussen and Zogby are not among my favorite polls), but because the debate did not convey a great deal of new information. For example, this Wall Street Journal editorial correctly observes that little foreign policy information was produced in this alleged foreign policy debate. Indeed, much of the commentary of the pro-Democratic spinners - including the mainstream media - has been at pains to present style as substance. Senator Kerry is said to have been "Presidential." Mr. Bush is said to have "looked tired." These factors are real. But that's not a whole lot of new information at any level. Perhaps more importantly, Senator Kerry has a style that can impress up front, leaving the viewer (that is, the voter) only later to realize that the performance was not what it seemed to be. New York City subways closed for the Republican Convention? "Global test?" Etc. RealClear puts it this way:

Kerry made a number of gaffes and exposed an internationalist world view that a majority of Americans fundamentally disagree with. So far those mistakes have flown more or less under the radar, but they'll be exploited in the coming days (probably starting tomorrow night with Dick Cheney) and erode whatever gains Kerry made with voters in the most recent polls.
I agree with that - but I think the problem for Senator Kerry is deeper than his gaffes. His problem is that the same style he employs to make much of so little works much better in the short run than it does in the medium or long run - as those terms might be meaningfully defined under the hot glare of this Presidential race. Worse, once the short-term effects start to dissipate, his style leave a sense of distrust ... of having been misled. His exploitation of his modest but respectable 4 months in Vietnam - and the recent ugly contraction of his service record - is perhaps the most spectacular example of this larger problem. His gaffes, which seem to flow from a deep need to inflate his issues to the point of self-destruction, is another part of this problem.

Mr. Bush, on the other hand, has a style that can be less shark-like and impressive up front, but over time leaves one feeling that he - for all of what can seem to be his comparative inarticulateness - really understands the essentials better than the flashier Senator Kerry. In an odd way, it is Mr. Bush who leaves one more with the sense that he understands the "nuances." Further, I think that particular stylistic difference resonates more with women - and I also think that the enlarged image Senator Kerry presented on the "split screen" (of which too much has been made) will also resonate relatively poorly among women after the first flashes have subsided. In short, I don't think that Senator Kerry did much to shore up his "base" among women in the medium to long run of this campaign. I also think that Senator Kerry had to add some definition to his positions that he has kept carefully ambiguous to date on account of his split base. That should not, over time, work to his benefit.

But although much has been made of Senator Kerry's performance, I don't think it was exceptionally good at all. The bigger problem for the Republicans is that Mr. Bush's performance, while not really bad, showed Mr. Bush without direct, simple answers to entirely predictable and predicted questions and issues. For example, John Kerry said - as many Democrats have been saying - that Saddam Hussein did not attack the United States. Mr. Bush responded as if it were the first time he had heard this canard with: "I know that." But Mr. Bush should have been prepared to casually note that Hitler never attacked the United States, either, but that didn't stop the US from understanding that he was part of a much bigger problem because of his activities over the previous years, such as invading his neighbors. That approach, in turn, should have been used by Mr. Bush to further question Senator Kerry's ability to see the big picture of the unitary war on terrorism. Similarly, Senator Kerry again used his old bromide: "How do you ask a man to be the last guy to die for a mistake." Making this comment was a big substantive mistake by the Senator, since he got himself into the obvious deep water of calling the Iraq War a "mistake" and then denied it. But there are obvious rhetorical responses to this bloviation: "Invading Iraq was no mistake. How would you have asked one of the Iraqi children the US freed to be the last child to die in Saddam's prison?" There are lots more responses that could easily have been canned in advance.

A more disturbing error on the part of the Bush team is the undeniable fact that he looked and acted tired compared to John Kerry. Mr. Bush and his team are supposedly determined to avoid the mistakes his father made in 1992. The very worst mistake Mr. Bush's father made was in allowing himself to seem old and tired compared to Bill Clinton - an error much discussed in the past 12 years. That it was again committed last Thursday by his son is appalling.

Mr. Bush will recover. Senator Kerry is still an incoherent, unlikeable untrustworthy mess, regardless what his spin meisters say. Voters will tolerate a President's looking tired for one day and for not having pointed answers to obvious and predictable questions on one night. More than that makes it look like the weight of his office is wearing the President down - which is a very bad sign. But Mr. Bush won't commit that mistake again.

Obviously others disagree.

UPDATE: The new post-debate Pew poll shows Bush-Cheney leading Kerry-Edwards by 5% among "likely voters" and by 7% among registered voters. In addition, the "internals" in the Pew Poll and the WP Poll are dreadful for Kerry-Edwards. On another front of bad news for the Democrats, the new Newsweek poll seems to have quite a different political party mix than the last one - with a lot more Democrats polled in the new one.

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