What Can Happen When Bush Meets Kerry

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Mr. Friedman is the author of a forthcoming book on freedom of speech and the press and a writer for the History News Service.

The incumbent president, besieged by a lagging economy and a major Middle East crisis, holds onto a small but sustained lead in the latest presidential election polls. The challenger, portrayed by his opposition as potentially dangerous to American security, seeks to prove to the nation that he has the leadership and vision to serve as president. Finally, the candidates prepare for their first debate.

A description of the 2004 presidential campaign? Yes, but also a description of the 1980 presidential campaign. And that's good news for John Kerry as he and George W. Bush approach their first head-to-head debate on Sept. 30.

Nothing is more important in close presidential campaigns than televised debates. For Kerry, they offer an invaluable opportunity at exactly the right time to do what Ronald Reagan was able to do in his 1980 debate with President Carter: define himself and his positions, establish a presidential presence in a high-tension environment and reassure undecided voters and those slightly leaning against him that he'll responsibly and effectively defend American security.

In 1980, Jimmy Carter debated Ronald Reagan only once, just a week before the election. Polls indicated that Carter's lead, which had steadily grown to eight points a few weeks before the debate, was eroding. During that debate, Carter sought to picture a Reagan administration as dangerous to amplify Reagan's reputation as a belligerent ideologue. Similarly, Bush, Vice President Cheney, and other leading Republicans have tried to portray a Kerry presidency as unsafe because of Kerry's reputation for indecisive passiveness.

But in 1980 Reagan's debate performance, highlighted by his delivery of the now familiar electoral query, "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" left millions with the impression of Reagan as a reasonable and informed man who could inspire confidence. This critical impression played a major role in propelling Reagan to a commanding 51-41 percent victory.

Other examples of how presidential debates have played an enormously influential role in American elections offer more hopeful evidence for Kerry that debate success could quickly boost his chances for victory. They also warn that weak debate performance would likely seal his defeat.

In 1976, polls found Jimmy Carter ahead by six points immediately before his first debate with Gerald Ford in late September, though that lead had dramatically dwindled from a 33-point margin in early July. Ford's momentum was then halted by his puzzling insistence that "there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe." Carter won the election and later recalled, "If it hadn't been for the debates, I would have lost."

If Bush pulls a Ford-like blunder, Kerry will need immediately to take advantage of the unequaled power presidential debates pack in affecting the polls and ultimately determining the outcome of close elections. A clear and articulate rebuke to a glaring Bush gaffe would allow Kerry to craft an image as a poised and commanding leader while simultaneously strengthening doubts about Bush's competence and credibility.

Here's another example. In 1988, polls showed only a six-point lead for George H.W. Bush after his first debate with Michael Dukakis. Their second debate began with Dukakis fumbling a question about whether his opposition to the death penalty would change if his wife were raped and murdered. Post-debate opinion focused on how his response to that question reinforced his image as a passionless "ice man." Within a week, Bush's lead was 15 points, and he soon cruised to an easy victory.

For Kerry to win the debates and this election, it's essential that he not repeat Dukakis's mistake of reinforcing negative feelings already associated with him by voters. Above all, that means avoiding equivocations and long-winded, incoherent responses.

Let's take another example. Immediately prior to their first debate in 2000, the polls showed Vice President Gore with a two-point advantage over George W. Bush. After the debate, many pundits and viewers noted Gore's audible sighs and eye-rolling expressions during some of Bush's responses. These reactions damaged Gore's already tenuous likeability and within a week polls showed Bush with an eight-point lead. Though that lead evaporated in the final three weeks to the point where Bush actually lost the popular vote, it was close enough for him to win the election.

Instead of the exasperated huffiness of Gore, Kerry had better emulate other successful debaters such as John F. Kennedy, Reagan and Bill Clinton, who conveyed a lively and genuine sense of enjoyment throughout the course of what are essentially ninety-minute job interviews in front of 40 to 50 million bosses.

If Kerry learns these lessons and emerges from the debates as the perceived winner, he will be able to count himself among other presidents of the electronic age who owe much of the credit for their victory to the unrivaled impact of televised debates.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007


I don't think Bush has "geopolitical objectives", he just wants to win (for the FIRST time). As plausible to me as a military draft is that Bush will simply declare the January Iraq elections the greatest achievement for Democracy since the Magna Carta (watch for the "historical" articles "proving" this here on the Hypocritical Nonsense Network). He will praise the U.S. troops as they pull out and shrug off any comparisons to Saigon in 1975 which the thereby upstaged kneejerk antiwar movement will feebly make. Iraq will then resemble Afghanistan after the Soviets withdrew (e.g. a fertile breeding ground for all sorts of Taliban-like horrors). No doubt that, in the back of his mind, Rove is already working up the spin strategy for the coming and long lasting Iraq disaster: a great victory for freedom (if Bush wins) or a great defeat for American security (if Kerry wins). The point is: this is all speculation whereas Bush's actual track record over the past 3 3/4 years is not.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

I am not making an nth hour prediction, but with the vast preparation effort going on by both sides, it seems quite unlikely that dramatic breaks ala 1976 or 1980 will be repeated. I expect some rather tortured and self-important tea-leaf reading by the instant analyzers of the news media, and claims of victory by both sides (more arrogantly, probably by Bush) almost no matter what is actually said during the dicussion.

It is a close race, so the debates could decide it. They could also end in a draw which persuades few voters to change their minds and leads to an election decided in the end by action in the streets of Baghdad, or on the NYSE, or by the price of oil, or in 10 Downing Street, or by some last minute skeleton coming out of a last minute closet, or by the Diebold company, or...

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

What I wanted to say was, I am not very impressed by Ben's list. I agree re the Geneva Convention, the WMD, the Saddam-Terrorism link, and "mission accomplished, but that is about it.

I don't think making bold and unprovable future forecasts is either a necessary or a sufficient strategy for Kerry. He does need to do more to counter the ads showing his flip flops, and a minimal requirement for doing so is to avoid further flip flops, such as (possibly could be inferred by) calling Bush a wimp one minute and acting Chicken-Little-like about a (unlikely, I think) military draft the next. Going out on a limb to predicting possible but necessarily unprovable future Bush disasters could easily play into the Presidents' strategy of avoiding discussing the details of his disastrous four year track record in office and instead talking about how Kerry is not steadfast enough against “terrorism”.

If Kerry draws a clear and consistent link to American traditions of openness, optimism rather than fear-mongering, protecting civil liberties, public lands, and the environment, balancing the budget, avoiding foreign adventures, working multilaterally abroad, shared sacrifice in war, etc. etc. and catalogues clearly and concisely Bush’s manifold blunders in office and how they are often connected to his departures from such American traditions, he will do about as well as he could hope to.
I think he will try to do that, and could very possibly do well enough thereby to win on Nov. 2.

Ben H. Severance - 9/30/2004

Good points all around. Bush may have no other objectives than getting re-elected, but the neo-cons in his cabinet certainly have objectives, and they're the ones I'm concerned about. By the way, a nice call on Rove's two versions of Iraq and the outcome of the election.

tom plotts - 9/30/2004

Just to clarify, I don't think anyone can say that Kerry opposes the war. That's precisely his problem. On the subject of immediate withdrawal, of course not every opponent agrees that we should. But what every opponent does agree on is that this war is bull poop. What John Kerry has most consistenly said (or implied) is that this war is bull poop *only in the way that it is being conducted*, which in no way or shape resembles an anti-war position.

So many progressives are suggesting that Kerry, deep down, opposes the war in general. Where they get this information or feeling is beyond me, mon frere. I need more than that. I left the party during the Clinton years because I finally refused to stop projecting my hopes on my judgment.

As for when we can and should leave, Kerry's still not clear on why we need to wait for 4 years. His conditions for withdrawal sound amazingly like Bush's, e.g. when there's a stable Iraqi government, security force of some sort, and established democracy. Because his position requires the fulfillment of Bush's requirements for a withdrawal, I have to believe that he does, in fact, agree with the mission though not with its execution. If Kerry were against the war, he'd propose a withdrawal regardless of whether the goals are met. It's sort of like saying you're against the Vietnam war, but we can't leave until the commies are eradicated since we're committed and we started this mess so we have to finish it.

This is a nasty problem, and I know it's not Kerry's fault that we're in it (though I also don't buy his parsing of the authorization vote in Congress, but it is plausible). But I no longer vote to express displeasure, but to express preference.

On a happier note, we only have to worry about disagreeing on this for another few weeks. Then the real fun begins. Frankly, if Kerry does pull this out, I hope he proves me wrong.

Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 9/30/2004

All great points, allow me to respond to some of them.
1) “I think that's the position he's trying to craft, Adam, but his comments in response to the "If you knew then what you know now.." question hurt him something fierce.”

Unfortunately, I cannot disagree with that statement, it has hurt him. It is unfortunate that this was the case since in reality, saying the opposite would have actually required Kerry to be what all of his critics (and even some of his supporters) THINK he is: a flip-flopper.

Remember, Kerry’s vote was to give the president the authorization to take the country to war. His beef was that Bush exercised that power too soon and in the wrong way. Had he admitted to making a mistake with his vote, that would have meant that he does NOT believe that the president should have had the ability to make that decision at all, and this is a position that he has denied throughout the campaign.

2) “I almost agree with Lederer, here. The constituency of the party isn't split at all. Rank and file Dems oppose the war at a clip estimated between 75-85%. He's taking his base for granted (which amazingly has worked beautifully! and why Tom Frank only asked about Kansans is beyond me), and trying to craft a position for these still elusive and maddening creatures called "swing voters" on the assumption that they will not appreciate an anti-war candidate.”

I disagree in part. Although Democrats oppose this war, so does John Kerry. However, few rank-and-file Democrats believe that we should just pull the troops out arbitrarily and immediately. Kerry’s position on this matter is identical to the anti-war candidate in the primaries, Howard Dean, who rejected Kicinich’s call for an immediate withdraw from Iraq. Thus, I do not believe he is taking his base for granted, at least no more so than Bush and every other national candidate in a general election. Anti-war (to me, not that I was polled) means that you were against the war in Iraq. If I had been asked, I would describe myself as against the war. However, I do not, nor does Kerry, believe we can just leave now.

3) “Progressives have a whole lot of soul-searching to do after this election regardless of who wins.”

On this, I believe we are in total agreement.

tom plotts - 9/30/2004

Heck, I'm just wondering if the genus voterus undecidedus will remember half of what's said anyway. I'm waiting for the focus group comments on how much one candidate sweats, or which queer eye dressed them for the evening. Or how they had to break away for a newsflash from ESPN regarding the wild card hunt in the NL.

I'm also concerned about the "low expedctations" phenomenon as well. As repulsive as it is, the simpleton will be forgiven aggression in the debate, while Kerry risks being tagged a bully if he picks on poor, helpless, inarticulate (and probably dyslexic) George. I'm telling ya, these Repos have an incredible media machine. A thing of beauty--at least if you appreciate Bosch.

tom plotts - 9/30/2004

I agree, but I think the format could be exploited by Kerry as well: to issue a heavy attack without the threat of a direct rebuttal or one-liner that you know Bush is being prepped on. Also, it may shield Kerry somewhat on his Iraq convulsions. Watching the spin on this is going to be fascinating, just like a train wreck.

tom plotts - 9/30/2004

I think that's the position he's trying to craft, Adam, but his comments in response to the "If you knew then what you know now.." question hurt him something fierce. I almost agree with Lederer, here. The constituency of the party isn't split at all. Rank and file Dems oppose the war at a clip estimated between 75-85%. He's taking his base for granted (which amazingly has worked beautifully! and why Tom Frank only asked about Kansans is beyond me), and trying to craft a position for these still elusive and maddening creatures called "swing voters" on the assumption that they will not appreciate an anti-war candidate.
I still think Iraq will be Kerry's undoing (when it should have been Bush's). If you heard his responses to Diane Sawyer the other day, it's clear he is really struggling with the corner he's boxed himself into. Rove has, and will, make him pay.
Regardless of votes lost or gained, it's just too late in the game for Kerry to declare clear support or opposition. Either way, he's hosed. I think we'll see more of this tonight. My guess is that it won't be pretty.

Progressives have a whole lot of soul-searching to do after this election regardless of who wins.

Ben H. Severance - 9/30/2004


My list was deliberately vociferous and polemical, one drawn up more out of disgust for the Bush administration than as a winning strategy for Kerry. Nonetheless, Kerry must be aggressive and shouldn't be afraid to come right out and call Bush a liar on a number of issues.

As for presenting unprovable accusations of future events, you are right, it has the ring of scaremongering. But the disturbing thing is that my predictions are all quite plausible, something that no one would have thought prior to the invasion of Iraq. You give Bush too much credit for being rational, yet his administration immediately, albeit secretly, prepared for war with Iraq after 9-11, while most Americans were rallying against Al-Quaeda and Afghanistan. The president was hell bent on conquering Iraq, so why do you think that in a second term he will tone down his Bush Doctrine and reel in his martial foreign policy? Has he achieved his geopolitical objectives? If the war on terror is an ongoing event, and if he has actually made the world less safe by stirring up international terrorism and anti-Americanism, then my prediction about more warfare is extremely valid.

There probably won't be an actual conscription act any time soon, but I can certainly see an intensely "patriotic" recruitment drive where the government basically purchases another quarter million men with huge sign-up bonuses and other incentives. Such an event would not technically constitute a draft, but it would indicate that the war was not going well, or was at least not going to end any time soon. All of which further destroys the increasingly shaky fiscal status of the country. But we'll see; another four years of Bush might actually be rather mundane.

Ben H. Severance - 9/29/2004

I agree with Adam Moshe that Kerry has developed a clear, if sometimes complicated, message (but then waging war can never be reduced to pithy one liners). But rather than elaborate his position, or perhaps in addition to doing this, Kerry must attack Bush with a relentless barrage of accusations and aspersions, all designed to turn the politics of crisis and fear against the Republicans and portray the incumbent as the real destabilizer in the world.

Kerry should boldly declare that a second Bush term will likely produce a major military conflict with Iran, meaning more dead American service men and women, all because the militaristic neo-cons who dominate the pentagon are out of control.

Kerry should boldly declare that continuing the Bush Doctrine will require military conscription--the Draft!

Kerry should boldly declare that Bush's policies will bankrupt the nation making all Americans beholden to foreign investors and the world bank.

Kerry should flatly call Bush a liar. A liar about WMD, a liar about the Saddam-Terror link, a liar about "mission accomplished," a liar about the magnitude of the Iraqi insurgency, a liar about his Air National Guard service, a liar about his entire foreign policy following the operation in Afghanistan (the sole success of his whole term).

Kerry should brand Bush a possible war criminal for his Defense Secretary's willful violation of the Geneva Convention, one that produced the Abu Ghraib disgrace.

Kerry should brand Bush a wimp for freezing at the elementary school while the nation was under direct attack on 9-11.

Kerry should brand Bush a dupe to both the neo-con ideologues such as Ashcroft and Wolfowitz and the war profiteers such as Dick Cheney.

Overwhelming the intellectually deficient incumbent with this assault of accusations and asperions would leave Bush reeling. Kerry doesn't have to address Bush directly, which the debate rules forbid, he needs only present this case and then watch Bush go through an inevitably painful and juvenile rebuttal.

Jonathan Dresner - 9/29/2004

The structure of the joint press conference (aka debate), particularly the requirement that the "debaters" not address each other directly, mitigates the chances of another "there you go again" and also makes it impossible for Kerry to deliver "A clear and articulate rebuke to a glaring Bush gaffe".

I guess that's what we have spin for, now.....

Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 9/29/2004

I disagree. Kerry has been clear and consistent on his position, but perhaps not quite direct enough to be condensed into a sound byte, which explains the confusion. Given this reality, he obviously does not fear alienating his constituents since his positions have been articulated since he starting running in the primaries. The problem is that he is neither “clearly” against the war nor is he “clearly” for it. That is to say, he is clearly in favor of a president having the authority to wage war, and clearly supported invading Iraq IF (and that is the key) all else failed to produce compliance, but at the same time he was clearly against when and how the Bush administration went to war. As I have said, not a very good sound byte, but it is consistent and clear. It is also, in my opinion, the correct position to hold, and one that I agree with. Once the American people hear him explain himself without the filter of Republican campaign ads or political pundits, I believe they will far better understand his position, if not support it in light of the evidence.

John H. Lederer - 9/29/2004

as noted by several bloggers, Kerry cannot afford to be direct and clear. His constituency is split. He comes out clearly opposed to the Iraq war, he loses votes. he comes out clearly in support of it, he loses votes. So he fudges.

How can he avoid fudging and not lose votes?

John H. Lederer - 9/29/2004

as noted by several bloggers, Kerry cannot afford to be direct and clear. His constituency is split. He comes out clearly opposed to the Iraq war, he loses votes. he comes out clearly in support of it, he loses votes. So he fudges.

How can he avoid fudging and not lose votes?