Saturday, October 09, 2004

The Over-Underestimation Game

Four years ago, then Governor Bush benefited greatly from the comparative expectations for him and Vice President Al Gore. Bush, it was said, was not as gifted a debater as Gore, and not known to be particularly adept at thinking on his feet. The talented Gore, the consensus held, was going to dismantle Bush.

As the debates unfolded, Gore obviously did better than Bush from a technical point of view, but that didn't matter. Because the expectations game favored Gore so heavily, Bush's loss looked like a victory. Add to that Gore's unfortunate sighs, perceived arrogance and the inordinate focus on Gore's innocent mistruths (whether his dates were correct for when he was with FEMA's director), and Bush won by a landslide.

Last night, Bush again benefited from low expectations. The bar, set lower than the limberist limbo-ist could clear, by Bush's astoundingly incompetent performance in the first debate not only boosted the perception of the truth-challenged Dick Cheney on Tuesday, but it allowed Bush partisans to crow about how much stronger the president looked on Friday, and how aggressive and animated he was - a new man. Compared to last Thursday, this is undoubtedly true. But if this was the first debate, there wouldn't even be a discussion, because once again Bush lost.

Don't be fooled by the fact that his performance was "stronger" as the lead story in Rupert Murdoch's New York Post proclaimed, Kerry was still better. I noted in my analysis of the Cheney/Edwards debate that the left might have been spoiled by Bush's meltdown in round one, and given a false sense that all debates would turn out in so lopsided a fashion. Of course they wouldn't. Bush's team had time to recalibrate and make adjustments, and they did their best to correct some of the flaws in Bush's performance, to varying levels of success.

Bush looked less mystified this time around. He fought back harder and seemed to actually care about the issues, and not regard the nights proceedings as an inconvenient annoyance. Mercifully, someone on his team convinced him to stop making that inexplicable facial expression when Kerry was speaking - I'll call it a "pursmirk" (a smirk with pursed lips).

He was better prepared to talk about more subjects than on Thursday, especially in the beginning of the night. But even last night it became apparent, as the night wore on, that Bush was running out of things to say and was less able to think on the fly - falling back on the non-sequitur loops of the tried and true mantras that have been the consistent output of his campaign's message machine. To his credit, Bush actually scored some points this time around too. At the very least, he provided a sigh of relief to his dedicated base that were left speechless, perplexed and worried after his first effort.

Predictably, Bush's effort has been over-exaggerated because of its contrast to last Thursday. The left, which at times is pathologically self-critical (especially compared to the right's disciplined loyalty), seemed intent to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory simply because a more composed and less clueless Bush showed up in St. Louis. That would be a mistake because Bush, despite his rehabilitation, still lost.

Part of the reason is that Bush was over the top in his effort to dispel the images of last Thursday's massacre. What the right is trying to spin as "strong" and "aggressive" was actually a rather un-presidential demeanor. Through much of the beginning of the night he was shouting, his tone was shrill, and his interruption of the calm and placid Charlie Gibson was outright rude. Such emotion is unbecoming a leader, and is generally the recourse of the insecure and defensive.

I'm not sure when it happened, but Bush's posture has taken on a definitive slouch, with his head craning forward, which further undermined his stature as a leader. Of course, the media will still call him the more likeable candidate, but to the American people watching last night, Bush was hardly likeable.

In comparison, Kerry was once again composed, dignified and commanding. He stood tall and spoke authoritatively, though remained calm and didn't raise his voice which contributed to the perception of confidence. Kerry greedily hoarded all the gravitas on the stage. Once again, Bush lost the all important body language contest that has traditionally been his strength as a candidate.

On substance, Kerry gave detailed answers, but not too much so, while Bush was again prone to over simplification and non-answers. On the economy, the environment (Bush citing his dismal record and then calling himself a good steward of the land?), health care, and almost every other domestic issue, Kerry easily out-dueled Bush. I thought Bush was playing a dangerous game by attacking Kerry's health care plan by asking America if they want the government to provide health care for them. Uh, Mr. President, right about now, I think that most Americans would welcome the assistance. You see, most people reject big government as a vague notion, but when you discuss the concept in specific, like health care or Social Security, the public overwhelmingly supports it. While many of the have-mores, what Bush described as his "base," bristle at the concept of government assisted health insurance, the increasingly besieged middle class (read: most Americans), are desperate for the help. In this sense, Bush's attack helped Kerry immeasurably.

Things got a bit prickly when abortion and stem cell research were discussed, and Bush seized on those moments to give a powerful message to his base. Kerry, likewise, appealed to his base, so the net result was a wash.

On foreign policy, Kerry once again was able to state unequivocally that he would not require permission from the rest of the world before taking military action, but was also able to note the importance of allies. I don't think he made as much of the incompetence of the post-invasion planning record this time, and thus left some points on the table. Bush was effective in hammering away at his themes that Saddam was a threat, and his decisiveness as a leader. But he offered few specifics in terms of policy, and once again was unable to list a single mistake - other than some appointments he made (which implies that any mistakes were not his own, but those of some of his appointees). has a thorough documentation of the numerous distortions and prevarications by both candidates from last evening. While some of the more serious lies deserve the lion's share of the post debate coverage, the one that seems ripest for media consumption, though, was Bush's memorable response to Kerry's charge that Bush was technically a small business under the calculus Bush was using for determining the effect that repeals of certain portions of the tax cuts would have on small businesses in general. Here is the exchange:

Kerry: The president got $84 from a timber company that owns, and he's counted as a small business. Dick Cheney's counted as a small business. That's how they do things. That's just not right.

Bush: I own a timber company?

That's news to me. Anybody want any wood?
It might be news to Bush, but that only reinforces the popular perception that he is less than in command of the facts and events around him. If Bush didn't know, he should have, so he was either woefully ignorant of his own personal finances, or he was lying:

In fact, according to his 2003 financial disclosure form, Bush does own part interest in "LSTF, LLC", a limited-liability company organized "for the purpose of the production of trees for commercial sales."

So Bush was wrong to suggest that he doesn't have ownership of a timber company. And Kerry was correct in saying that Bush's definition of "small business" is so broad that Bush himself would have qualified as a "small business" in 2001 by virtue of the $84 in business income.
The timber company gaffe has all the right dimensions for an info-tainment bonanza: it's simple, there are pictures (of Bush's incredulity on the stage in St. Louis), and there is the embarrassment factor - that either Bush was caught in so open a lie or that John Kerry knows more about Bush's finances than Bush. In either scenario, not very presidential.

[Murdoch Watch: Since I have monitored the coverage of the right-wing New York Post, for the first two debates, I thought it appropriate to share their coverage of last night's affair as well. The title for the lead article is "Bush Comes On Stronger," a reference to the comparison between Bush's two performances. They did not include a panel of experts this time, but they did have a panel of "undecided voters." Of the four, one scored the night for Bush, two scored the night for Kerry, and one scored the night a draw. I remain surprised that even Murdoch's paper could not call any of the three debates a clear victory for their candidates.]

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