Lesson to Incumbents: Debate At Your Own Risk

Sen. John Kerry and President Bush in their final debate

Sen. John Kerry, left, and President Bush face off in their final debate, Oct. 13, 2004. Reuters hide caption

itoggle caption Reuters

The series of three debates now concluded between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry has reminded us why incumbent presidents used to avoid such face-to-face tests.

While it may be overstatement to say Kerry swept the series (some would give the president a tie on points in the second debate), the preponderance of evidence says he did. And it may as well have been 3-0, because it is now the cumulative effect of the debates that is altering the dynamics of the race.

Less than three weeks ago, as September drew to a close, Kerry seemed locked in a downward spiral. His poll numbers were down, he had fallen behind and his campaign seemed in disarray. His public image had been sculpted by the president's campaign and its allies, with weakness and inconstancy as the prominent features. Democrats around the country were on the verge of despair.

Then came the debates and an almost instantaneous turnaround. Kerry may have been bound for some recovery, but the coincidence of better polls with the first debate (in which the disjointed and distracted incumbent did not impress) influenced perceptions of both the polls and the debate. A new sense of the race took form and quickly took hold.

The new notion of the contest gained currency even as Vice President Dick Cheney performed well against Kerry's running mate, Sen. John Edwards, and even though Mr. Bush seemed more himself and more effective in the second presidential debate (the town hall in St. Louis). The challengers were gaining on the men who have been running the country, not just by taking the stage with them but by taking the fight to them.

This pivotal significance is all the more remarkable because none of the four debates produced a signature moment. None of the four candidates asked or answered a question in such a way as to capture the popular imagination ("Are you better off than you were four years ago?") and create a national memory. Nor did any of them commit the dreaded gaffe that would haunt him for life.

Yet the presidential debates did etch an impression of the president and the senator sharing a stage, submitting to comparative measurement in many ways — some conscious, some subliminal. To be sure, audiences heard the two men hew to their respective philosophies and party lines. But while watching them go at each other, audiences also got a sense of their capacity and poise. And in this largely subjective contest — a test of who seems the more presidential — the challenger was the surprising winner.

Kerry managed to work the old expectations game, much as Mr. Bush had done in the debates of 2000. Then Vice President Al Gore was cast as the frontrunner, Mr. Bush as the hunter. Gore got awful reviews in the first debate and tried different tacks in the second and third rounds with mixed results. This time around it was Mr. Bush scrambling to be more likeable (smiling in the third debate) and mostly looking self-conscious and ill at ease.

Kerry also gained from the debates by defining himself in his own terms and escaping the "flip-flopper" pillory (a fact tacitly acknowledged when the president dropped this line of attack in the final debate). But most of all, Kerry exploited the chance to stand on a level with the president, to bring him down to size and subject his pronouncements to scrutiny outside the protective confines of the Oval Office.

Before the debates, the president had a lead of five to 10 points in most of the national polls. That lead has withered over the course of the two debate weeks. Yet the best news for Kerry may not be in the horse-race numbers but in the details. Which candidate do you trust to handle the economy? The war in Iraq? The war on terror? A national crisis?

Even after televised presidential debates began in 1960, incumbent presidents found it relatively easy to avoid debating their challengers. It didn't hurt Lyndon Johnson in 1964 or Richard Nixon in 1972 to wave such suggestions aside.

It was President Ford who broke with tradition by agreeing to debate Jimmy Carter in 1976, when Ford was an unelected president trailing badly in the polls. Carter followed suit in 1980 by debating Ronald Reagan, whom he thought he could put away in a head-to-head meeting. Reagan used the opening to put Carter away, instead.

When the first President Bush sought a second term in 1992, he was down in the polls and had both Bill Clinton and independent candidate Ross Perot to contend with. The two caught him in a crossfire from which he did not recover.

The current President Bush may have thought his situation this year more akin to that of two other incumbents who chose to debate when they did not need to: Reagan in 1984 and Clinton in 1996. Both were comfortable enough with their stage skills (and their leads over their respective rivals) to debate when they had little to gain and everything to lose.

Bush may yet be proven right. If Kerry has pulled even, or even a little ahead, he still faces a formidable challenge in the Electoral College. It's still easier to put together the magic total of 270 electoral votes for the incumbent, based on the distribution of his vote. But if that calculus changes, the debates of 2004 will stand as a warning to confident occupants of the White House in the future.

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