The presidential debates begin this week, and sages of all ideological descriptions predict they will determine the outcome of November’s election. (That’s not true, but what the heck?) So what will it take for George W. Bush or John F. Kerry to win the day? Here are a few forensic tips for the contestants:
Bring your sense of humor. Humor is the universal solvent in politics. A good, wry sense of one’s strengths and virtues conveys a sense of personal maturity and composure, while mingy griping makes one look like a weasel. Ronald Reagan and John Kennedy were masters of the politico-comic art. Remember Reagan’s puncturing concerns about his age in a debate with Walter Mondale when he promised “not to make an issue of my opponent’s youth and inexperience”? Writers on the Bush and Kerry staffs are doing their best to find even one such line for Thursday’s debate.
The only problem is that it’s almost impossible to coach a sense of humor. Either you have it or you don’t — and true wit shows itself not in rehearsed rib-ticklers, but in reacting to unexpected situations. Al Gore tried to throw George W. Bush off his game in their first debate by lumbering into the personal space of the then-Texas governor as he tried to answer a question. The president gutted Gore with a simple gesture. He sized him up, smiled, nodded his head as if to say, “Nice day, isn’t it?” and proceeded with his answer. Gore had nowhere to go, literally and figuratively.
Never lose your cool. Every self-respecting politician feels the occasional temptation to grab a moderator (or an opponent) by the lapel and pound his face into hamburger. But stupid questions are a staple of moderated debates. The challenge for any good politico is to transform an idiotic inquiry into a teaching opportunity, and do so with a smile.
Act as if you’re the front-runner. Campaign managers often tell political challengers to come out like angry bulls and gore an incumbent with heat-seeking facts and jabs. A friend of mine once ran for governor in a prominent southern state. His handlers told him to rip into his opponent with the fury of a wounded heavyweight. He did, and he got creamed in the debate. His own father called to say he looked and acted like a jerk. The moral: Nastiness reeks of desperation. It fools no one, and almost always ensures that its agent will deliver not an inaugural address, but a concession speech. Winners never feel the need to get snarky, only losers do – or more precisely, only sore losers do.
Project confidence. Front-runners also project confidence. They seem in command of their material and, more importantly, in command of their emotions. They do not suffer wrenching uncertainty or insecurity. They simply believe what every good leader believes: That they are destined for greatness.
Don’t memorize too many facts. When politicians begin spouting facts like recent inductees into Mensa, they look too eager to show that they’re not really lying lunks, but policy wonks hankering to serve. Ronald Reagan lost his first debate to Walter Mondale after having been schooled in the arcane of interest rates, the relationship between economic growth and government revenue, and so on. He tried his best to retain the factoids, but they pushed out the information Reagan best knew how to sue – jokes, anecdotes, and even the occasional morally uplifting fable. Most Americans understand the major issues; the last thing they want is a transformer-by-transformer description of Iraq’s improving power grid.
Remember your real audience. There’s always a temptation to play to people sitting in the debate auditorium, but the audience that really counts is sitting in front of televisions all across the nation. If nothing else, candidates need to remember that they’re talking to tens of millions of people, and not just several hundred party loyalists jammed into an auditorium. Remember also that the camera never blinks – and it will catch office seekers in their most vulnerable or exposed postures. George H.W. Bush got drubbed after glancing at his watch during a town-hall forum with Bill Clinton. Al Gore made a fool of himself by sighing and groaning audibly during George W. Bush’s declamations in 2000. President Bush and Sen. Kerry ought to know better – but that’s no guarantee that they won’t do something that makes them look foolish, or that strengthens concerns voters harbored before the debate even began.
Answer the question. Nothing good can come of a grossly evasive answer to a direct question. Michael Dukakis sealed his doom when asked by Bernard Shaw what he would do if someone raped his wife. Dukakis then launched into a discourse about public education. This year, voters will want direct answers to questions about Iraq: what is going on and what each candidate will do to hasten victory.
A corollary of this rule is that a talking point is not an answer. Nobody wants to hear campaign-trail cant. Smart candidates must give the illusion that their brains are functioning, not that they are spitting out pre-fab answers to predictable questions.
Be optimistic. Optimism is the lifeblood of American politics. American politics deals always in the art of the impossible. We dream bigger than any other nation, which is why we have become the object of other countries’ dreams. It is not good enough to use the word “optimism.” A candidate has to practice it: That means he has to make it clear that America’s salvation lies not in Washington, but in the 300 million or so souls who live in places other than the District of Columbia.
Finally, close with class. Elections have turned on simple matters of manners. Ronald Reagan made it a point to shake Jimmy Carter’s hand before President Carter could even think of making such a gesture. It was a telling moment. So was the decision some years ago by Texas Republican gubernatorial nominee Clayton Williams, when he refused to shake hands with Ann Richards after their first debate. Richards quickly went from runner-up to front runner, and Williams – well, he had to return to lucrative citizenry.
Share your thoughts with Tony. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.