The Hollow Man

The debates revealed just how little Candidate Bush has to offer.

David Kusnet

After the third and final presidential debate concluded with the candidates reciting their prepared closing statements, the television pundits repeated their equally predictable conclusion that the event was a draw, with Kerry ahead on substance” but Bush besting him on style.”

But soon afterward, the voters weighed in with a different decision, declaring Kerry the winner by margins ranging from 52 percent to 39 percent (CNN/USA Today) to 39 percent to 25 percent (CBS) and 42 percent to 41 percent (ABC News in a sampling heavily weighted to Republicans).

The people, not the pundits, had it right. Kerry won all three debates. Yes, he scored heavily on policy — a tribute not only to his forensic skills but also to the facts about the quagmire in Iraq and the jobless, raise-less economic recovery. But he also prevailed on personality — with his steady stoicism more reassuring in a post-9/11 world than the self-styled wartime president’s” unsettling tendency to growls and giggles.

While the voters’ verdict on the three debates was varied, there’s no doubt about their impact on the presidential race. Bush began the debates 7 percentage points ahead of Kerry in most national polls. Two weeks later, after the third debate, Bush and Kerry were tied, with about half the voters saying they don’t want four more years of Bush — a perilous position for a president running for reelection.

The campaign turned from a blowout to a dead-heat because most voters seem to see the debates — and, perhaps, the presidential choice itself — through the lens of the first debate, where Kerry was confident and concise and Bush was frowning and frazzled.

But if any of the remaining undecided voters, especially worried working people, were watching the third debate, the Kodak moments came when Bush was asked questions about how the economy affects everyday Americans.

Early in the evening, moderator Bob Schiefer asked Bush, What do you say to someone in this country who has lost his job to someone overseas who’s being paid a fraction of what that job paid here in the United States?”

Bush looked at Schiefer, not the camera, and answered: I’d say, Bob, I’ve got policies to continue to grow our economy and create the jobs of the 21st Century. And here’s some help for you to get an education. Here’s help for you to go to a community college.” Then, Bush started singing the praises of No Child Left Behind, the program to improve the nation’s public schools, from kindergarten through high school.

Several questions later, Bush was asked whether he would raise the minimum wage. This time, he devoted two sentences to low-wage workers, then retreated to No Child Left Behind.

For voters anxious about losing good-paying jobs or already working for poverty wages, Bush’s message was clearer than he knew: The problem, dummy, is you didn’t get a good education. And while it’s most likely too late for you, at least your kids just might have a future, if we shake up or shut down their schools.

Maybe Bush’s just-folks manner still makes him personally likeable, but the third debate went a long way toward sealing the impression that he’s a regular guy who’s out of touch with regular people. After all, he’s been president for four years, but on the night when his presidency hung in the balance, he couldn’t speak for 90 seconds about the problems of mature workers who are afraid their jobs will be shipped overseas, leaving them working for Wal-Mart wages.

Bush’s failure to fill his allotted time with credible discussions of economic issues spoke volumes about his handicaps as a debater, as a candidate, and, ultimately, as a president. Before the debates began, pundits and partisans alike agreed that Bush and Kerry had contrasting problems. Bush’s challenge was to collect and commit to memory enough plausible points about the country’s condition to fill his half of a 90-minute debate. Kerry’s problem was distilling what he wanted to say, so that he could complete his answers before the red lights went on.

Never before (including in Gerald Ford’s and Ronald Reagan’s reelection campaigns) had a sitting president faced such low expectations, nor had a challenger ever had it taken for granted that he had a greater command of the facts about foreign and domestic issues, facing only the obstacle that he had too many ideas to cram into 90-second responses.

Indeed, Bush’s advantages were believed to be his friendlier, more accessible personality and his ability to sum up his positions in simple statements of principle. In 2000, he held a more knowledgeable but less likeable Al Gore to a draw in their debates, and, this time, many pundits and political insiders thought the aura of the presidency would give him an added advantage over the patrician and professorial Kerry.

Except for the second debate where the town hall format allowed Bush to banter with the audience, Kerry was the winner on style as well as substance. Towering over Bush, looking straight into the camera, speaking in a strong and steady voice, and rarely fretful or frustrated, Kerry looked and sounded more like a president than the incumbent. He certainly seemed nothing like the flip-flopper” who had been regularly lambasted by Bush’s stump speeches and the Republican convention oratory and branded unfit for command” by attack ads on TV and a poison-pen paperback in the bookstores.

While Kerry, unlike his running mate John Edwards, is hardly populist in manner, he has honed an attack on Bush’s economic policies for catering to special interests, from the top-bracket tax cuts to the ban on importing inexpensive prescription drugs from Canada. And Kerry offered ideas to address the anxieties of middle-class Americans, from securing their health coverage to abolishing the tax incentives that send their jobs abroad.

Meanwhile, by the third debate, Bush had lost his last remaining advantage — an emotional intelligence that allowed him to bond with Americans, even though he rarely addressed them articulately without a prepared text — the great exception being his bullhorn-wielding pledge to the firefighters and ironworkers near Ground Zero: The people who knocked down those buildings are going to hear from all of us soon.” Except when asked about faith and family, that Bush didn’t show up at the first or third debates. Instead, he smiled at things that weren’t happy, laughed at things that weren’t funny and seemed less like a commander-in-chief than an unprepared high school kid suddenly called upon in class.

In the remaining days of the campaign, Bush and his backers are left with the last-ditch tactic of embattled Republicans: calling their opponents liberals,” and, in Kerry’s case, a Massachusetts liberal” at that. But Kerry has taken pains to present himself in ways that transcend the stereotypes that skewered Michael Dukakis and Edward Kennedy. Unlike his predecessors and presumed soul mates, Kerry is a war hero, a former prosecutor, an aviator and, he reminded Americans in the final debate, an avid hunter as well.

Moreover, the issues in this campaign are different from those of 16 years ago, when the elder Bush branded Dukakis with the dreaded L-word. When the younger Bush bashes Kerry for wanting to spend more money on public education and homeland security, Kerry cheerfully pleads guilty, knowing that these charges carry none of the emotional impact of calling Dukakis soft on crime and spendthrift on welfare.

Four years ago, Bush won, sort of, by being more likeable at a time when it seemed the presidency might not be much more difficult than being governor of Texas. This time, Kerry can prevail with voters looking for gravitas, not geniality. Republican oratory notwithstanding, Bush, not Kerry, may be the candidate whose rationale was reduced to rubble on September 112001.

David Kusnet was chief speechwriter for former President Bill Clinton from 1992 through 1994. He is the author of Speaking American: How the Democrats Can Win in the Nineties (Thunder’s Mouth, 1992).
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