Jewish World Review March 22, 2004 / 29 Adar, 5764
LET HIM LOOSE!
So I'm at the pow-wow of Wall Street investment pros, and the issue of the presidential election comes up. On that particular day, John Kerry's challenge to President Bush for a series of monthly debates was all the talk.
"The president should avoid that one," said one money manager.
"A huge mistake," said another. "This Kerry would eat his lunch, and I don't even like Kerry."
It seems the Republican "in" crowd's most feared opponent has emerged, and it is the decorated war veteran, fast-on-his-feet, two-decade-long Sen. John Kerry. One pro longed for the days when it looked like former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean was going to get the Democratic nomination. "He'd have been a layup," he said. "Not this guy."
Here's my question: Why? I mean is it just me, or are the president's supporters just a tad overreacting to this Kerry surge? And despite the fact they keep proclaiming Bush is their man, why do they seem to have so little faith in their man?
I think this issue of monthly debates is a good one. And far from shirking from them, I think the president should welcome them. After all, if he's such a bad debater, how is it he managed to eat the wildly overrated Al Gore's lunch? The George Bush I saw in the 2000 presidential primaries acquitted himself quite nicely. After all, he did get the nomination.
What's remarkable to me are the constant jabs at the president that he's either too slow, too inept or simply too dumb to challenge a fast-thinking opponent in a one-on-one. Please tell that to the supposedly vastly superior intellectual named Gore.
I think presidential debates are decided on issues that go way beyond simple brains and more to common sense. We like to "like" our presidents. And most Americans came away liking George Bush more than they did Al Gore. I think I know why. George Bush was the same guy in each debate. Comfortable in his own shoes. Al Gore kept switching his shoes! He was a different guy in each debate.
In the first clash, Gore hissed, sulked, interrupted and overall, acted like the most annoying kid in the class. He was condescending, rude and distant. Bush was jovial, sometimes kidding, even self-mocking. I'm not saying he was tops on all details or all policies, but he relayed the big picture right smaller government, bigger defense, trustworthy leadership.
You don't have to score well on policy in these debates (although you don't want to look like a dunce, either). I think John Kennedy proved in 1960 that you can set an agenda on TV and come across looking superior (which might explain why most who "listened" to the Kennedy-Nixon debates on radio thought Kennedy got the lesser of it). On TV, it's a whole different issue.
I think Bush knows that. Television captures little moments and unfairly magnifies them. The smart issue wonk often comes across as smarmy. The big-picture guy with a wink in his eye and a smile often looks better.
It worked for Ronald Reagan in his debates with Jimmy Carter, and later in his one-on-ones with Walter Mondale. He smiled more. He laughed more. He was positive more. A lot more. You knew who Reagan was, and you knew Ronald Reagan knew who Ronald Reagan was. That's the key.
So many Republican strategists are so afraid of what gaffe the president will commit that they're missing his biggest selling point of all people intrinsically like the president, they don't really know his challenger.
Look, these guys can go on and on talking up and down the economy, and the pros and cons of being in Iraq, but the real issue for me isn't an issue at all. It's how each appears. How each handles the pressure. How each comes across. And ultimately, how each wears in American living rooms.
Some say debates are about the economy, stupid. I say they're about being real, stupid.
There's a reason the smartest guy in the class isn't necessarily the school president, or the CEO of a company the brainiest guy at that company. Other factors come into play factors having more to do with how you make people respond to your heart than how you make them respond to your brain.
Debates are as much about style and comfort as they are about wit and wisdom. The two are linked on TV. I say, let the better man wow 'em on TV.
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