The real debate story was not President Bush’s poor performance or the fact that John Kerry’s skill changed the dynamics of the election. What will be discussed long after the election is over, and these events fade in our memories, is the fact that Bush agreed to the debates at all.
Coming into the debates the Bush campaign had momentum and the president led in all the polls. Now these advantages are gone; the race is even and Kerry has retaken the momentum. Give this abrupt turn of events it’s useful to question why Bush took the risk of debating Kerry. It’s not like he had to.
One week before the first debate, the Bush campaign had not agreed to participate. There were rumors that Karl Rove, and other key Bush advisers, were scurrying to find an excuse for backing out; for example, a new terrorist alert that would justify Bush retreating to an undisclosed location to direct the defense of the nation. There was historical precedence for this expectation; in Bush’s second campaign for governor of Texas, where he ran against Democrat Garry Mauro, George W. resisted debating until the last possible moment—when his victory was assured. But in this instance, the Bush campaign agreed to three 90-minute debates after negotiating terms that they thought would favor the president.
Given the cloak of secrecy that shrouds all aspects of the Bush regime, it is doubtful that we will ever learn the entire story. What we do know is that the Bush campaign made a major political error. They agreed to have the president debate a challenger who was widely reputed to be the finest debater in contemporary American politics.
There seem to be three possible explanations for what turned out to be a debacle for the Bush campaign. The first is hubris: Bush and his advisers may have believed that he would prove to be a better debater than Kerry. Perhaps they deceived themselves by remembering his track record; George W. bested both Ann Richards and Al Gore after Bush came into each of those debates a decided underdog. Before the first debate with Kerry there were rumors that the focus had been shifted to foreign policy and national security, because this was, supposedly, Bush’s strong suit. It was reported that Karl Rove felt that George W. would finish off Kerry in this debate. Given the challenger’s decisive victory, this was a monumental miscalculation.
The second explanation is that Bush entered the debates against the advice of Karl Rove and Karen Hughes and other campaign insiders. They may have warned him that he would be overmatched and therefore should avoid what would likely be a defeat. Perhaps George W. overruled them because he was arrogant due to his success in a score of staged town meetings with the Republican faithful. Bush performed well in this carefully orchestrated format where he was only subjected to softball questions.
My favorite explanation, for what may well prove to be the pivotal political decision of the 2004 race, is that the Bush campaign made a critical strategic error. After the Democratic convention, Bush supporters orchestrated a sweeping attack on Kerry’s military record with the scurrilous “swift boat” ads and the accompanying book, “Unfit for Command.” This negatively impacted Kerry’s poll numbers overall, and his support among veterans and “security moms,” in particular. However, what initially appeared to be a brilliant strategy had a side effect, it called attention to Bush’s poor military record. Democrats were never fully effective in pointing out that Bush had used his connections to get into the Texas Air National Guard and then had not completed his service obligation after he relocated to Alabama. Nonetheless, the voting public was made aware that the president and his opponent had made two starkly different choices: Bush avoided active duty in Vietnam while Kerry volunteered for combat.
Thus, what appeared to be an effective negative campaign against Kerry ultimately impacted the decision on whether to participate in the debates. Karl Rove, and the key Bush campaign insiders, probably concluded that if Bush refused to debate Kerry then the Democrats would link this to his service record and accuse him of cowardice. In effect, they were “hoist by their own petard,” as the saying goes; they were done in by the consequences of their own evil doing.
Rather than risk the negative impact of the president being labeled a coward, the Bush campaign reluctantly agreed to debate the challenger. They then attempted to structure the debates in such a way that would favor Bush, but there was no way to protect George W. from a debater with the skill of John Kerry. It was a monumental miscalculation from a team that hasn’t made very many errors.
In a couple of weeks we’ll know whether the debates were the decisive moment of the 2004 campaign. In the meantime, it’s encouraging to see the Bush campaign floundering.