I have bad news for Democrats holding out the hope that the three upcoming presidential debates will spark a turnaround in John Kerry’s campaign. He will lose the debates decisively, en route to a thumping at the polls in November.
Because Americans already know George W. Bush and his beliefs, for better or worse, he enters the debates minus the burden of something to prove. Many, perhaps most, Americans, however, do not know Kerry, putting more pressure on him to give a good accounting of himself. The problem is, Kerry also does not seem to know who he is, and it’s too late for him to figure himself out.
Rather than showcasing a Kerry whom more people will consider voting for, the debates will expose a Kerry most Americans will realize they cannot vote for. What will sink him is the same underlying squishy uncertainty, if not downright deviousness, on major issues he has displayed throughout his quest for the presidency.
Questioned about Iraq, Afghanistan, the war on terrorism, the economy, education, or any other issue, Bush will simply defend his positions with the same cocksure certainty he had in arriving at them. And rather than telling voters what he thinks they want to hear, he will state what he believes, with answers based on a set of core principles that have proved unwavering during his presidency.
Kerry, on the other hand, will have the disadvantage of not being able to speak from the gut but only from the debate playbook. Questioned by the panelists, there will be an instant before each Kerry response when he asks himself, “Now what, strategically, would be the best way to answer this question?”
The side-by-side contrast between the genuine Bush and the contrived Kerry will be stark. Although he may be more articulate, Kerry’s obvious calculation of each answer will make him come across as a tin man debating someone with a beating heart.
Democrats can’t even take refuge in the possibility of Bush’s being hurt by one of his famous verbal pratfalls. He has made so many of them going back to the 2000 campaign that, as was the case with gaffe-prone Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan before him, they are now sloughed off by most Americans.
Then, there’s the likability factor, another advantage for Bush. In both words and demeanor, Kerry will cement his image as an elitist in comparison to the down home, plain-spoken president.
In other recent debates, including Reagan against Jimmy Carter in 1980, Reagan against Walter Mondale in their second encounter in 1984, George H. W. Bush against Michael Dukakis in 1988, and Bush against Al Gore in 2000, the more likable but supposedly less articulate candidate was perceived as the winner. The 2004 debates will be no exception.
In a way, the upcoming debates are, as Yogi Berra would say, déjà vu all over again. Four years ago Democrats expected Gore to trounce Bush in their podium-to-podium face-off and seal the election. They viewed Bush as a stumblebum who couldn’t possibly hold his own against a polished debater. But the Democrat didn’t prevail then, and he won’t now.
For Kerry, the trio of debates will be three-strikes-you’re-out. After he loses the first, allows his desperation to show in losing the second even bigger, and goes quietly in the third with an air of resignation, there will be only one thing left for him to do this election year: start working on his concession speech.
–A former contributor of speech material to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, Doug Gamble writes for various Republicans and corporate executives.