One of my favorite scenes in Trading Places is when the Duke Brothers explain how the commodities market works. Randolph Duke has some study aids out on the table to help teach Eddie Murphy: orange juice, bacon, bread, etc. Billy Valentine–played by Eddie Murphy–says, “No thanks, guys, I already had breakfast this morning.”
Randolph Duke, played by Ralph Bellamy, replies: “This is not a meal, Valentine. We are here to try to explain to you what it is we do here.
We are commodities brokers, William. Now, what are commodities? Commodities are agricultural products, like coffee that you had for breakfast, wheat, which is used to make bread, pork bellies, which is used to make bacon, which you might find in a bacon and lettuce and tomato sandwich.”
When Bellamy says that last bit–”…which you might find in a bacon and lettuce and tomato sandwich”–Murphy looks deadpan into the camera with this absolutely brilliant, “this guy thinks we’re all idiots” face.
I got the exact same vibe all Wednesday night. John Kerry is a better talker. He knows more public policy. He has plans and all that. But at the end of the day George W. Bush is the guy who looks into the camera and says, “Get a load of this guy.”
I’ve always had two theories of this election. The first was the conventional wisdom: If Iraq and the economy were going well by Labor Day, Bush would be a shoo-in. But that’s turned out to be not too reliable a rule of thumb, because the economy is neither bad nor good, politically speaking. As for Iraq, that’s even more muddled. It certainly is true that Iraq is going poorly in many respects. But what the conventional wisdom–including me–failed to take into account is that Kerry could prove so untrustworthy that Bush could keep a double-digit advantage on foreign policy even though Bush’s signature foreign-policy achievement is at best a work in progress.
My second theory involved an even more elemental fact. John Kerry is a sphincter.
Okay, that’s a bit juvenile. But I’ve always thought the guy was unlikable. The clincher for me was the countless stories of him cutting to the head of lines with his Praetorian attitude–and chin!–bellowing, Do You Know Who I Am? He’s a fop, he’s a dandy. He’s arrogant. He talks to you like you need it explained to you that you might find a slice of bacon in a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich.
I always thought that this would be the clincher. Contrary to what the people who think George W. Bush is highly concentrated evil might believe, George W. Bush really is the more likable candidate. Just imagine if the roles were reversed. Imagine if the Democrats nominated a guy like Bush. Democrats would love Bush’s folksy style and his tell-it-like-it-is convictions and humor. And if the Republicans nominated a guy who managed to marry into Big Money (twice)–who talked like a 1920s banker and looked like he was born in blue-pinstripe diapers–Kerry would be the constant butt of class-warfare jokes and the like.
Now, it’s not necessarily to the American people’s credit that they tend to vote for the more likable guy. Politics shouldn’t be a popularity contest in the high-school sense. If we could have Calvin Coolidge back I’d take him in heartbeat, and he was nobody’s idea of a good time. But that doesn’t change the fact that politics by its nature and American presidential politics in particular are often decided by who the American people like more.
The problem for Bush is that in the first debate he wasn’t the obviously more likable guy. His now much-ballyhooed scowls and his defensiveness took that advantage away. I don’t know that Kerry actually became more likable in the first two debates, but I do think likability was removed as a factor. In the second debate, a much-improved Bush still seemed like he was trying to prove he could be a better debater. He was less defensive, but except for a couple of jokes he didn’t try too hard to be himself and, hence, more likable. And under those circumstances, it’s not shocking Bush would lose in a debate to John Kerry.
All of that changed Wednesday night. Not only did Bush beat Kerry on most questions of substance–I thought–but he came across as the infinitely more decent and genuine guy. When Kerry was asked questions about the minimum wage or health care, he switched to autopilot. Bing, bam, boom: Here’s my four, five, six, seven-point plan to do this, that, and the other thing. But when Kerry was asked questions about his convictions, about his moral sense, about the kind of man he is, he wandered around like a drunk looking for his car in the wrong lot, bitterly muttering about how Dick Cheney’s daughter is a lesbian. Bush talked about his faith, his wife, his moral center comfortably. He made fun of himself.
Kerry made fun of himself once too, but he chose poorly. Reminding voters of his grating billionaire wife is not wise politics, which is probably why he switched to talking about his mom. This was an intriguing move considering that Bush had just given sweet testimony about his wife. Not a few female readers emailed me to say they would not have been amused if their husbands had been asked to profess their love of them, only to be subjected to a speech about their mothers-in-law instead.
Regardless, I don’t know that the third debate was a big enough–or watched enough–event to change the dynamics of the race. Kerry was clever about appealing (pandering) to low-income women and the rest. I do think if this had been the first debate, Bush would be close to coasting into reelection. But one thing I am fairly certain of is that these polls showing that Kerry won the debate miss the bigger picture. I think lots of people look at Kerry and Bush and say, in effect, “Sure, Kerry won the debate, but I liked Bush more.” Kerry talks, walks, and breathes like a debater. If you said, “Please pass the salt” to him, he’d probably respond, “First, let me say this about that….” For example, if William F. Buckley were to debate John Kerry, I’d bet that most liberals would agree afterward that Buckley had won the debate. That doesn’t mean that most liberals would suddenly agree with Buckley on abortion or anything else.
Here’s my meager prediction: The polls will show Bush “lost” the debate, but the polls will also show Bush gained ground because of it.