It's beginning to look a lot like 2004, and 2000 before that: a presidential election that is, as Dan Rather used to say, "as hot and tight as a too-tight bathing suit on a too-long car ride back from the beach," with pressure building for the debates that begin Sept. 30. Given how many people watched the conventions, it's a good bet that this year's debates will reverse the downward trend in viewership seen over the years (the last Kennedy-Nixon debate was watched in 61 percent of homes, while only one of the three debates in 2000 cracked 30 percent) and pull in a huge audience. That means that the outcome of the race could actually hinge on what happens when the presidential candidates (and, to a far lesser degree, the vice-presidential candidates) meet face to face.
So Barack Obama, John McCain, Joe Biden, and Sarah Palin are no doubt devoting an increasing portion of their schedules to debate prep -- studying briefing books, practicing with supporters portraying their opponents, and trying to anticipate the questions moderators will ask. While it isn't possible to turn a candidate into a well-informed wonk with a short period of quizzing (just ask Palin, who, judging by her recent interviews, has not the barest clue about how the government works), there are a few things a candidate and a campaign must do if they hope to win these debates.
The first is to understand that the goal is not so much to win the debate but to convince the press that you won the debate. The first step to doing that is to shape their definition of "winning." In the next week and a half, we'll see an absurd amount of discussion about "expectations," as though an election were a round of golf in which everyone is judged according to his or her handicap. Each campaign will come before the press and say with the utmost sincerity that its candidate is a bumbling fool, and it'll be a miracle if he makes it to the lectern without tripping and knocking himself unconscious. The other candidate, each campaign will say of its opponent, is so smart, so prepared, and so skilled that professors of rhetoric everywhere will weep with joy at hearing him bless us with his wisdom and erudition.
You'd think reporters are smart enough not to be swayed by this blizzard of baloney. But you'd be wrong. No one ever played it more shamelessly than George W. Bush's advisers. In 2000, Karen Hughes called Al Gore "the best debater in politics today," which would have seemed absurdly over the top had it not been for Karl Rove, who called Gore "the world's most preeminent debater, a man who is more proficient at hand-to-hand debate combat than anybody the world has ever seen." That's right, the guy who couldn't put away Dan Quayle was supposed to be a better debater "than anybody the world has ever seen." The Bush campaign's efforts were, improbably, entirely successful: Pre-debate coverage that year was driven by the theme of a powerful and confident Gore who would surely crush the tongue-tied and clueless Bush. When Bush held his own, reporters proclaimed him the victor. Four years later, Matthew Dowd, the president's pollster, called John Kerry "the best debater since Cicero."
Of course, making a judgment about who won on the basis of expectations is inherently absurd. If the spread on a Cowboys-Redskins game is Cowboys by 14, and the final score is Cowboys 24, Redskins 20, the story in the next day's paper doesn't read, "Redskins Score Victory by Exceeding Expectations."
As consumed as journalists are with expectations, that's not the entire game. Kerry did clean Bush's clock even by the standards that had been established beforehand, but in the end it didn't matter much. The consensus at the time was that Kerry won all three debates -- he was better informed, more forceful, and made better arguments than Bush. Yet there was virtually no impact on the polls -- for instance, the ABC News/Washington Post poll showed Bush leading 51-45 on Sept. 26 (four days before the first debate), while on Oct. 16 (three days after the final debate), Bush was leading 50-46.
So Kerry "won" but not in a way that did much for his electoral fortunes. The problem was that there was not a single, crystallizing moment journalists carried with them out of any of the Bush-Kerry debates. No one sequence from the debate was repeated, replayed, and referred to for the remainder of the campaign. And that, in the end, is what makes all the difference.
Pop quiz: Is there anything in particular you remember from the 2004 debates? Probably not. Now what do you remember of the 1988 debate between Dan Quayle and Lloyd Bentsen? Of course, the answer is, "I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy." You remember this not because it made such an impression on you when you watched the debate (if you did) but because you saw it a hundred times in the days afterward.
Why did you watch it and hear about it so often? Because the reporters and editors who offer up the news chose to keep reminding you of it. "You're no Jack Kennedy" was, they decided, the decisive moment. And they decided that because it provided a vivid, dramatic reiteration of what journalists had been thinking all along.
This is the common thread running through all the decisive moments of past debates, whether it was Michael Dukakis failing to cry out in anguish when Bernard Shaw asked him, "Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for her killer?" or Gerald Ford supposedly not knowing that Poland was under Soviet domination, or George H.W. Bush glancing furtively at his watch in 1992, or Al Gore sighing condescendingly in 2000. None of these moments revealed something new; instead, they allowed reporters to say, "See, what we've been telling you all along about this guy is true." Quayle was a lightweight, Ford was a bumbler, Bush had no patience for voters and had all but given up, Gore was a supercilious dork -- voters may or may not have believed these things, but journalists certainly did.
They won't acknowledge this, of course. Asked about his absurd question to Dukakis, which "revealed" precisely nothing (everyone knew Dukakis opposed the death penalty, and if it were supposed to show that he wasn't an emotional guy, they knew that too), Bernard Shaw said modestly, "I thought of Murrow taking on McCarthy."
We can hope that Jim Lehrer, Tom Brokaw, Bob Schieffer, and Gwen Ifill are not preparing a list of vacuous gotcha questions with which to corner the candidates. The debates might reveal something interesting about Obama and McCain, but within a few days, even those of us who paid close attention will see the details seep from our memories. All that will be left behind are those moments reporters told us were important and the late-night comics made jokes about. The "loser" of the debates will be the candidate who finds himself on the wrong end of the decisive moments, whatever else he might have said.
And what is it that journalists believe about Obama and McCain? The narratives are not as firm as they have been in previous elections. Last time they told us that Kerry was a flip-flopper and Bush was reckless and living in a bubble; four years before that it was that Gore was a lying snob and Bush was a simpleton. But if one tried to come up with a single word reporters would use to describe each candidate, it would be hard to do (it used to be "maverick" for McCain, but he's worked hard to squander that image). The campaigns are certainly working to define each other -- McCain says Obama is an elitist "celebrity" who isn't really American, while the Obama campaign has begun arguing that McCain has sold his soul in his quest for the presidency and will lie about just about anything to win.
It won't be easy for Obama to reinforce the image McCain is trying to paint of him, unless he begins an answer with, "This topic came up the other night when I was at a wine tasting with Kanye West and Bernard Henri-Levi." On the other hand, given what he's been up to lately, it seems a near certainty that McCain will say more than a few things about himself, his running mate, and his opponent that are simply false.
I'd love to recommend that we all ignore what the press says we should have noticed in the debate, and instead just make our own judgments. But that's an almost impossible task, even for the most independent-minded of us. Even if we disagree with the press' verdict on who won and who lost, we'll find that our memories quickly fade, and all that we'll be able to recall is the night's most-noted zinger or gaffe. This year won't be any different.