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Another debate

When the Democrats started holding regular debates early last fall, I have to admit, I was shocked. The only result of having debates so early and so frequently, I thought, would be to force unprepared candidates to make gaffes that would come back on them later.

But watching the debate tonight, I was struck by how helpful it has been to Kerry and Edwards both to go through this ritual so many times. Despite the worst moderating and questioning imaginable -- Larry King is too dim and Ron Brownstein way too smart to be good debate questioners -- both of them were completely assured and comfortable. Sure, the legalistic answer on gay marriage vs. civil unions and the Defense of Marriage Act doesn't quite parse, but the real answer, which is that this is a distraction from everything that really matters in the country, came through.

A Bush-Kerry debate will not be a pretty sight. Every politician has a natural format -- Clinton's was the State of the Union, Bush's the single-topic (war) speech -- and Kerry's is the debate. It makes me wonder whether Bush will try to find a way out of debating Kerry altogether. He can't win just by doing better than expected -- as he may have done vs. Gore -- and even at his best, he will seem hopelessly inarticulate and defensive against Kerry in good form. He can watch the debates of the Kerry-Weld debates from 1996 for hours, and the only thing he'll learn is that debates against Kerry will give him no advantage.

So how does he get out? There hasn't been a presidential election without debates since Nixon in 1972. (Hmm, what does that tell you?) It's now totally institutionalized. David Broder in yesterday's Post suggested that Bush might use Nader, and the demands of the Citizens Debate Commission that candidates with 5% support in polls be permitted into the debates as a negotiating tool to minimize the number of debates with Kerry (or Edwards). But Broder doesn't seem to think that Bush can avoid debating altogether, and I doubt that Nader will be enough of a factor to theoretically qualify for debates even under the looser Citizens Debate Commission rules. Still, this is Bush, and if Rove decides he shouldn't debate, he's not going to debate. How he will pull it off, I don't know, but no one should be surprised if he does.

I was also glad to see that Kerry dealt with questions about campaign contributions by embracing the fact that he and Paul Wellstone were the two principal sponsors of the "Clean Elections" legislation at the federal level. I haven't heard him talk much about that before -- although I can't say I hear everything or even every debate -- and yet he should. It was a bold stance that he took, not just for the typical reforms that cut off various sources of political money, but for the most expansive vision of public financing. It's not something that was going to pass in 1998 when he and Wellstone introduced the bill, or even now. But it's a significant marker of what needs to be done, and the fact that Kerry took the lead on it shows both his commitment to political reform and a boldness that we don't always see.

Sidney Blumenthal has a good piece in Salon about how Arizona became or is becoming or might become a swing state. He mentions the fact that the hard right has increasingly marginalized itself, alienating moderate women who voted for Governor Janet Napolitano. To my surprise, he didn't mention that Arizona is one of only two states (Maine being the other) that has a fully functioning statewide Clean Elections system, under which Napolitano was elected. One factor in the fall is likely to be a showdown on an initiative that would effectively repeal Clean Elections by declaring that no taxpayer money can go to politicians. Senator McCain and Governor Napolitano are on the right side of that debate, the hard right and the powerful industry groups, such as the homebuilders, are on the other. That initiative is likely to have some effect on the presidential race, and because people generally seem to like the Clean Elections system, Kerry's support for it might help.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on February 27, 2004 | Permalink


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Kerry dealt with questions about campaign contributions by embracing the fact that he and Paul Wellstone were the two principal sponsors of the "Clean Elections" legislation at the federal level.

Thanks for this; anything that will kindle some enthusiasm for Kerry is helpful, and I hadn't realized that he was a major supporter of public financing.

I think this should be a major push of the Kerry campaign. Not only to help preserve the progress in Arizona, as you noted, but to energize Dean supporters across the country for the general.

Posted by: Nell Lancaster | Feb 28, 2004 1:34:43 PM

If Bush does not debate Kerry at all, he hands Kerry a big club: "Why Is George Bush Ducking John Kerry"? Can't see how that would play to Bush's advantage.

And TV news might respond to this scenario with extra coverage and one-on-one interviews, perhaps back-to-back - another relative Kerry strength.

My guess would be that there will be just two debates, and Bush stays stubbornly, narrowly on-message, and questioners will be afraid to challenge him. His strategy will not be to win, but will be to avoid mistakes and achieve a tie.

Bush probably won't be able to count on Kerry wearing funny makeup or acting eggheadedly condescending.

Posted by: Crab Nebula | Feb 28, 2004 6:48:43 PM

The GOP convention got set so late in the season precisely to limit the debates. There will be two, in October, and Nader will be included (which could backfire on Bush).

By releasing dirt on Kerry the day before each debate, Rove will try to keep Kerry off guard with the revelations dominating the debates. That, and the capture of OBL (thus negating Kerry's strength on defense issues) are the only way I can fathom these debates occurring.

Unless Bush is 'too busy' launching a new military action.

Posted by: Kevin Hayden | Feb 28, 2004 11:16:49 PM

Bush tried to get out of the debates in 2000, but that strategy didn't last a week.

And Rove used the debates to win the election. When Bush said his experience in crisis was limited to checking out burning brush in Texas, Gore said, yeah, been there, saw that, with Jamie Whitten.

The next day we learn Gore had seen burning brush in Texas, but not with Whitten. Gore, you see was A LIAR. Throw in one butterfly ballot, and the result is the current disaster.

Posted by: Peter | Feb 29, 2004 4:34:04 PM