Saturday, October 09, 2004

Debating Credibility

The modern televised political debate isn’t about issues so much as it is a cross-examination of the men who would be President with American voters as the jury. Since the advent of televised debates, style has consistently won out over substance. Kennedy beat Nixon on style and composure, despite Nixon’s rhetorical strength in the debate. Reagan beat Carter due mainly to his simple homiletic appeals, though Carter clearly had a much better grasp of the complexity of the issues. One might expect the debate to therefore favor Bush, with his more basic and unequivocal messages, his down-homey style, and often charming persona - but you would be wrong.

Kerry is clearly out-performing Bush in the debates. MO’s town hall format was kinder to Bush than FL’s stationary talking head foreign policy debate, but Kerry still emerged with a clear edge. Kerry seems certain to sweep all three debates since the domestic policy AZ debate is universally acknowledged as a likely cakewalk for Kerry, and a problem for Bush. Bush will be on the defensive, with little fact on his side other than historically high home ownership rates, which are due mostly to historically how interest rates designed to stave off recession, not a super economy. Kerry will be on the attack, having plenty of ammunition against Bush-onomics, and laying out his alternative vision for how to run America Inc.

But there is a dynamic at work in these debates that goes much deeper than just the candidates’ positions. The intangible criteria are what most people are looking for, despite what they may claim. It is personality and credibility that win debates, not 4 point plans. Ultimately, people understand that we aren’t hiring a policy as President, we are hiring a man (or woman). We want to know we can believe what the President says, and trust him or her to make the right decisions in a tough corner. We want a President to be admirable, ethical, trustworthy, and credible.

It is for this reason that the same criteria and the same behaviors that jurors look for in witnesses at trial are the key to success or failure in the now traditional televised debate. When a witness is on the stand, or an advocate is in the well, it is the directly observable appearance and behavior of the speaker upon which the merits of the argument or testimony is judged. After all, two competing versions of reality are being presented and one much be chosen. Humans have evolved to make life and death evaluations of others based on such superficial information. For that reason, we do it quite well. It is uncanny how often we can peg a liar purely from watching demeanor. The jury system is a powerful means of determining truth not for the deductive powers of a group of people, though that is part of it, but because it hard to dodge around a dozen evolutionarily successful bullshit detectors.

For many voters, these debates are the only time they will see the candidates in action at the same time, or even for more than the length of a sound-bite or a televised speech. The format of these debates is inadequate to simulate a true cross-examination dynamic, testing automatic responses and poking at holes in logic and fact, but it is enough to get a very good sense of the candidate’s personality, response to pressure, and credibility. On all these points, Bush is being found lacking.

The personality test is clearly turning in Kerry’s favor. The candidates’ likeability ratings have switched places since the first debate, with Kerry now polling as more likeable than Bush. Voters are discovering that, far from being cold and prickly, Kerry is a genuinely decent, thoughtful, and deeply compassionate man. Meanwhile they are discovering aspects of Bush they don’t care for. He comes across as a shrill, condescending, dogmatic, whining, irresponsible, panderer.

Bush is rude, interrupting others and being inappropriately combative, like when he charged at the moderator and shouted him down to demand an extension of time in the town hall debate. He is offensively repetitive. It is fine to stay on message, but at trial, being overly repetitive on a simple point is insulting and annoying to the jury. Bush tests our patience and charity with repetition of bromides like "it’s hard work", "we’re working hard" and "we’re making progress". He is arrogant. Bush’s petulant assertions that he knows how the world works, or that he’s right because "it’s just so", or because "that’s reality", are offensive and condescending. Such assertions depend entirely on his credibility, and that is being utterly destroyed by his stubborn refusal to the acknowledge the reality we see everyday in our lives and in the media.

Bush’s over-rated humor is being shown to be unpleasant and uncomfortable. His sense of humor is cruel and inappropriate, not funny. He made a joke at last night’s debate about Supreme Court justices, stating how he hoped that they would all vote for him, which was about the worst possible thing he could say given the 2000 election. People laughed, but it was that social anxiety laughter that people engage in to cover an uncomfortable and telling moment, not enjoyment.

The contrast with Kerry couldn’t be more telling. Kerry is calm. He speaks with conviction, but not with the wheedling, imploring tone of Bush. Kerry is reassuring. He points out that we may have problems, but that we can address them. He is affable and courteous. He always extends appropriate and articulate appreciation of those who are helping to make the debates happen. Bush seems pro forma, back-handed, and stilted by comparison. Kerry is relaxed. He seems to move and even wait with a greater poise and composure than Bush. Bush stalks around compulsively, hunched over with his head jutting forward like an upright badger when speaking, and sits frozen like a marionette whose strings have been cut when Kerry talks. Kerry is always attentive when Bush is speaking and is relaxed enough while answering questions to remain still if he chooses. When one can compare the candidate’s voices side by side, it is obvious that Kerry’s is deep, mellifluous, calming, and articulate, while Bush’s is insistent, with a whining basal tone, choppy in delivery, with a supercilious, even condescending, tone. The cumulative effect is the difference between the respected older uncle whom you are always glad to see, and the insecure, annoying little brother who is always demanding your attention so that he can show you a dead bug, getting you in trouble with your parents, and punching you when you aren’t expecting it. One is mature, worldly, with nuanced and informed opinions, and a respect for the opinions of others; the other is petulant, self-absorbed, parochial, with limited and inflexible views, and disdainful of other views and experience. People are beginning to see that in a complex and dangerous world in which we must cooperate with others to build security and prosperity, Kerry’s personality is superior. Kerry is the sort of person prudent people trust, Bush is sort you keep on a short leash.

Kerry is also winning the war for credibility. Half of the people in this country are already convinced that Bush can’t be trusted to call the sky blue. Now every day his credibility slips further and further, never to be recovered. The ‘perception management’ efforts of this Administration cannot stand up to critical inspection. Of course, this is the reason that Bush has been appearing only before pre-screened audiences for almost two years, and holds so few press conferences: open challenges to the emperor’s nudity destroys the illusion.

A great example of how the Bushies have gotten so contemptuous of the public is their ‘global test’ spin. Before the debates, Bushies could probably have gotten away with taking a comment from Kerry out of context and fashioning a mythological meaning to it by running it in a few million bucks worth of ads. But it is just painful and stupid to try it when you are going to be meeting the opponent in debate in a few days where he can call you on it, and when tens of millions hear the context of those words themselves. Bush did it again during the town hall debate. He actually stood up at the town hall and accused Kerry of submitting to a ‘global test’ before defending America. It was a stunning show of disdain for Kerry and the audience’s intelligence, and Kerry disposed of Bush’s premise effortlessly. The Bush team’s credibility is being decisively undermined by this contempt for the facts.

Another example was presented by VP debate. Cheney made several factual claims that were simply false, and were easily demonstrated to be false. He said he never claimed a connection between Al Qaeda and Iraq. Untrue, and proven to be untrue almost before the debate ended. He claimed he had never met Edwards before that night. Untrue, and proven with photographic and anecdotal evidence within an hour. Such body blows to credibility, even if on matters of little importance can be decisive. I personally don’t think it was decisive, but the GOP and the media made much of a misstatement of Gore’s about being with a certain person at a certain event, when it turned out to be another event at which he was with that person. Even that small deviation from the facts, if credibly portrayed as being intentionally done for political gain, is destructive to credibility. How much more damaging, even among staunch supporters, are such obvious and self-serving lies?

Of course, the credibility gap for this Administration is largest on Iraq. Their nothing-to-see-here prognostications and rose-colored blinkers regarding the dangers in and future of Iraq is not only losing the American people’s respect, but that of many key Republican allies and even former military leaders and Administration officials. It was the cognitive dissonance induced by the conflict between the Administration’s version of reality and the reality perceived by everyone else that threw Bush so badly off kilter in the first debate. Bush seemed not to believe his own rhetoric, or if he did, he was thereby rendered incredible because of his separation from reality.

The Administration’s repeated demand for the American people to suspend their disbelief, ignore the evidence of their own senses and those of their fellow citizens, and line up behind the piper is quickly destroying their credibility in the eyes of all citizens. The constant twisting of reality and taking data out of context to make false claims has only one logical end in a reasonably free society with a media which is even marginally free. When the history of this election is written, it will be the debates which turned the tide and made the critical difference. Scales are falling from eyes across the land as people judge the candidates side by side. Justice will be done.


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