The good news for John Kerry in tomorrow's debate is that he's the underdog. That wasn't supposed to happen. The Bushies have been trying to lower expectations -- Scott McLellan has described Kerry as "the most skilled debater" Bush has ever faced -- but they can't pull that off because they've spent months telling us that we can't trust anything Kerry says. Some in the press are returning to old truisms about Bush's struggles with public speaking, but that's not enough to offset months of media snark about Kerry's syntax (some of it fictional). Throw in the many recent stories about Bush gains in the polls and swing-voter wariness about Kerry -- and add in Bush's rampaging ego, on display throughout his term (he certainly acts as if only an idiot would prefer Kerry) -- and the president is the clear favorite, the guy who really might get hurt by a couple of noticeable gaffes. And that's good for Kerry.
On the other hand, the conventional wisdom -- that the first debate is the most important one, the debate that will sway the most votes -- isn't always accurate. Remember 1984? Ronald Reagan stumbled badly in that year's first debate. Here, from Paul Slansky's The Clothes Have No Emperor, is a description of the most shocking moment from that debate; this doesn't show up in the transcripts, but it jibes with the way I remember it:
[Reagan] blanks out completely in the middle of an answer, stalling for a mini-eternity -- "The system is still where it was with regard to the ... uh ... the ... uh ... the ... uh ... the ... uh ..." -- until he comes up, who knows how, with the missing word, "progressivity."
Reagan made errors of fact in that debate, referred to military uniforms as "wardrobe," and said, just before his closing statement, "I'm all confused now."
Spin ensued. Slansky notes that Reagan challenged Mondale to arm-wrestle, and that the president claimed Mondale seemed younger in the debate because he was wearing makeup (Reagan denied wearing any). Reagan's doctor called him "mentally alert." Republican senator Paul Laxalt blamed the briefing process.
That was October 7. Slansky writes about October 21:
At the second Reagan/Mondale debate in Kansas City, the President successfully delivers an obviously rehearsed one-liner -- "I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience" -- and thereby puts an end to fears about his recently displayed senility.
So determined are voters to ignore his flaws that not even his observation that Armageddon could come "the day after tomorrow" (a commnt that prompts Nancy to gasp, "Oh, no!") or his almost incoherent closing statement (something about a time capsule and a drive down the Pacific Coast Highway) can dissuade them.
The moral of the story: Even if Bush screws up tomorrow night, Kerry may not benefit. George W. Bush may not know much about "winning the postwar" in real life, but Republicans are experts at "winning the postwar" after a debate. There's nothing dishonest in this -- every four years I ask myself when the hell the Democrats are going to learn what Republicans know about campaigning -- but just keep in mind that the GOP will do whatever it takes to "win" the first debate ... even if takes weeks.