Interview of Gordon Mitchell by Colleen Rowley

Topic: Second Presidential Debate

KQV Radio (1410 AM), Pittsburgh Pennsylvania

October 9, 2004, 8:05 a.m.


COLLEEN ROWLEY (CR): Cloudy, 59 degrees at the airport. 60 downtown. KQV news time now 8:06. Well neither President Bush nor John Kerry gave an inch during last night's spirited town hall debate in St. Louis. How did they do? Joining us now on the live line is University of Pittsburgh Associate Professor and Director of Debate Gordon Mitchell. Good morning.


GORDON MITCHELL (GM): Good morning, Colleen.


CR: Well, was there any clear winner last night, in your opinion?


GM: Colleen, I'm fortunate that my comments today are enriched by my participation last night in a very informative debate response panel that was hosted by the Ridgway Center for International Security Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. The Ridgway Center brought in 13 top scholars from around the country to study the issue of preemptive and preventive military intervention. Two of those scholars, Tom Goodnight and Greg Thielmann, joined University of Pittsburgh law professor Elena Baylis on this panel. It was interesting because we got together at about 8:30 p.m. last night before the debate for some pre-debate commentary, and there was one point of agreement that came up there. That is that there is an elephant in the room in this election. It's a huge issue, but one that media and the candidates seem reluctant to talk about. That changed last night when about 30 minutes into the debate, audience member Daniel Farley asked, "Since we continue to police the world, how do you intend to maintain our military presence without instituting a draft?" It was a very perceptive question. It was not the expected one of, "Will there be a draft?" Farley wanted to know if the candidates planned to do something to avoid having a draft. The answers we heard last night were revealing. Both candidates started by reassuring voters that a draft is not coming. Bush said, "We're not going to have a draft, period." Then they shifted to explanations that answered Farley's question a little bit more directly by saying what they would do to avoid having a draft. Bush said we could turn to technological transformation of the military and use weapons like unmanned aerial vehicles that make soldiers less needed. Kerry said more effective burden sharing, letting our allies carry the load so we don't have to deploy as many soldiers on missions would do the same job. So I think it's an important moment in the campaign in that there are ambitious military plans being laid out by both candidates, Bush's doctrine of preventive war and Kerry's aim to add 40,000 soldiers to the army. Each of these policies create kind of a Hobson's choice. They're either going to have to find patchwork ways to do them on the cheap, or seriously contemplate a draft. The uncomfortable reality is that there is probably no easy solution.


CR: I find your answer there pretty interesting because I notice that all morning, the media does focus on style over substance. They seem to be talking more about how the president was much more aggressive in this debate. He seemed a little more comfortable in the setting. Would you agree with that?


GM: Yes. I think Tom Goodnight, who has actually coached two national debate champions and was watching with us last night had it about right. He thought that Kerry passed a major test in showing that he really is personable. Bush did come back and demonstrate a forceful and aggressive personality. But on content, Elena Baylis said something that I thought was very insightful. She said there was one foreign policy question that was important to all the people who were asking questions last night, and she felt we never got a straight answer on it. That question was when should we go to war? What are the criteria for going to war? We are in the middle of an important change in U.S. law and policy that really has not been brought out in this campaign. For years, the standard has been that countries only go to war for self-defense, when there was an imminent threat. Both candidates hint that they are now moving beyond this standard and that they plan to protect the country by using less restrictive criteria for U.S. use of force. But what exactly are those criteria? We continue to get hints, but not clear answers.


CR: So you didn't really detect any differences that were outlined by either candidate?


GM: There are differences, certainly. But we don't get the difference at the level of an overall doctrine. They talk about Iran; they talk about North Korea; and one audience member asked about what happens if sanctions don't work in the case of Iran. Will we invade? Both candidates seem unwilling at this point to commit to clear criteria that will help American voters try to make sense of what they can expect in terms of when each of the candidates will decide to use military force.


CR: Now I believe the next debate is next Wednesday. At this point, will it change any voters' minds?


GM: The voters are now going to be looking more to domestic policy issues. It is difficult to tell how that will affect the campaign. There were certainly a raft of issues that came up last night with the first focus on domestic issues. This debate seemed to provide a platform for each of the candidates to return to their main themes and shore up their storylines that they had been building on. We'll see if that trend continues or perhaps if the candidates still have some new ideas and arguments to unfold in the next debate.


CR: Thank you very much for joining us this morning.


GM: My pleasure.