Interview of Gordon Mitchell by P.J. Maloney

Topic: Presidential Debates

KQV Radio (1410 AM), Pittsburgh Pennsylvania

September 30, 2004, 10:30 a.m.


P.J. Maloney (PJM): Well the debate is tonight; it's the first of three presidential debates. It's down at the University of Miami, at 9 o'clock tonight. You will be able to hear it live tonight on KQV. Let's talk about it with Gordon Mitchell, he's the University of Pittsburgh's Director of Debate. Thanks a lot for talking with us. Good morning.


Gordon Mitchell (GM): How are you, P.J.?


PJM: Super. I guess you would agree with a lot of people that this is really important for a lot of folks who may not be following the news coverage, and it's from these debates that they are going to form an opinion about who to vote. Would you agree with that?


GM: Sure, P.J. but I think you've got to step back and ask if these things are really debates at all. If you take blitzes, long passes and field goals out of football, you have to wonder if it is still a football game. It's the same thing with this 32-page Memorandum of Understanding that the competing campaigns have drafted to lay down the ground rules for the debates. It looks like a dozen credit card agreements strung together. There are so many restrictions on the candidates asking questions to each other, no follow up questions from the moderators, candidates can't make any pledges, they can't move from behind the podium. You have to wonder whether this thing is really just a glorified bipartisan press conference.


PJM: Well it is. I don't think there is any question about that. It's not a debate in the classic sense, and that's the business that you are in. Paul Krugman had an article in the New York Times this morning; I don't know if you saw it. He was wondering about the press coverage tomorrow. Are we going to be looking at the issues that were discussed, and the facts, the misstatements and the like, or are we going to be looking at things like demeanor, body language, tone of voice, likeability, makeup, all that kind of stuff?


GM: It is interesting to go back to 2000. The immediate reaction was that Gore had the advantage in the debates, and then the media spin started and people began focusing on his sighing and his demeanor during the actual performance. I think this format does lend itself to that. The media tend to focus on issues of style over substance, simply because all of the back-and-forth dialectic has been sucked out of the format.


PJM: On the other hand, I think it's ironic that most of the rules are designed to minimize that as best they can, to prevent a candidate from being embarrassed by the rolling of eyes or body language, or to prevent one candidate from walking over to the other in an intimidating fashion - how do you respond to that? All of those are kind of non-substantial kinds of act that they are trying to eliminate with those rules.


GM: It will be interesting to see how much success they have with that. One part of the Memorandum of Understanding prohibits cutaways by the network cameras. They're trying to prevent cameras from focusing on candidates who are not speaking. Of course this is in reaction to the 1992 debate when cameras caught George H.W. Bush looking at his watch during the debate. The networks have actually said they are not going to follow that rule. There is another subtle new addition to the format. This is the first presidential debate where the audience will actually see the warning lights showing how much time remains in each candidate's speech. Apparently the Bush folks pushed hard to get that included because they felt that Kerry has a tendency to be verbose and that if he is speaking after time is up, that might make him look bad.


PJM: Well all of this cynicism aside, if you were an advisor to Kerry, what would you tell him he has to do tonight?


GM: First, he's got to get some magnetism. Bush's negatives are very high, but Kerry is having trouble converting Bush negatives into his own support. Kerry needs to establish some charisma that enables him to do that. Second, and this is absolutely crucial, he's got to break the "flip flopper" frame. It was fascinating to read Marc Sandalow's article last week in the San Francisco Chronicle. He's the Washington Bureau Chief for that paper. He went through and analyzed 200 Kerry statements and speeches on Iraq and found that they are very consistent. It is a nuanced position that Kerry has taken, but not inconsistent. For example, Exhibit "A" that the Bush administration puts forth to prove Kerry flip-flopping is the statement by Kerry that he "voted for" the Iraq reconstruction bill "before he voted against it." Taken out of context, that statement is confusing. But when you actually look at the nature of Senate politics, it makes sense. Kerry voted against that bill, the $87 billion reconstruction bill for Iraq, if the funding would have added to the deficit. He voted for the same exact bill that had a different funding mechanism taxing individuals making over $300,000 per year.


PJM: Now wait a second. I want to put you on the spot. Put that in a phrase, or two phrases, that Kerry can use, so that people can shake their heads and say, "You know, he's right."


GM: That's actually one of the opportunities that is presented in this debate. He has a little bit more time, one and a half minutes, or two minutes . . .


PJM: But don't you think that if he goes through the kind of explanation you gave, which is correct, it's still not understandable for a lot of people; it becomes boring, and they don't pick it up?


GM: Yes that's true. You know the handlers that coach presidential candidates in these debates have them focus on the first 15 seconds of each answer because data show that's when the viewers pay most attention.


PJM: Let's go to Bush now. If you are coaching Bush, what do you tell Bush he has to do?


GM: I'm going to be very curious to watch tonight to see if he can avoid repetition. There are 16 questions he's going to face, all on foreign policy. In some ways, they are all going to touch on issues of 9/11, Iraq and the "war on terror." Bush is excellent at getting the well-honed, crafted slogan or message out there. He may end up using that basic message many, many times to answer different questions. I will be curious to see how that affects his stature and credibility, if he keeps saying the same thing over and over. The other thing with Bush is that he has to walk the fine line between stretching ambiguous evidence and outright distortion. That's what Kerry has been trying to push in the last couple of weeks of the campaign, how Bush seems out of touch with the on the ground realities in Iraq.


PJM: So you would tell Bush to do what with regard to that issue?


GM: Choose his evidence very carefully and practice defending the optimistic forecast that he has for January elections in Iraq in light of the leaked National Intelligence Estimate from his own National Intelligence Council that says that the possibility of holding elections under current circumstances is quite bleak.


PJM: Gordon Mitchell, thanks a lot for talking with us.


GM: My pleasure. Thanks P.J.