September 30, 2004

The Kobayashi Maru strategy

In accordance with blogger/pundit/barfly ordinance 719-j/22, here is my unsolicited advice to John Kerry for the debates: Break the rules.

Kerry needs to do something dramatic to turn this thing around, and this just might work. According to the memorandum of understanding, the candidates are not permitted to ask one another direct questions. That means Bush won't be prepared for Kerry to do so, and that's exactly why Kerry ought to. It doesn't really matter what the question is. Anything tough that Leher won't ask, that Bush would rather avoid, and that Americans care about will do (which leaves a lot of options).

Keep in mind that while we all know about these rules, the vast majorty of Americans who will be watching the debate have never heard of them and will interpret Bush's response completely differently from how the wonks do. Best case scenario for Kerry: Bush gets that stunned look (c.f., "what was your biggest mistake?") and stammers out a protest that Kerry isn't allowed to do that, that he's not playing fair, and then refuses to answer. Even if viewers pick up, and Leher explains, that this is indeed the rule, viewers hearing about it for the first time are likely to find it a stupid rule, and not see what the big deal is about being asked a question during a debate. Bush, who has staked everything on his confidence, will look like a pussy. The clip of Kerry confidently asking a serious question of great import to Americans and Bush wimpering about arcane rules of import only to Beltway elites will be played over and over again until November 2nd, with Kerry winning converts each time.

Now, it's equally likely that before Bush can respond, Leher will step in and remind Kerry about the rules. This will require Kerry to cooly say something like, "I'm sure the president doesn't mind answering this important question, do you, Mr. Bush?" At that point, if Bush still refuses to answer, it looks like he's hiding behind some liberal media guy's skirt, and the points still go to Kerry, who can afterwards say that he thought a legitimate debate was more important than some piece of paper drawn up by Washington lawyers.

The worst-case scenario is still a pretty good one: Bush answers the question solidly, and then throws another one back at Kerry, etc. In other words, the parallel press conferences turn into an authentic debate after all.

Anyway, back to the reality that cautious politicians actually inhabit, it's at least good to see that Kerry realizes his first task will be defusing the flip-flop charge. I've thought for a while that he should have explained his problem as largely a matter of being "inarticulate" because that is, in fact, the truth, and because, as Bush proves, Americans are OK with politicans who mangle English. (Ironically, making this defense now is itself a flip-flop; about a month ago (let me know if you can find the clip) Kerry was asked if it was at all his fault that people were confused about his position, and he said no. But like I've said, that doesn't matter.)

But he's going to need to more than simply say that, because the Bush flip-flop spin has momentum and Bush is going to try to score big laughs with it during the debate. Kerry needs to jujitsu this: Start out at the very beginning with an acknowledgement of the problem and the explanation about inarticulateness and then say something like, "You'll hear my opponent talk about this a lot. He'll probably make a few jokes about it tonight. The reason he does this, no matter how unfair it is, is that he's trying to avoid explaining how he himself has so consistently make the wrong choice on so many issues. He'd rather talk about things I may or may not have said in the past than talk about what he's doing now and what he plans to do in the future. If that's what's important to him, fine. But everytime he makes one of those jokes, ask yourself what he's avoiding saying instead."

There's probably a better way to phrase that, but this version is just inarticulate enough to actually sound like Kerry.

Bottom line: play for keeps. If they hit Kerry's fake tan we hit Bush's dye job. If they bring knives, we bring...

Posted by Daniel Radosh


Hmmm... did someone read TNR this morning....


If Kerry breaks the rules, they will pull
the plug on the debate and declare Bush
the winner. I doubt that Kerry will even
be able to stammer out a question of the
type you propose before the moderator will
break in.

Of course, the networks have already decided
to declare Bush the winner, so Kerry really
does not have anything to lose. He needs to
do something big TONIGHT.

If he breaks the rules, Bush will
probably avoid the next two debates, using
some cooked up national emergency as the
excuse. Actually, I wouldn't be surprised
if that's what's already planned.

Huh! No, I hadn't read that TNR piece (if I had, I would've given credit -- and spelled Lehrer right). Glad to know this bit of advice also appeared somewhere the Kerry camp will actually read. Arthur -- I think the TNR version effectively answered your concerns about the network/Bush response.

I don't think Bush would fall for it. Why do we all "misunderestimate" the man? When Al Gore walked up to him, he handled it effectively. I personally think that is when the likability factor that Bush enjoys all started...

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