Bush's debate handicap: He simply knew too much

If President Bush had not clearly won the three debates in 2000 against so formidable a debater as Al Gore, one would be tempted to chalk up last week’s inept performance to an innate lack of verbal skills. But Bush’s forensic abilities were so amply on display four years ago that their disappearance last week is all the more puzzling.

The fault, one suspects, lies with the candidate’s advisers and coaches, who clearly were not up to the task of preparing the president for the debates. It is a much more difficult task to prep a president than to get a challenger in shape to debate well. The president has a clear disadvantage: He knows too much.

A challenger knows little more than his briefing book. Immersed in the issues only as he prepares for the confrontation, he has no trouble putting his ideas into words, since he does not know the nuance and subtlety that a president does about the issue under discussion.

But a president is sometimes muscle-bound and can’t handle the arguments nimbly and articulately. He is blinded by knowing everything. When Kerry mentions Korea, for example, Bush probably recalls a thousand details that have been raised at a hundred meetings about how to deal with the reclusive and sullen regime.

As the debate turned to our relations with our allies, the president had to consider his personal relationships with a dozen foreign leaders, assessing each one and deciding how to address the issue broadly and publicly.

The president was also probably worried that his words could damage the American war effort. Asked, for example, about his failure to get United Nations approval for the war, Bush may have wanted to dwell on the corruption of our allies, each with their hand in the till reaping oil-for-food profits.

Knowing the gravy train would be terminated along with Saddam Hussein’s regime should the United States invade, how could they be expected to endorse military action so clearly against their personal financial interest? But Bush likely felt he couldn’t say that for fear of alienating our allies further and accusing them of corruption.

Kerry, as the challenger, had no problem in describing those who fought with us as a coalition of the “bribed and coerced.” He did not have to take the angry phone calls the next day from spurned allied leaders.

These constraints make the job of the president’s debate coaches so much more important. They must unravel the complexities and get the president to dwell on the key, simple points, wading through the data and the information to reduce his approach to a few key messages.

One could see his advisers’ instructions as Bush debated last week. They must have emphasized the need to stress Kerry’s inconsistencies and to point out how his negative characterizations of the war would undermine American troop morale.

Both those points were good. But the briefing didn’t go deep enough. And when Kerry raised specific points about the war, Bush just kept repeating his few message points rather than wade into the arguments to show the Democrat up.

For Friday’s debate, Bush’s people must prep him by frequent mock debates during which he practices replies to Kerry’s sallies. He should prep with videotapes of Kerry’s first debate performance and practice and polish replies for the next confrontation until he gets them right. And his substantive advisers — Condi Rice, Colin Powell, Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld — must make clear what he can say rather than just warn him of what he must avoid mentioning.

Bill Clinton never had this problem. He was so articulate that he thought about policy always in terms of a speech or a presentation. He would mouth the rhetorical line even as he was formulating a course of action. Awakened in the middle of the night, he could defend his policies because he had developed them precisely with a defense in mind.

Bush needs to make the transition from policy formation to political debating, and the move is not an easy one. He has to spend a lot more time with his people training for Friday’s debate. It may well be his last chance to win the election.