It's hard to imagine tonight's town hall debate in St. Louis helping President Bush, but since the conventional wisdom has declared him the loser in the first debate -- in which he did fine -- maybe he will flail around to rave reviews. I've given up trying to understand how people assess these things.
For candidates, the town hall format requires a kind of empathy-on-demand, perfected by Bill Clinton and now firmly entrenched in our political culture. Tonight Bush and John Kerry will need to show that they "get it," and that they "care about the problems of people like me," in the standard polling phrase.
Who are "people like me," in a nation of nearly 300 million? Why, "ordinary, average Americans," of course. No one at these town hall events has yet taken umbrage at being referred to as average, a term I find rather…insensitive. This is probably because they have more pressing grievances every four years. For spectators, televised town halls are an invitation to reverse JFK's famous credo and ask what their country can do for them, and to seek solutions to problems that have more to do with human imperfection than anything a president can influence. The candidates are happy to oblige them.
Whole areas of vital substance get ignored, especially if they aren't viewed as bearing directly on one's little slice of the universe. In the 2000 debate, Bush and Gore at times seemed like dueling insurance salesmen, attacking their opponent's "plan" and arguing for the benefits of their own "package." In the 1996 town hall between Clinton and Bob Dole, a single question was asked in 90 minutes about foreign policy, a fact Dole lamented in his closing statement. That's one problem that won't recur this year.
Given all we've been through since the last election, maybe the questions will be more substantive this time than 1992's infamous "How has the national debt affected each of you personally?" Iraq will be asked about, probably in a distinctly town hall formulation, such as: "President Bush, do you feel personally responsible for the deaths of American troops in Iraq?"
In a perfect world, Bush would respond by expressing his reverence for our fallen troops and then talk about how good he feels every time he kills another terrorist, and maybe rub his hands together for good measure. But that's just not the political culture we live in. Expressing such "aggression" constitutes defeat in a debate, whereas credibly expressing sorrow, with maybe some guilt thrown in for good measure, constitutes victory.
Bush is a man of real emotion, as Americans discovered after 9/11, so he will probably be able to handle the personal "gotcha" questions about Iraq reasonably well. No matter how he stumbles over his words, he has a genuineness that many in the audience will instinctively like and respond to. Empathy is a language he can speak…when he can find the words. You just never know how the president's verbal motor will be running. At his best, he's decent. At his worst, it's all you can do not to jump through the television set and cover his mouth.
IN 2000, BUSH HAD THE benefit of an opponent who could overshadow his weaknesses at every turn. In the first debate it was Al Gore's sighs; in the second it was his sedated tone and appearance; and in the third, even Bush's stream of consciousness answers could not obscure Gore's attempt to invade his space, a moment when it appeared as if the vice president wanted to body-check Bush off the stage. When you have an opponent as unhinged as that, you can speak pig latin and sound good.
Bush has no such luck this year. Kerry is more disciplined than Gore, more in control of himself. Since he has no core convictions, self-management in the service of ambition comes more easily. Gore never could manage it, ambitious as he was.
Will Kerry's discipline enable him to impersonate a man with warmth and personality? He misted up in New Hampshire in 2003 when a woman told him a commonplace tale of economic woe. For the town hall debate, he'll sprinkle in some self-deprecation -- "I may not be the most exciting guy in the world" -- with world-class pandering, and he'll make the connection:
"Well, Russ, I think it's terrible that you've lost your job and that your skin condition is acting up again. I think that's just wrong, in America, for people to be subject to external circumstances, bad luck, or their own mistakes. That's why I've developed a program to eliminate all uncertainty from human existence. If you work hard and play by the rules, everything else in life should be guaranteed. But what has my opponent done to shield the American people from the inevitable ravages of economic cycles, aging, and death? Not…one…thing!"
The liberal candidate will always have the advantage in town hall debates, even when he is as haughty and stiff as Kerry, because such debates are always about one question: What are you going to do for me? It is a remarkably un-American question, but every four years candidates fall over themselves trying to answer it.
Whether or not Bush puts in one of his better performances, the only smart thing his campaign has done in agreeing to this debate is scheduling it for Friday night.
That's when even most average, ordinary Americans will have better things to do than watch.