By Richard S. Dunham
When President Bush takes to the stage at Washington University in St. Louis for the second Presidential debate on Oct. 8, he'll be seeking to improve on his subpar and inconsistent performance in the first joint appearance with John Kerry. But he wasn't the only one in the vaunted White House communications operation to suffer a letdown in the opening debate. The President's so-called "spin team" was trounced by the talking heads representing the Democrats.
This post-debate battle is more important than it may sound. The art of "spinning" -- putting what people just saw into a partisan context that rings so true with voters that it becomes what they believe they saw -- is important in the political world, even though it represents the triumph of style over substance.
Yes, instant polls conducted by media outlets and independent researchers agreed that voters strongly preferred Kerry's performance in Debate No. 1. But in this competition, it's not just first impressions that count. The post-debate spin -- which dominates press coverage in the days following the encounters -- is often more crucial in shaping broad public opinion than the event itself.
A GLOWER EFFECT?
That's what Democrat Al Gore learned four years ago. Viewers who watched the first debate in 2000 narrowly thought Bush had won. But the post-debate spin was dominated by press coverage of the then-Vice-President's annoying sighs and facial expressions during the encounter. After the first debate, the Republican took a lead in popular support that he didn't surrender until Election Day.
The truth is, even though the TV audience for debates is large, more voters don't watch them than do. So the press coverage in subsequent days can be as important as -- or more important than -- the live telecast. In 2000, Gore took a hammering in the media, stoked by Bush spinners who convinced the press that Gore was unlikable while their candidate came across as an average guy.
The threat to Bush this year is that coverage of Bush's serial face-making during the debate will overshadow the substance of what was a very substantive exchange of views. Having benefited from press reports of annoying antics by Gore in 2000, Bush could suffer from similar reports about his own in '04.
WATCH THE REPLAY.
Another reason to expect media overkill: I was at the Miami press center covering the debate, and we reporters didn't see the President's facial escapades. That's because the live feed on their TV monitors was from what's known as a "clean feed," which just showed the candidate who was speaking. So the correspondents on the scene missed the embarrassing split-screen images of Bush until after they filed their original stories.
That resulted in some fancy footwork by the national press corps, trying to zero in on what they missed and perhaps overcompensating by hyping the episodes in subsequent coverage. The Democratic National Committee helped feed the media beast by compiling a quickie "faces of frustration" debate video featuring "a compilation of George W. Bush's angry, frustrated, annoyed, and peeved reactions."
Then, the Bush team compounded the problem with one of the weakest post-debate spin performances in modern campaign history. It seemed that the communications unit's "talking points" were prepared before the debate even began and seemed to bear little resemblance to reality as viewed on TV screens across America.
BAD BODY LANGUAGE.
Bush was "comfortable and Presidential," while Kerry was "on the defensive." Bush "more than held his own," spinner after spinner declared, and Kerry "didn't change any minds." What's more, they continued to declare that Kerry had once more flip-flopped on Iraq. "Sending mixed signals is dangerous in the war on terrorism," declared senior Bush adviser Ralph Reed.
Trouble is, debate viewers (including the press corps) had just watched Bush playing defense far more often than Kerry. And while Bush talked repeatedly about "mixed messages" from Kerry, the Dem didn't commit any glaring gaffe along those lines on Sept. 30. "Kerry looked Presidential and did exactly what he wanted to do," acknowledged one veteran GOP operative. "Bush was right on all the issues, but his body language looked terrible."
By ignoring reality and playing the spin game so poorly, the Bush team ceded to the Kerry campaign control of conventional wisdom -- at least until the Oct. 5 Vice-Presidential debate in Cleveland. Let's see if the Bushies learned any lessons about the post-debate game.
Dunham is Washington Outlook editor for BusinessWeek