Interview of Gordon Mitchell by Joe Finn

Topic: First Presidential Debate

KQV Radio (1410 AM), Pittsburgh Pennsylvania

October 1, 2004, 3:30 p.m.


JOE FINN (JF): Joining us now on the KQV live line is the Director of Debate for the University of Pittsburgh, Gordon Mitchell. Gordon, good afternoon. Thanks a lot for talking with us.


GORDON MITCHELL (GM): Nice to be here, Joe. How are you?


JF: A little appropriate that a volcano erupts a day after the first presidential debate, or just a coincidence?


GM: There's a lot of hot air coming out.


JF: On that debate last night, I guess the media spin is putting the win a little bit more in Kerry's column than in Bush's column. I caught little bits of it on the television last night and I always think back to the first Nixon-Kennedy debate where if you were watching it went to Kennedy and if you were listening it went to Nixon. Any chance of that happening in this presentation last night?


GM: The Memorandum of Understanding that was attempting to lay down the ground rules for this debate was totally ignored by the network cameras. They put up split screens showing both candidates simultaneously. When one was speaking you got to see the reaction of the other. That did open up a lot of visual experience for people to look at the candidates in a new light. I think each candidate has some room for improvement in their split screen personalities. Bush comes across as if listening to pointed criticism is like visiting the dentist for him. He's only forced to do it once or twice a year and he really grimaces and bites his lip when he hears the drill start whirring. Kerry on the other hand, his constant nodding when Bush is speaking comes across as condescending, sort of like the smart-aleck student who raises their hand to answer a question before the teacher finishes asking it.


JF: It seems to me you have hit on one of the key points people were discussing this morning, the faces being made by the non-speaking candidates, and the fact that the television networks said we're not going to go along with these rules, we didn't agree to them and we're not going to play along with them. Before we get to the faces, what do you think of the networks doing that, just throwing that part of the rules out?


GM: They did not want to set the precedent of allowing the Commission on Presidential Debates to dictate news coverage and I think that's somewhat wise. In intercollegiate policy debate we actually grade speakers on a scale of 30 points. Overall I would give Kerry about 27.5 and Bush 26 out of 30. I thought Kerry had a little bit of an edge on fluency and refutation, in terms of addressing the opponent's arguments. That said, Kerry's got some flaws he needs to work on. He sways a lot when speaking. He also holds his pen when speaking. Sometimes he would look at the camera when speaking and then look down at his pen, as if he was writing something while simultaneously addressing the audience. That didn't play well. Bush continues to be plagued by inelegant pauses. Several of them came close to full-fledged freeze ups that reminded me of when Time magazine's John Dickerson asked him back in an April 2004 press conference what was his biggest mistake in office, there were close to 10 seconds of silence from Bush in response. That doesn't come across well.


JF: As far as the content of their answers, were they answering the questions that were presented, or were they doing a little verbal tap dance?


GM: There was a little of both. I was pleased with the debate in the sense that on a content level, the candidates worked hard to produce a rich text covering an array of complex issues that gave voters a lot of food for thought. In some ways, they did this in spite of the format, which was designed to minimize clash. But the candidates were really working hard to break through and answer each other's arguments, even though sometimes they were violating the rules for the debate set down in the Memorandum of Understanding. There were several key points of disagreement that emerged that should really help voters be able to decide this election.


JF: The second debate is going to be a town hall style. Will that create some additional problems for the candidates as they try to correct their little faults from last night?


GM: That's Bush's most comfortable format. It's what he uses for most of his stump appearances. When he's on the campaign trail though, the audience is usually stocked with Bush supporters, so it will be interesting to see how he'll handle some hostile questions from this group of undecided voters. In terms of differences on content, the thing that struck me was the disagreement on North Korea. It was a striking moment near the end of the debate when there was a very clear difference of opinion regarding the wisdom of pursuing bilateral talks with North Korea, Kerry favoring them and Bush saying absolutely no, we can't do that or it will unravel the six-party talks.


JF: I would imagine we would be seeing some disagreements close to that level when we get to the third debate on the economy.


GM: Yes, Bush was actually holding his tongue last night, starting to anticipate those arguments. Kerry as well, trying to highlight the tradeoffs with $200 billion spent on the Iraq war coming at the expense of investments in homeland security, prescription drugs, et cetera, more domestic programs.


JF: Do you think we might see anything in terms of some possible quick damage control from the vice-presidential debates on Tuesday, or do you think they'll just be off on their own subjects?


GM: I am really looking forward to seeing in the vice-presidential debate how this topic of the relationship between Iraq and the war on terror plays out. They started this in the presidential debate last night. Kerry started by borrowing from Richard Clarke, arguing that invading Iraq in response to 9/11 was like Franklin Roosevelt invading Mexico in response to Pearl Harbor. Bush came back and said, hey, wait a second, 75% of all al Qaida leaders have been arrested. Kerry came back and said, hold on, the invasion of Iraq actually helps al Qaida recruiting. Then there was a fascinating moment in the debate when as soon as Kerry said that, the next chance that Bush had to speak, he said, "My opponent just said something amazing. He said Osama bin Laden uses the invasion of Iraq to spread hatred for America. Osama bin Laden isn't going to determine how we defend ourselves. Osama bin Laden doesn't get to decide. The American people get to decide." That vignette points up a stark difference in how the candidates conceive of the enemy in the war on terror. Bush conceives of the enemy as a static threat. He thinks if we smoke out the terrorists and blow them up then we'll be safer. The Kerry camp is painting the terrorist threat as a dynamic threat, trying to argue that reckless use of force can add to that threat by aiding terrorist recruitment. I think we might see Cheney and Edwards develop that theme further.


JF: Do you think the audience is going to hang in there not only for the vice-presidential debate but for the next two presidential debates? Are people going to start making up their minds and the audience will wane?


GM: I hope they hang in there. As I said before I think this debate is an invitation for people to start making decisions not just about which candidate they feel more generally comfortable with, but to start coming to grips with the question of what does a vote for one candidate or the other really mean in terms of likely policy difference? In terms of conceptions of the enemy in the war on terror and policy toward North Korea, these are two examples of where the decision about which candidate to vote for really depends on thinking deeply about some of these complex issues.


JF: Gordon, real good to talk to you. I hope we can do this some more after the other debates.


GM: Nice talking to you Joe.


JF: Have a good weekend.


GM: You too.