Paul Krugman today touches on a crucially important point about Thursday night’s presidential debate. If 2000 was any indication — and there’s every reason to think it is — the winner of the debate won’t be determined during the 90 minute encounter itself but during the spin war that will follow it. And with the advantage the Republicans have on the cable nets, talk radio and chat TV shows, the odds are stacked in their favor.
(As Krugman alludes to, the initial public reactions to the first Bush/Gore debate had the then-veep coming out on top, if narrowly. It was only after several days of pundit churn that Bush became the winner. The Bush team won the post-debate debate.)
More than just these built-in advantages, though, Democrats, I think, have seldom really appreciated that there is such a thing as a post-debate debate. I don’t mean that they don’t know about putting out surrogates or trying to spin the results. Of course, they do. But in 2000 at least (a certainly in analogous situations in this cycle) the effort was very reactive and scattershot. And that inevitably leaves the Democrats trying to parry or deconstruct the ways that Republicans are trying to define what happened. In that way, they’re fighting at best for a draw.
Republicans are already leaking hints and taunts about whether Kerry will sweat profusely under the lights, whether he’s too tanned and other similar nonsense. But the antic nature of these taunts doesn’t mean they won’t be effective. They’re meant to throw the other side off balance and, in a related manner, to provide grist for a catty and frivolous press corps.
So what’s the Democrats’ plan going into this debate? You can see what the other side is planning from visiting Drudge or listening to the GOP surrogates on the chat shows.
But what do the Dems have in mind?
It’s easy to predict that there will be several exchanges in the debate where the president will describe the situation in Iraq in ways that are entirely belied by the reality of the situation. Perhaps he’ll mention the situation in Fallujah where his intervention in the battle planning had such disastrous and feckless results. Will the pundits and talking heads be primed for those moments? Or only for Kerry’s moments of over-fancy rhetoric?
Will the Dems be ready to hit on these issues and focus the post-debate debate on the president’s recklessness, lack of a plan and inability to level with the public about what’s happening in Iraq?
There are many other possible examples. But the point is that we have a pretty good idea what the president is going to say. And what he’ll almost certainly say will open up a number of solid lines of attack. But if the Democrats don’t hit the ground running with a plan in mind they’ll be overwhelmed by the GOP spin machine — no matter how many fibs the president tells or how many times he says up is down.