Not-So-Great Expectations: Media's spin favors Bush -- again

In the run-up to this year's presidential debates, some in the media are once again playing the “expectations game” in favor of President George W. Bush against his Democratic opponent -- the same thing that happened four years ago. In the lead-up to the 2000 presidential debates, the press downplayed expectations for then-Governor Bush, enabling the Bush-Cheney '00 campaign to easily create the perception that Bush “won” and then-Vice President Al Gore “lost.”

Media and political scholars noted this troubling phenomenon following the 2000 debates. On PBS's NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on November 7, 2000, Marvin Kalb, executive director of The Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, observed: “No one took into account the possibility that if you set the bar real low for Bush, all he had to do was pronounce America properly and it would be a terrific thing. And that is in fact what happened.” On December 17, 2000, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette politics editor James O'Toole noted: “In the debates, low expectations were positively liberating for Bush ... He got through them unscathed, and given the political handicapping, that was enough to beat the point spread.”

Here are some examples of how media pundits lowered the bar for Bush and raised it for former Vice President Al Gore in 2000:

  • Chicago Sun-Times: “If Bush falters in the debate, Gore won't let him off the hook. In the history of presidential debates, no other candidate has been through more of these televised confrontations. He is a more polished debater than Richard M. Nixon in 1960 or Jimmy Carter in 1980. That's no accident. This is Gore's fourth national campaign, going back to his bid for the '88 presidential nomination. Gore was at his best in the '96 vice presidential debate with GOP opponent Jack F. Kemp. In last winter's Democratic presidential debates, Gore decisively outpointed Bill Bradley.” [Editorial, 10/2/00].
  • Blackie Sherrod, Dallas Morning News columnist: “The Bush bunch, realizing that their man is no podium match for Mr. Gore and that he sometimes loses a syntax decision to the English language, wanted an informal setting, a relaxed talk show format where Mr. Gore's advantage might be minimized. You can't blame the Bush brain trust for that. If you're challenged to a duel by an expert swordsman, you'd rather it be in the dark.” [Dallas Morning News, 9/21/00].
  • CNN host Wolf Blitzer [in interview with former presidential candidate Bill Bradley]: You've had an experience that George W. Bush is about to have, you've debated Al Gore and most people recognize, he's a pretty good debater. How nervous should George W. Bush be right now, as he looks forward to three presidential debates against Al Gore? [Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer, 9/17/00].
  • Morton M. Kondracke, Roll Call executive editor: “The campaign likely will be decided by oral exams, in the form of the debates, so it's little wonder that Bush tried to organize them in a fashion that might reduce Gore's presumed advantage as a verbal fencer.” [Roll Call, 9/7/00].
  • Jake Tapper, ABC News correspondent: “I do think that, you know, Governor Bush would like there to be not a tremendous number of debates, because, obviously, debate is more Al Gore's format than his, but in addition, he'd probably prefer a format that enables their personalities to get across more than the Al Gore team would like.” [CNN, Inside Politics, 8/22/00]
  • Kate O'Beirne, National Review Washington editor: "[G]iven that he's up against, by all accounts, a far more formidable debater in the person of Al Gore, I think Bush camp is going to want to -- as Jake said, control at least some of the format to better benefit their candidate." [CNN, Inside Politics, 8/22/00]

The media's “analysis” of the first presidential debate in 2000 illustrates the impact of Bush's lowered expectations in determining a debate “winner”:

  • Mara Liasson, NPR national political correspondent and FOX News Channel political correspondent: “I thought George W. Bush more than held his own. I think he was the person the expectations game had disfavored for this contest... I don't think anything happened tonight that's going to drastically change the race, although, given the expectations, you could say Bush won.” [FOX News Channel, Special Report with Brit Hume, 10/3/00].
  • Bob Schieffer, host of CBS's Face the Nation: Well, I think, clearly tonight, if anyone gained from this debate, it was George Bush because he showed that people will argue back and forth over the positions they took, but, clearly, he seemed to have as much of a grasp of the issues as -- as Al Gore did tonight. So in that sense, I think Bush gained a lot [CBS News presidential debate coverage, 10/3/00].
  • Lyn Nofziger, former assistant to the president for political affairs in the Reagan administration: "You'd have to call it a draw, which means that Bush wins it because of the lower expectations for him." [The Washington Times, 10/4/00]
  • Ross Baker, Rutgers University professor and House and Senate author: “Like an insurgent army, Gov. Bush won by not losing. He seemed to have kept up with Vice President Gore. Bush did not seem uninformed, he did not stumble over his words, he seemed likeable and down to earth.” [USA Today, 10/4/00].
  • Dallas Morning News: “The fact that both candidates did what they needed to do left the evening in a tie. Using the complicated math of politics, a tie gives Bush the advantage coming out of Tuesday night's debate. He went into the ring against Gore's well-developed debating skills and emerged intact with his message about empowering citizens.” [Editorial, 10/4/00].

Despite the scrutiny of 2000 debate coverage, some in the press are doing it again -- setting the bar low for Bush, now the incumbent, and in Kerry's case, heightening both the expectations and the stakes by treating the debates as make or break for the challenger:

  • Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of The Rothenberg Political Report: "I think he [Bush] just has to stumble right through it, to be totally honest. He's more likable. He has strong numbers on leadership, and he's got great numbers on the war in Iraq. He just has to survive this debate, which is really the challenger's big opportunity to kind of knock the president off his current position." [CNN, News From CNN, 9/24/04]
  • Michael Genovese, presidential scholar at Loyola Marymount University: According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Genovese “said Bush just needs to 'hold his own.' Kerry, he said, must avoid a point-scoring approach and appear strong, consistent, presidential. 'He has everything to gain and little to lose. If he 'goes after' the president, that might backfire, so he must be very careful not to show disrespect for the office. He must attack the president by pointing out how damaging his policies have been to the security, reputation and strength of the nation.'” [Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 9/26/04]
  • John Mercurio, CNN political editor: “I think first of all the president realized there was a political risk in ducking the debates. Incumbents have done this in the past and they've survived, but President Bush is in a slightly unique position. He's not viewed as being a real debate master. He really didn't need to duck this.” [CNN, Inside Politics, 9/20/04].
  • Dick Polman, Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer: “The word on John Kerry -- from his publicists, anyway -- is that he's a great 'closer,' a warrior who cranks it up when the chips are down, a guy with true grit who once blew open a tight Senate race at the eleventh hour and won in a walk. But if he can't play the closer at the coming presidential debates, then it may well be closing time for his candidacy. With President Bush clearly in the ascendancy -- he is now leading or pressuring Kerry in ostensibly Democratic states such as Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Minnesota, Oregon and Wisconsin; Kerry isn't as competitive in most Republican states -- the debates offer Kerry his last major chance to change the dynamic and rescue fretful Democrats from a winter of discontent.” Polman adds, “The 'winner' in debates is typically the candidate who best exudes an air of command, and -- notwithstanding the latest dire news from Iraq, and an intelligence report suggesting that peace in Iraq is a mirage -- a majority of voters are telling pollsters that Bush best fits their conception of a commander.” [Philadelphia Inquirer, 9/19].
  • Joe Klein, TIME magazine senior writer and columnist: "Unless Kerry can come off with a succinct, and lethal, response to those [Bush's] vaporous but compelling platitudes, he will lose this election." [TIME, 9/19]
  • Robert Steinbeck, Miami Herald columnist: “If he fails to rattle Bush, or if Bush effectively parries his thrusts and lands a few jabs of his own, Kerry will bobble away his best -- and perhaps only -- chance to fire up the remaining undecided or uninspired voters. As the challenger, Kerry may need a knockout, as a draw will favor Bush. Paradoxically, even a mediocre Bush outing could count as a win, precisely because expectations are already low.” [Albany Times-Union, 8/8/04]