Q: On the other side, [00:54:00] you take President Bush to task for not really doing too well in — especially in the first presidential debate with Kerry.
Q: What went wrong, and what were the consequences in terms of the campaign?
SHAW: We had done a lot of research on debate effects heading up to the 2004 election cycle. In fact, the two things I was tasked with in 2004, two of the main things I was tasked with, was writing a report on presidential conventions, and how they set the tone and effect the dynamic of the presidential campaign, and the other was debate effects. And we had found that one of the major determinants of the debate bounce, or the debate effect was whether a candidate had been under- or over-performing in the polls prior to the lead-up to the debate.
And — what do I mean by under-performing or [00:55:00] over-performing? Well, given the state of the economy, given the level of presidential approval, you can develop a pretty quick model to predict presidential support. Political scientists do this sort of thing all the time. And by those standards, we thought that Bush had actually gotten — had a lead that he probably was not entitled to, let us say. He was overachieving a little bit given presidential approval and the state of the economy. That set of conditions, that reality suggested that there were — there was a lot of room for Kerry to improve. And so, there was a sense amongst many of us in the campaign that given Bush’s uneven performance in 2000 — he had done well in the first debate, and had done OK in the second and third — but he wasn’t an experienced or really polished debater. We had seen Kerry, and Kerry had dismantled [Bill] Weld in a couple of debates in Massachusetts Senate race. [00:56:00] There was a sense that Kerry had room to maneuver.
The campaign had a decision to make foreign policy the focal point of the first debate. It’s water under the bridge, but I thought that was a mistake. The campaign thought that the president was more comfortable with foreign policy, would certainly have an advantage on issues involving national defense, or foreign policy compared to Senator Kerry. And so this was an opportunity to kind of play to his strength and set the tone for the subsequent debates.
I thought, and continue to think, that you never want to give the challenger an opportunity to appear presidential. And foreign policy is a way that a challenger has an opportunity to appear presidential, and to share the stage with the commander-in-chief, and hold his own, and that’s exactly what Kerry did. You know, we’ve seen this mistake — the irony is, we’ve seen this mistake at least three times historically; when John Kennedy more than held his own with Richard Nixon on foreign policy in 1960 [00:57:00] — actually, three times — it’s now four, in 1976 when Gerald Ford made a couple of errant references about Eastern Europe and allowed Jimmy Carter to correct him, in 1976. In 2004, John Kerry took the president to task on some of the decisions he made, and then in 2012, Barack Obama had a really poor first debate with Mitt Romney. When you allow the challenger to appear on stage with the president, with the commander-in-chief, especially in areas where, you know, he doesn’t necessarily have any native credibility or standing, you close — you know, you create — you close the gap, the stature gap that exists.
And I think that’s exactly what happened in 2004. The president looked kind of peevish, and small, and didn’t look like he got out of the bubble, and didn’t like criticism. Kerry showed he had command and mastery of facts. [00:58:00] And in that sense, it was similar to the 2012 debate, where the president looked like he’d been in the bubble, and wasn’t used to, you know, sharing the platform, or hearing people say things that weren’t, you know, “Yes, sir,” on every particular matter. So I thought — my personal reaction, it’s not just hindsight. There are a lot of people in the campaign who told me they felt the same way. You know, I didn’t think — from what I’d heard, the president hadn’t prepped the same way he had in 2000, which was a big deal. I didn’t think foreign policy was the right way to go. There were a number of people who disagreed. They thought that you would set the tone with foreign policy, and it was where Bush was most comfortable. I thought it gave Kerry the greatest chance to grow, which was my concern. And then again, I think, you know, there were some particular choices with respect to formatting that I thought were a mistake as well.
Q: Such as?
SHAW: Well, the moderators, I’ve always — you know, what happens in presidential debates these days is that the Presidential Commission on Debates [00:59:00] determines everything, essentially. Now, why this is the case, I’m not sure. They have just kind of been granted — and it used to be the League of Women Voters, which made more sense to me, in some sense. But there’s a deference to the Presidential Debate Commission which I’ve never quite understood. In fact, George W. Bush had challenged this in 2000, and had suggested — you know, not signed off on the commission’s recommendations, and had instead offered a debate every week. And Karl Rove, I remember thought this was — you know, this was going to put Gore on the defense. And instead, the entire media story was, why is Bush not agreeing to the debates? You know, what’s he ducking? The Republican perspective, Bush’s perspective was — is that, well, this — this isn’t mantra from God. I mean, this is something that’s negotiated; we can do better. But it became a horrible story for the campaign.
Two thousand four came along, and there was just an utter deference to whatever the commission had recommended, both in respect to the venue, where the particular arrangement of the stage, [01:00:00] the moderators that were asked, etc. I thought that the foreign policy debate, which I believe was a more standard debate, I think it was with three moderators, I thought was probably not the best moderator for Bush. I think Bush actually does a little better with the town hall venue, and had done more town halls in the run-up to 2004. But, there was acquiescence, basically about the format, the foreign policy debate.
There’s also just, the commission has been reluctant to allow the town hall format into the foreign policy debate, which I’m not sure why that’s the case. I think there’s an assumption that, you know, if we’re going to talk about domestic issues, and education, so if the people can ask questions on that, but they’re not going to be as good peppering the candidates with questions on foreign policy.