In Thursday's debate, the voters won a point

October 17, 1992|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- When it was over, not a trace of mud on the floor, even Bill Clinton's campaign manager had decided his man had come in second.

"The American people came in first," James Carville concluded Thursday night.

Indeed, coming on the heels of Tuesday night's messy vice presidential slugfest, the town-hall, TV-talk show format of Thursday's presidential debate appeared refreshingly substantive and civilized.

"Revenge of the policy nerds," Democratic strategist Mike McCurry quipped.

"Sound-bite-less," said University of Maryland Professor John Splaine.

And it suggested that voters, who insisted during the debate that the candidates put away their bows and arrows and remain targeted on the issues, are disinclined to pursue the more personal, volatile themes the news media often probes.

But what this novel confrontation pointed out most vividly, political and media analysts say, is not that voters are uninterested in the more explosive issues of character and personality, but that the electorate and the news media are often pursuing different agendas.

While some of the press pointed to the lack of news value in Thursday night's debate and the fact that many of the candidates' answers came from well-worn stump speeches, voters noted gleefully that, for once, the candidates were talking about the issues.

"Hearing the candidates explain their positions on health care may seem like old hat to a reporter, but it still means something to voters who don't necessarily read or follow every bit of information," says Mr. McCurry, an adviser to Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey during the latter's presidential bid this year.

"It's not necessarily that voters are smarter than reporters, or that reporters have the wrong agenda," he said. "It's that they're speaking a different language. The art of political communication is repetition. Journalism is the opposite -- it's conveying new information on a daily basis."

Debate fireworks sometimes come from journalists' desire to create news or to get the candidates to explain inconsistencies in their positions, says Marion Just, a fellow at the Harvard Center on Politics and the Media.

"That tends to create the attack-counterattack like we had in the vice presidential debate. That debate probably appealed to journalists, especially TV journalists, because it made good television and it was exciting, but I don't know that people find it very useful."

In fact, Ms. Just says her studies have shown that with the kind of vitriolic back-and-forth that took place during the vice presidential debate, viewers have a hard time following the proceedings, as well as retaining information and sorting out the facts.

Similarly, pollster Andrew Kohut points to the "inside baseball" nature of some of the reporters' questions as compared with the more basic, general and sometimes blunt questions voters tend to ask.

"None of those people [at the Richmond debate] were going to ask Bush to respond to what Gore said yesterday on the campaign trail [about the president's involvement in Iran-con

tra and Iraq-gate scandals]," says Mr. Kohut, director of surveys for the Times Mirror Center for The People & The Press. "Reporters might have. Let's be honest -- they would have. That's the big difference."

Another big difference evident in the citizen-led debate is voters' tendency to be much more polite than reporters when questioning candidates, especially candidates for the presidency. It is one reason candidates find this format -- and such call-in shows like CNN's "Larry King Live" -- appealing.

"It's difficult for the average citizen to say, 'What about the Genifer Flowers thing?' or 'What about Iran-contra, did you lie on that or what?' " says Mr. McCurry. "Reporters have no such inhibitions because they do it on a regular basis."

But just because the voters seemed to have declared Thursday's debate a "no mud zone" doesn't mean they dismiss personal issues of character and personality and trust. In many ways, Ms. Just says, merely watching candidates answer policy questions over an extended period gives voters a chance to get to know them and see them under pressure.

George Washington University media analyst William Adams says: "Voters don't want mudslinging. But character and trust and leadership are very important. They do care about integrity, judgment, steadfastness, commitment and honor. In the U.S., the president is more than a policy-maker. He is the symbolic leader of the nation."

Mr. Adams believes Thursday's debate was far less novel than it appeared, given that only about a dozen people got to ask questions.

In his view, it was the moderator, ABC-TV's Carole Simpson, who set the agenda by encouraging the audience to derail Mr. Bush's focus on judgment and trust issues as they relate to Mr. Clinton's anti-war activities. "She was endorsing an argument that discussions of leadership and character are not important," Mr. Adams says. "That was the most partisan act I've ever seen a moderator engage in in the history of presidential debates."

Whether voters are interested in such non-policy issues, they are clearly preoccupied with substance, as Thursday's crop of issue-related questions revealed. That, say pollsters and analysts, may be particular to this election year.

"One lesson from the debate is that this is a much more issue-oriented election, much more one-track election than any other election in recent history," Mr. Kohut says. "This kind of economic recession gets attention the way nothing else does, short of a war."

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