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Friday, September 24, 2004

The One-Word Debate 

USA Today reports that the reporters who will moderate the coming debates have been asked to sign a statement saying that they will abide by certain ground rules the two presidential campaigns have set forth. For example, "audience questioners at the 'town hall' debate Oct. 8 in St. Louis must have their questions pre-selected by moderator Charles Gibson of ABC. He is to 'cut off' anyone who changes his or her question."

The more structured the debate, and the fewer wild cards among the questions, the smaller the likelihood that Bush will have to deviate from his standard handful of fortune-cookie platitudes, and the better his chances of kicking Kerry's ass. What's that you say? Kerry's positions are "nuanced" and Bush's are flat-out wrong? Doesn't matter, and in this NYT op/ed (sent our way by Zemblan patriots M.F. and J.D.) the usually-obnoxious Stanley Fish explains why in admirably pellucid terms:
In an unofficial but very formal poll taken in my freshman writing class the other day, George Bush beat John Kerry by a vote of 13 to 2 (14 to 2, if you count me). My students were not voting on the candidates' ideas. They were voting on the skill (or lack of skill) displayed in the presentation of those ideas.

The basis for their judgments was a side-by-side display in this newspaper on Sept. 8 of excerpts from speeches each man gave the previous day. Put aside whatever preferences you might have for either candidate's positions, I instructed; just tell me who does a better job of articulating his positions, and why.

The analysis was devastating. President Bush, the students pointed out, begins with a perfect topic sentence - "Our strategy is succeeding"- that nicely sets up a first paragraph describing how conditions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia four years ago aided terrorists. This is followed by a paragraph explaining how the administration's policies have produced a turnaround in each country "because we acted." The paragraph's conclusion is concise, brisk and earned: "We have led, many have joined, and America and the world are safer" . . . .

What does it matter if Mr. Kerry's words stumble and halt, while Mr. Bush's flow easily from sentence to sentence and paragraph to paragraph? Well, listen to the composite judgments my students made on the Democratic challenger: "confused," "difficult to understand," "can't seem to make his point clearly," "I'm not sure what he's saying," and my favorite, "he's kind of 'skippy,' all over the place."

Now of course it could be the case that every student who voted against Mr. Kerry's speech in my little poll will vote for him in the general election. After all, what we're talking about here is merely a matter of style, not substance, right? And - this is a common refrain among Kerry supporters - doesn't Mr. Bush's directness and simplicity of presentation reflect a simplicity of mind and an incapacity for nuance, while Mr. Kerry's ideas are just too complicated for the rhythms of publicly accessible prose?

Sorry, but that's dead wrong. If you can't explain an idea or a policy plainly in one or two sentences, it's not yours; and if it's not yours, no one you speak to will be persuaded of it, or even know what it is, or (and this is the real point) know what you are. Words are not just the cosmetic clothing of some underlying integrity; they are the operational vehicles of that integrity, the visible manifestation of the character to which others respond. And if the words you use fall apart, ring hollow, trail off and sound as if they came from nowhere or anywhere (these are the same thing), the suspicion will grow that what they lack is what you lack, and no one will follow you.
It's taken us a while, but we have slowly come to the conclusion that Kerry can win the debate, lose the "flip-flop" label, end the cojones war, galvanize the electorate, dominate media coverage, and reframe the issues by the judicious application of a single word:

Bullshit.

Said out loud, on national television, in front of the children, to Bush's face.

The key, of course, is not to back down when the manufactured outrage inevitably erupts. "How could you stand there on national television and say that the president's policies are, um, b.s.?"

"I didn't say they were b.s. I said they were bullshit."

"How could you say that?"

"Because it's true. The president's policies ARE bullshit." Followed by a laundry list of Bushian bullshit which any good Democrat could recite in his sleep.

"Do you think it's appropriate to use that sort of word in a Presidential debate?"

"Yes."

"Why?"

"Because it's the truth. And voters haven't heard the truth from this president in four years." Followed by laundry list Part Two.

All across America, Kerry will be denounced from the pulpit, berated by bluenoses. So what? Bush owns that demographic already. The rest of the electorate starts to see Kerry as a straight-shooting, two-fisted badass. Regular guy. Says what he means. You gotta respect that! Every other issue evaporates. Election 2004 instantly becomes the Bullshit election.

George Bush is known forever after as the Bullshit president.

The strategy of calculated offense is a risky one, we know, but we firmly believe that -- with "Bullshit!" on his side -- Kerry wins in a squeaker.

We offer this advice absolutely free of charge.

What do you think?

UPDATE: We have, via e-mail from Zemblan patriot M.D., the offer of a big fat check to Kerry (or the shadowy 527 of his choice) if the Democratic candidate says "Bullshit" to the president's face in a televised debate. The Chancellor of the Zemblan Exchequer will match Mr. D.'s contribution. Any others?

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