How Does He Do It?

A great article-find for this day of the first Bush-Kerry debate! As the German newspaper Handelsblatt’s Gerald Seib puts it in the title of the latest contribution to his “American View” commentary series: How Can Anyone Vote for Bush?

That’s the question on the lips only of confirmed Bush-haters, of course, of whom there are many among the American electorate, but who nonetheless hardly constitute any sort of majority. Indeed, the President goes into tonight’s first debate by most accounts leading in the polls, even though, as Seib puts it, “Bush lacks rather many presidential qualities: a mediocre student, a scattered and hardly-successful career as a businessman, and an erratic political evolution – hardly the typical job-application profile for the top job in the land.”


So how does he do it? Well, according to Herr Seib it mostly has to do with political ideas (like “disaster in Iraq,” I suppose) not playing much of a role anymore in US elections. He attributes to a nebulous “many analysts” the allegation that only 30 to 40 percent of voters make up their minds on that basis anymore. So how do most decide? By feelings and impressions, of course! And people also prefer that their president share their own “moral values.”

Seib sums up the successful approach to winning election as being “accessible” (zugänglich) – people want their President to be “accessible,” and that’s what Bush has succeeded in making most Americans feel. Let’s try to stifle our laughter while disposing of this adjective right off, OK? “Accessible”? – yes, “accessible” as long as you first sign a statement of support for Bush/Cheney at the door! For this “accessible” President can’t seem to handle any questions (e.g. from news reporters) that are not cream-puffs right up his strike-zone, nor any sort of heckling or criticism anywhere around his person, to the point that under this administration dissension at a presidential appearance is now to be equated with terrorism, with perpetrators roughly vacated from the area accordingly. (Reference David Letterman’s Top Ten George W. Bush Debate Strategies, #9: “Instead of witty retorts, have secret service wrestle Senator Kerry to the ground.”) If they are not immediately jailed, such protestors are usually forcibly removed to a so-called “Free Speech Zone” located well out of eye- and ear-shot of the President’s podium – to which the correct objection is that “The whole of These United States is a ‘Free Speech Zone’! – or at least used to be.”

So maybe “accessible” (zugänglich) is really not quite the exact word that is appropriate here; maybe “giving warm, fuzzy feelings” is closer to the mark. Seib quotes Pew Research Center polling data to the effect that 47% of respondents find Bush personally “accessible” (switch: “warm and fuzzy”), while only 36% say that about John Kerry. Fifty percent are willing to declare that Bush is auf dem Boden der Tatsachen stehend – my translation is “has his feet firmly on the ground” – and only 36% say that about Kerry. Honest and credible? Forty-three percent attribute these qualities to Bush, 35 percent to Kerry.

Seib also makes a further interesting point: the qualities that Bush supporters admire are often the very same that Bush-haters hate. He’s speaking here about the President’s simple speech and worn-on-the-sleeve emotions, tell-tale signs of a moron for many, but for many others evidence of “directness” and “steadfastness.”


But back to this evening’s debate: those supposed 30 to 40 percent who decide on the issues have already decided, says Seib. It’s the far greater numbers who decide based on what they feel, etc. who remain undecided the longest. Tonight’s debate should go far towards pushing them in one direction or another. Indeed, that may very well be a more accurate description of what the debates will be all about, rather than any battle of facts and issues. This conclusion caps Seib’s article. And it also emerges out of the excellent long article in the on-line Atlantic from a few months ago by James Fallows, “When George Meets John,” that I was alerted to by Kevin Drum’s Washington Monthly weblog, and which should be required pre-debate reading for anyone even remotely interested in the presidential campaign.

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