Frame Game

McCain Knocks Himself Out

Editor’s note: Click here to read Jacob Weisberg’s report from Thursday’s GOP debate.

From the opening bell of Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate, John McCain went hard after George W. Bush. But McCain’s punches were awkwardly thrown–in part because the other candidates crowded the ring, keeping Bush and McCain apart–and Bush absorbed the blows with genial poise. Though Bush’s performance was otherwise clumsy and lackluster, he won by playing rope-a-dope. He let McCain wear out himself and the patience of viewers. Here’s a scorecard of their exchanges:

1. McCain is asked whether he acted improperly by asking the Federal Communications Commission to expedite its review of a transaction by one of McCain’s campaign donors. McCain tries to change the subject to Bush: “Our money is coming in very well, by the way. Not anywhere near $74 million, but it’s coming along pretty good.” The implicit message of this quip is, “If you want to look at somebody’s fund raising, look at Bush’s.” McCain delivers it with a grin that suggests he’s just razzing Bush. The grin isn’t designed to protect Bush. It’s designed to protect McCain. You’re not supposed to get angry at him, and neither is Bush, since McCain is just having fun, right? Bush chuckles along, playing the good sport. McCain leaves a bruise without looking mean. One point to McCain.

2. Moderator Tim Russert invites Bush to hit McCain on the FCC story, but Bush says McCain has addressed the story adequately. Instead, Bush criticizes McCain’s campaign-reform plan, which he claims would “unilaterally disarm” the GOP. McCain fires back: “What you’re saying is that we should continue what happened in 1996. That’s disgraceful. Chinese money, Indonesian money came into the campaign. … Right now, a supporter of yours is running attack ads morphing Bill Clinton’s face into mine. And by the way, ask him to get a better picture, will you?” Everyone laughs. McCain grins again, adding, “And ask him at least to disclose where this money is coming from.”

Notice how McCain manipulates the evidence. Bush opposes a particular campaign-reform plan. From this, McCain infers that Bush favors “disgraceful” fund-raising practices. Meanwhile, a Bush “supporter” is running ads against McCain. From this, McCain infers that Bush can tell this “supporter” what to do. And in case anyone misses the implication that Bush is funding the ads in violation of campaign-finance laws, McCain tells Bush to ask his supporter where the ad campaign’s “money is coming from.” Another point to McCain for landing a second blow and leaving ‘em laughing.

3. Bush repeats that McCain’s plan “is bad for Republicans.” Russert tries to move on, but McCain interrupts and tells Bush, “You’ve raised $70 million, and I don’t think you have an idea of how important campaign-finance reform is to restore the confidence of young Americans in their government.” Bush replies, “What you don’t need to do is tell me what I have an idea about or not.” Bush stares ahead; McCain stares at Bush. McCain doesn’t let up. “I don’t believe you have a good idea,” he says. “Otherwise you’d get on board.” McCain grins again, but only at the end. He has delivered most of his blast with a scowl. His mask is slipping, and his criticism is turning personal. One point to Bush.

4. Halfway through the debate, Russert asks McCain how he would shore up Social Security and Medicare. McCain replies that there’s a surplus. Then he turns the question on Bush. “We don’t want to spend it all in tax cuts,” he says. “Gov. Bush said the other day [that] we’re awash in cash. We’ve got a $5.6 trillion debt that we’re saddling young Americans with. We ought to pay down the debt.” This shot at Bush, like the one about the “$74 million,” comes out of nowhere. To get from Russert’s question to Bush’s tax plan, McCain has twisted the topic completely out of shape. A candidate can get away with reaching this far for a punch once, but not twice. Another point to Bush.

5. When Bush tries to respond to McCain’s criticism of his tax-cut proposal, McCain barks, “Could I finish my answer? Hello!” McCain is grinning, but the grin is becoming ghoulish, and his voice is rising to a tightly wound pitch. Bush maintains an air of ease and good humor, as though the exchange is friendly. Eventually, Bush gets a word in. “No one is suggesting we pass the entire surplus back to the taxpayers,” he says. “But your plan does,” McCain interjects. “No, it doesn’t,” says Bush. “Yes, it does,” says McCain. Bush blinks in amused disbelief and, when asked by Russert to respond, jokes, “No it doesn’t, yes it does, no it doesn’t.” Everyone chuckles. Not only has McCain lost his temper, but Bush has bailed him out and has come through smiling. Two more points to Bush.

6. In his closing statement, Bush says, “I’m the one person up here who’s been elected to an executive position.” When McCain’s turn comes, he tells Bush, “George, I’ve had executive experience. I was commanding officer of the largest squadron in the United States Navy. It was a great experience.” This doesn’t contradict what Bush said–another wild swing by McCain–but never mind. McCain just wants to point out that he went to Vietnam and Bush didn’t. By now, McCain’s expression is utterly humorless.

The week began with rumors that McCain was doing so well, Bush was going to attack him. Instead, McCain spends the evening attacking Bush. He lands few blows, and he wears out his own image as a good-natured idealist. Round 1 of 2000 goes to Bush.