One of the well-known vicious cycles of presidential politics is this: when you’re behind, you get advice from everyone. The perceived strategic vacuum creates what might be called a “policy opportunity,” a chance for advocates and interest groups to draw attention to their cause, a chance for pundits to get an easy column by recasting an argument they know by heart. This has been happening in the past few days to Al Gore. Centrists (such as Al From) argue Gore must move toward the center. Strong supporters of Israel, such as William Kristol, write op-ed pieces suggesting it would really throw Bush off stride if Gore more strongly supported Israel. Welfare reformers urge a renewed embrace of welfare reform. (Kausfiles got a cheap item out of that one.) The risks for Gore are, first, the near-certainty that all the advice only makes him look weaker, and second, the possibility that he may actually take too much of it.
Press Test II: There is supposed to be a self-equilibrating mechanism that counteracts this sort of vicious circle, namely the tendency of the press to beat up on whoever is in front in order to make the race more exciting. One of the great questions then, going into tonight’s debate, is whether this equilibrating cyclical impulse will make itself felt. (That would mean a run of bad coverage for front-runner Bush, assuming he gives reporters an excuse.) Or will the Cyclical Theory of the media– seemingly vindicated by the press’s recent turn against Gore–lose out, in the final weeks of the campaign, to a pure Poll-Driven Theory, which holds that the press is now so terrified of flouting public opinion, as measured in the proliferating real-time surveys, that it slavishly pumps up the poll leader (i.e. Bush) as soon as the mass audience starts paying attention …
Only one Gore at a time, please! Gore can’t possibly take all the advice he’s getting. But even if he takes only the most obvious, sensible counsel, he has a lot to do. He must attack Bush without looking mean; he must show he’s not a traditional liberal without alienating his traditional liberal base; he must seem competent without seeming arrogant, passionate without seeming contrived, nice without seeming weak. Yet, according to two experienced speech and drama coaches kausfiles’ CEO bumped into last night–both of whom had watched Gore’s second-debate performance– it’s not even that easy! Gore also must hew to the rule of acting that says you should deliver only one emotional message at any given moment. I’d never heard of this rule, but then I’m not a drama coach. I’d always thought that Klaus Maria Brandauer was a great actor because he served up a jarring amalgam of ambiguous intentions. Apparently not. …. The rule doesn’t mean that, over the course of a debate, you can’t communicate a variety of intentions. You can be an angry populist one moment, a strong hawk the next, and a charmer the next. There are lots of moments in a 90-minute show, and in theory Gore could deliver his disparate messages seriatim. His trouble in the second debate, according to these coaches, was that he tried to deliver them all at once.
And, of course, he didn’t talk enough about welfare reform.