"Wowwee, chickadee-dee. He did a television interview!" That was the Clinton berserker James Carville, expressing the degree to which he had been not impressed that George W. Bush had not imploded into a stuttering ball of confusion under questioning by Tim Russert on the Nov. 21 show "Meet the Press." Corporal Cue Ball Carville, as he calls himself, is not known for excessive fairness toward the enemies of his masters. But this time his assessment was not unreasonable.
Tomorrow night, in Manchester, N.H., Bush will partake of his first debate of the Republican primary season. He faces two more debates in the following 10 days. These encounters come at a time when Bush appears seriously vulnerable to a New Hampshire defeat at the hands of John McCain. The steadily encroaching McCain was two points up on Bush in a Time/CNN poll of 504 likely New Hampshire GOP primary voters conducted Nov. 19-23.
If Bush cannot perform better in the debates than he did on "Meet the Press," he is in peril. Bush's performance in his first major television quizzing received generally, if mildly, positive reviews. But as Carville notes, this is only because Bush had lowered the bar of expectation to the point where delusions of adequacy become confused with demonstrations of competency.
When a candidate is obliged to give specific answers to specific questions of substance, a sure sign of weakness may be found in the number of times he retreats into the boilerplate of a prepared speech.
Two days before his "Meet the Press" performance, Bush had delivered his first foreign policy address, in the supremely safe confines of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. It was a perfectly fine speech: substantive, tough-minded but not too much so, right on the big issues and also the little details. Lots of little details: Bush in the scripted form was a lode of knowledge. He quoted George Washington; Alexander Hamilton; Edmund Burke; Dean Rusk; Ronald Reagan; Alexander Solzhenitzyn; and Pericles, by God. He dropped the names of Sharansky, Havel, Walesa, Mandela, Lugar, Nunn, the Pearl River Delta, the 38th Parallel and START II.
Questioned by Russert on matters of foreign policy, Bush retreated to this speech seven times. Russert prompted Bush to this position several of those times. But Bush clearly would have gone there without the nudge: He clutched at the remembered text of someone else's words as if it were a lifesaver, and he was frequently at a loss whenever he could not instantly bring it to hand.
In his speech, Bush made seemingly knowledgeable mention of nuclear arms reduction treaties, including START II. But when Russert asked Bush what number of nuclear weapons he would consider acceptable for the United States and for Russia, Bush could only reply: "That's going to depend upon generals helping me make that decision, Tim." When Russert slipped in a sly follow-up, "What would START II bring us down to?" Bush said, "I can't remember the exact number." When Russert asked whether a President Bush would begin negotiating a START III treaty before the Russians ratified START II, the best that Bush could do was: "I would consider that, but again, I'm a man of priorities." When Russert asked if Bush had any views on Russian President Yeltsin's chosen successor, Prime Minister Putin, Bush responded "I really don't. I will if I'm the president." When Russert asked if a President Bush would be willing to sign a START III treaty that would limit the United States to 1,000 nuclear weapons, Bush riposted, "That depends upon my advisers and the people who know a heck of a lot more about the subject than I do." No kidding.
There is more to a presidency than foreign policy, and it is only fair to assume that Bush, as a governor, would fare better with questions on the domestic side. He did, but not by much. He barely got through a few basic follow-up questions on Social Security. He ducked entirely a question on the specific amounts he might spend on defense, Medicare and Social Security. He flunked an easy political question on whether he would take a meeting with gay Republicans (the compassionate conservative answer is yes; Bush's was "probably not"); and he appeared confused ("you're asking me something I don't know all the details about") when questioned about a major federal minority set-aside program.
A few weeks ago, Bush was made the fool by a trick interviewer's pop foreign policy quiz. That was a sandbag job and no test of anything. But the "Meet the Press" interview was seen long coming. Bush had plenty of time to prepare, and the questions weren't unfair tests of knowledge in a man who would be president. And this is the best he can do?
Michael Kelly is the editor of National Journal.