Washington The desire to please is a strong instinct in Americans, and never so much as when they are approached by pollsters. So their responses tend not to be candid so much as accommodating: They tell their inquirer what they think is expected, or what the pollster wants to hear.
In the presidential campaign, for instance, voters claim they want the candidates to discuss "issues," and to be specific about it. But when asked to define those issues, their answers fall into two predictable categories: They repeat those issues the pollster suggests, or they talk about issues pertaining solely to themselves. John Kennedy's famous phrase has been turned on its head: They ask not what they can do for their country, but what their country can do for them.
Beyond that, they are evidently bored by issues, especially specifics, and are interested, instead, in tone and atmospherics. The presidential debates are a case in point. I have watched the first two, and am amused to note that Al Gore, who was supposed to sweep the floor with George W. Bush, now finds himself an object of pity and derision. But of greater interest are those groups of "undecided" voters, assembled by the networks, who are poked and prodded for visceral responses.
At this juncture, the whole notion of undecided voters is difficult to comprehend. The presidential campaign has been on for over a year, and we know more about the biographical details and policy positions of George W. Bush and Al Gore than is necessary. Yes, they concur on certain broad principles as who doesn't? but on a host of basic subjects they strongly disagree. And yet these focus groups are barely able to focus. Some of them profess to hear things they like, some find distinctions between the two candidates, a few suggest an issue; but most are clearly searching for something they won't find. Empathy, perhaps, or a presidential pledge to pay off their mortgage.
That is why the debates have been bad news for Al Gore. If you look at the history of presidential debating, you will find that the winners did not succeed on points, but on political irrelevancies. Kennedy and Richard Nixon were in general agreement on most subjects Nixon was the number-two Eisenhower Republican (behind Ike) and Kennedy was a Cold War liberal but viewers didn't clamor to JFK on issues. They liked his crisp good looks, and television presence, in contrast to Nixon's five o'clock shadow. What did Jimmy Carter say in 1980 that prompted Ronald Reagan's famous rejoinder? Nobody remembers, but everyone recalls that the affable Reagan seemed more, well, comfortable than the stone-faced Carter. George Bush lost his presidency in 1992, we are told, because he glanced at his watch while listening to H. Ross Perot bark and chatter.
What makes all this poignant for Gore is that he is a victim of his prowess. Before the first debate, it was widely acknowledged that debating was Gore's strong point, that Bush is the weaker intellect, and that their televised encounter was bound to be a cakewalk for the well-briefed vice president. But instead of graciously undermining his opponent, Gore went after Bush in his worst bullying manner and Bush, to Gore's surprise, more than held his own. If the debate had been scored by coaches, Gore might have prevailed; but Bush won because Gore was so personally offensive.
Which left poor Gore two untenable alternatives. If he persisted in his rude, condescending manner, he would exceed the loutish know-it-all portrayed on "Saturday Night Live," remind voters why they have never embraced him and keep on losing ground. But if he altered his smothering manner (as he did), that would give Bush a strategic opportunity. And that's what happened. In the second debate, Gore was visibly, sometimes excruciatingly, restrained, while Bush appeared relaxed, knowledgeable and conversant. And since Bush's personality is more appealing to voters, he beat Gore on points as well as atmospherics.
Is this any way to choose a president? Early in the 20th century, British political scientist Graham Wallis wrote a slim volume called "Human Nature in Politics," in which he discussed the random, sometimes irrational, factors that impel people to vote as they do. Human nature has not changed. Voters and journalists claim that they want to hear about issues and don't forget specifics and complain when the issues aren't explored in close detail. But when, in response, the issues and speeches and papers descend, they profess to be bored, or claim to be looking for qualities in candidates they might otherwise apply to pets or potential spouses.
They may be telling pollsters they are concerned about the environment, or the high cost of Viagra; but in a therapeutic age, what they really want is to feel good about themselves and the country and find a candidate who puts them in the proper mood to vote.
Philip Terzian is the associate editor of the Providence Journal.