Let's face it: whatever happens in today's debate, cable news will proclaim US President George W. Bush the winner. This will reflect the political bias so evident during the party conventions. It will also reflect the undoubted fact that Bush does a pretty good Clint Eastwood imitation.
But what will the print media do? Let's hope they don't do what they did four years ago.
Interviews with focus groups just after the first 2000 debate showed vice president Al Gore with a slight edge. Post-debate analysis should have widened that edge. After all, during the debate, Bush told one whopping lie after another -- about his budget plans, about his supposed prescription drug proposal and more. The fact-checking in the next day's papers should have been devastating.
But front-page coverage of the 2000 debates emphasized not what the candidates said but their "body language." After the debate, the lead stories said a lot about Gore's sighs, but nothing about Bush's lies. And even the fact-checking pieces "buried inside the newspaper" were, as Adam Clymer delicately puts it, "constrained by an effort to balance one candidate's big mistakes" -- that is, Bush's lies -- "against the other's minor errors."
The result of this emphasis on the candidates' acting skills rather than their substance was that after a few days, Bush's defeat in the debate had been spun into a victory.
This time, the first debate will be about foreign policy, an area where Bush ought to be extremely vulnerable. After all, his grandiose promises to rid the world of evildoers have all come to naught.
Exhibit A is, of course, Osama bin Laden, whom Bush promised to get "dead or alive," then dropped from his speeches after a botched operation at Tora Bora let him get away. And it's not just bin Laden: most analysts believe that al-Qaeda, which might have been crushed if Bush hadn't diverted resources and attention to the war in Iraq, is as dangerous as ever.
There's also North Korea, which Bush declared part of the "axis of evil," then ignored when its regime started building nuclear weapons. Recently, when a reporter asked Bush about reports that North Korea has half a dozen bombs, he simply shrugged.
Most important, of course, is Iraq, an unnecessary war, which -- after initial boasts of victory -- has turned into an even worse disaster than the war's opponents expected.
The Kerry campaign is making hay over Bush's famous flight-suit stunt, but for me, Bush's worst moment came two months later, when he declared: "There are some who feel like the conditions are such that they can attack us there. My answer is, bring 'em on." When they really did come on, he blinked: US forces -- obviously under instructions to hold down casualties at least until November -- have ceded much of Iraq to the insurgents.
During the debate, Bush will try to cover for this dismal record with swagger, and with attacks on his opponent. Will the press play Karl Rove's game by, as Clymer puts it, confusing political coverage with drama criticism, or will it do its job and check the candidates' facts?
There have been some encouraging signs lately. There was a disturbing interlude in which many news organizations seemed to accept false claims that Iraq had calmed down after the transfer of sovereignty. But now, as the violence escalates, they seem willing to ask hard questions about Bush's fantasy version of the situation in Iraq. For example, a recent Reuters analysis pointed out that independent sources contradict his assertions about everything "from police training and reconstruction to preparations for January elections."