from David Gergen to Dick Cheney and Mike Duval, 9/18/76, on Debate
Strategy for Gerald Ford
THE WHITE HOUSE
DICK CHENEY and MIKE DUVAL
FROM: DAVE GERGEN
In our recent
discussions, it was suggested that one debate strategy is for the
President to be highly Presidential and to practically ignore Mr.
Carter and Mr. Carter's arguments. To illustrate: it was said that
if one end of the spectrum were represented by a complete brawl
and the other end by the President treating Carter as a lighting
technician, that we would go 80 percent of the way toward the position
of lighting technician.
On that basis,
it was further argued, the President would:
mention of Mr. Carter by name;
-- Not discuss
the enormous costs of Mr. Carter's programs;
-- Not discuss
the Democrat platform or the record of the Democratic Congresses
over the last 40 years;
-- Not discuss
precisely where the President diverges from the liberal approach
to government and why;
-- And not
discuss Mr. Carter's record of raising Georgia spending by 50%,
increasing Georgia state employment by 25%, and practically doubling
the Georgia state debt.
is argued, the President should be above the battle and stick to
his achievements and very generalized theories of government.
I want to make
it plain that I totally disagree with this approach to the debates.
I do fully support
the idea of the President being Presidential and not engaging in
a knock down-drag out with Carter. He must deal with him deftly
and with neat strokes that keep him out of a verbal wrestling match.
But that is a matter of style -- how he acts toward Carter, his
general demeanor, his grace and good humor. I am perfectly confident
that the President will be exceptionally good on the stylistic question.
As long as no one tries to overprogram him and make him self- conscious,
his natural sincerity, honesty and charm will come through to the
But we must
be extremely careful to distinguish between style and substance.
If the President avoids dealing intelligently and in a very thoughtful
way with the substance and personally, I think his instincts run
toward strong, reasoned arguments -- he could create so many problems
for himself that he runs a high risk of losing the debate.
Perhaps I am
misstating what is being argued; if so, I'll be very relieved. But
if not let me tell You what I find so objectionable about an "above-
the-battle" approach, or what could be called the "non-debate" strategy;
-- Substance does matter. It was frequently said yesterday that
no one will remember what either man says, only how well they appear.
That is a simplification that can be very misleading. Many, many
people do care about substance. Issues do matter. And to a great
many more people, the intelligence and reason that a man applies
to a question says volumes about his qualifications to be President.
Yes, JFK won the first debate because he was more poised and confident
than Nixon; but JFK would have lost that debate if his poise had
not also been accompanied by very sharp, very well-honed arguments.
-- The non-debate
strategy seriously under- estimates Carter. Carter has made a number
of gaffes by attacking the President so harshly in the last two
weeks, so there is a tendency to believe that he will make the same
mistake in the debates. We must not fall into the trap of underestimating
the man. He is one of the shrewdest politicians in America today,
and he has a very precise under- standing of the English language.
I have read a number of his speeches in the last few days, and I
am convinced that Carter has the capacity to put the President's
record in the worst possible light -- while being totally respectful
-- and also presenting a very positive, very concrete, (and very
phoney) program of his own. We cannot give him a free ride.
-- The President
should not be on the defensive all night. Carter will continually
be needling the President about what increases in unemployment,
vetoes, Nixon-Ford, medicaid abuses, etc., etc. For the President
to simply stand on his record and not draw the distinction between
his own approach to the problems and those represented by Mr. Carter
will leave him always on the defensive. He must turn the arguments
around on Carter so that Carter is defending what many people have
now come to believe is a bankrupt approach to government.
-- A non-debate
strategy will reinforce the President's worst attributes: The public
questions whether the President is competent enough to run the country.
We know better, but many Americans don't. If the President stands
there and responds with fluffy platitudes instead of hard, concise
arguments, he will come across as a dummy.
-- The non-debate
strategy ignores the President's hidden strengths: Two of the most
successful events of the last 12 months have been the President's
acceptance address and his budget briefing. They were successful
for much the same reason: he was forceful, extremely articulate
and extremely well prepared. He was commanding because he handled
it so well. And people were surprised. If he comes into these debates
with sharp, very precise arguments -- arguments that slice through
the Carter fog bank -- he will be an enormous success.
-- The non-debate
strategy is also inconsistent with the President's highpoints of
the last two weeks: One of the reasons that the President has been
so successful in the last two weeks is not just the fact that Carter
is hurting himself on the stump and the President is at home being
Presidential, but that when the President has spoken up, he has
very neatly cut Carter up. Three examples: handling Carter so well
in the press conference on Kelley, the comments at B'nai B'rith
(which were very tough but were said with enough lightness that
he got away with it), and the trust lines at Michigan. All of those
lines are consistent with a strong debate strategy; they are inconsistent
with a non-debate strategy.
-- The American
people, and especially the press, have been led to believe that
this will be a true debate. The President challenged Carter to the
debate and said afterwards that he couldn't wait to pin Carter down
on the issues. In fact, we all want to smoke Carter out on the issues.
The way you do that is to make it very clear why his approach will
lead American down the road to more inflation, more unemployment,
etc. To avoid doing that is going to leave the public wondering
why the devil we issued the challenge, and leave the writing press
with very negative feelings.
I fully realize
that it is unprecedented for a President of the United States to
engage in a debate with his opponent. And in doing so, he must be
highly Presidential. But we wouldn't be in Philadelphia at all unless
there were a reason for it.
What I am urging
is not a 180-degree turn off basic strategy. I repeat: I do not
support a slug fest or anything which demeans the President. What
I do suggest is this:
That the President
be very well prepared with sharp, well-honed arguments that keep
him strong, forceful, and on the offensive -- on his achievements,
on his programs, and on his philosophy. -- That the President be
prepared with very sharp arguments that show how different Mr. Carter's
approach is and why it won't work. We have to pin down Carter for
what he is: a Yankee liberal in Confederate uniform.
-- That the
President never be afraid to bring up the Georgia record where it
serves to buttress his arguments. Carter should not be given a free
ride on anything.
-- That the
President's staff concentrate very hard on helping him develop,
polish and sharpen the arguments. I am less interested in stringing
a few eloquent words together than in ensuring that he has the major
points in his mind and can hit them Cleanly.
-- And finally,
that the President have an opportunity to fully understand what
the arguments are against the Carter positions. I would regard it
as a gross dereliction of the staff's responsibility toward him
to allow him to enter this struggle without all the weapons he will
need at his command. He must not go in with one hand tied behind
I would not
have taken your time with such a lengthy memorandum did I not regard
this matter with utmost concern.