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Thursday, September 23, 2004


UPDATE: Timing isn't critical

Will the Bush campaign go for the kill and demand Bob Schieffer's removal as debate moderator, as per my previous speculation? Or will Bush decide to play the part of Mr. Nice Guy?

At the joint Bush / Allawi press conference today, the President at one point specifically asked for a CBS reporter to pose a question. It was a way of showing magnanimity while simultaneously taking a humorous jab at the humiliated network. It says that CBS has been reduced to such a laughingstock that it's no longer even necessary to refer to the details of the forgery scandal. Just mentioning CBS's name will do the trick.

Bob Schieffer seems more than a tad worried about the situation. Yesterday's Chicago Daily Herald noted that:

Schieffer on Tuesday dismissed rumblings that Bush advisers wanted him and CBS to be removed from participation in the debate because of the network's recent questionable campaign reporting.

He said both the Bush and Kerry camps have "signed off" on having him serve as moderator. And Schieffer now is compiling questions about domestic policy for them.

Schieffer is attempting a fait accompli by insisting that the moderator issue is settled and he's already deep into the complex task of compiling questions and (by implication) it's now too late to switch.

Of course that's malarkey. Any number of prominent journalists would happily leap at the chance to replace Schieffer and would hastily put together a set of questions, even at the last second.

The fact is, all the initiative is on the side of the Bush campaign, and neither CBS nor the Kerry campaign have any say over the matter.

We can expect that many more revelations concerning the CBS forgery fiasco will dribble out over the coming days and weeks. The Bush campaign, if it chooses, can seize upon any new nugget to announce (or even just hint through "unnamed high-ranking campaign officials") that the CBS connection with the Presidential debates is no longer tolerable.

If the Bush campaign decides it wants to distract the voters from bad economic news or bad war news, or wants to overshadow a new Kerry initiative, the "Schieffer problem" can be trotted out to dominate the news cycle. The timing is extremely flexible and totally under Bush's control.

The Bush campaign can even wait until the first two debates are completed, and then start raising questions about whether the third debate will have to be cancelled if Bob Schieffer remains as moderator. This really puts the screws to Kerry if he has not yet closed the gap in the polls. At that point the third debate will represent his last desperate hope to overtake the President.

As for CBS, it has an easy, face-saving way to cave in to the pressure from its affiliates. CBS just announces that its independent panel has reached an interim conclusion that the documents were definite forgeries and that 60 Minutes failed to adhere to proper journalistic standards. Hence, without further delay, the resignations of Dan Rather et al are accepted, and apologies are forthwith offered to everyone harmed by the baseless story.

In football, a team which builds up a big lead has two options: It can try to sit on its lead, play very conservatively, and run out the clock. Or it can continue to play the same aggressive (but risky) style which had produced the lead in the first place. My observation has been that a team is more likely to blow its lead and lose the game by playing it safe than by taking chances.

How risk-averse is President Bush? We'll soon find out.

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