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October 10, 2004 - This Week's Presidential Debate













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Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta, is tracking things:

 

I think it was mostly another tie.

 

Bush did better than he did last time and probably looked credible to anyone who didn't know any better, but Kerry still did better than Bush, especially on substance, but also on some very crisp and direct responses to Bush's BS.

 

But am I right? I worry about my objectively thinking that Kerry did so well tonight, since I've called it wrong in the past. This, of course, is about what other people think, and I'll find out what that is in the next few days.

 

Agreed, it was a tie.  My first week at work ended and I got home just as the debate started, fed the cat, leafed through the mail (real and virtual), and watched a bit slumped in my big leather easy chair.  I couldn't believe that was really Bush.  I had scanned the emails folks sent me on the Salon piece regarding the hidden prompter whispering in Bush's ear.  (See October 10, 2004 - George Bush's suits from Georges de Paris... And is told what to say by whom?).  Of course I had been following that.  There was no telltale "lump" tonight, but the behavior convinced me he was using that again.  There has been, to this time, no evidence that Bush could actually think on his feet, and too dig up facts and examples, no matter how dishonest.  None at all.  How to explain the sudden change?  Someone prompting him, as I saw it.  This time, no physical evidence - as the evidence was behavioral.

 

Reactions?

 

See The Daily Kos:

Mort Kondracke:  "... I think Kerry won this debate as he won the first debate I don't think... I thought that Kerry was much more aggressive and the president was basically on the defense and didn't have new arguments didn't have...wasn't as facile as he should have been."  [Fox News Channel, 10/8/04]

 

Bill Kristol:  "I guess I think if you think the President was doing okay and didn't need a win in this debate, he did fine, but I think, if one thinks that Bush missed an awful lot of opportunities to go after Kerry in the first debate he had to make some of them up in this debate, I'm not sure he really succeeded in doing so."  [Fox New Channel, 10/8/04]

 

Brit Hume:  "Is it now fair to say that in each of these debates in terms of marshaling arguments, and remembering them and presenting them that this is something John Kerry has proved he is very good at. And that it doesn't play to the president's strong suit." [Fox News Channel, 10/8/04]

 

Mort Kondracke:  "I thought [Kerry] was very effective. I thought that he was also on the attack a lot and frankly I thought that the President seemed to be on the defense a lot and trying to explain things and not explaining them all that well." [Fox News Channel, 10/8/04]

 

Tim Russert: "John Kerry, also, energetic, forceful." [NBC, 10/8/04]

 

Jonah Goldberg: "On the question of whether Bush did everything he needed to tonight, I don't think so. I think he helped himself, but Kerry leaves these debates energized."  [National Review Online, 10/8/04]

 

Mark Shields: "He just absolutely, I thought, demolished the President's claims about the coalition in Iraq."  [PBS, 10/8/04]

 

James Fallows, Atlantic Monthly: [Kerry's best moment] "I think his best moment was at the series of new lines. Again like this Missouri line of saying that that I was able to do with some of my votes in the Senate what you have failed to do, which is balance the budget, so I think it was the general vividness of his approach." [CBS, 10/8/04]

 

Perry Bacon:  "I actually was struck that Kerry was pretty strong, I thought, in the foreign policy section, actually, and sort of hit the president hard on that." [CNN, 10/8/04]

As usual, the conservative former Bush supporter Andrew Sullivan is good:

 

ABC'S INSTA-POLL: Kerry 44; Bush 41; Draw 13. I think that gets it exactly right. What it doesn't get is that Republicans will be energized again after this performance. Morale matters. And it has been slackening among Bush supporters. But Kerry didn't lose any ground either. And the news of the last week keeps his momentum intact.

 

A DRAW: That's my basic take, although the debate was more interesting than that makes it seem. On style, the president was clearly far better than in the first debate. I think he's woken up and realizes he can lose this thing. He was aggressive, clear most of the time, had a good rapport with the audience and, as the debate went on, became more relaxed. There were moments early on, however, when he seemed to me to be close to shouting; and his hyper-aggressiveness, having to respond to everything, went at times over the line of persuasiveness. Early cut-away shots weren't helpful either. He tended to look up at Kerry blinking fast, twitching a little, and occasionally smirking and even winking to friends in the audience. Not presidential. He was strongest on stem cell research, where most of his work was done by the questioner. But his clear formulation - "to destroy life in order to save life is one of the most difficult moral conundrums we face today" - was eloquent and correct. I'm with him on this one. I also found his response to the abortion question better than Kerry's. How you can respect human life and be in favor of partial birth abortion is simply beyond me. Bush is also clearly right that the war on terror cannot be restrained merely to police work against al Qaeda. On all these things, his performance was immeasurably better than last week.

 

BUSH'S BLATHER: But he was also evidently flailing at times. Throwing around the old "liberal" label was hackneyed and seemed a substitute for argument. His distortion of Kerry's healthcare plan didn't flirt with being mendacious; it was an outright lie. His answer on the environment sounded okay but isn't going to convince anyone. That he has to concede the complete absence of WMDs in Iraq is inevitably brutal on him and his argument about the war. The facts are simply against him, and it shows. He had absolutely no answer on his spending spree. None. If you're a one-issue voter on fiscal responsibility, Kerry is obviously your man; and this debate rammed that point home. And then there were some simply bizarre moments. Does anyone in America ever use the term "internets"? Plural? I've never heard anyone in my life use this formulation. The mandatory malapropism: Bush promised at one point that he'd be more "facile" in future. That's going to be a hard promise to keep. After four years of defending the homeland, the president should also not be giving soundbites like "I'm worried. I'm worried about our country." Hey, Mr president. Join the gang. And then there was the hilarious answer on the judicial appointments. Bush won't appoint anyone who still believes in the Dredd Scott decision. That's a relief. But, to be honest, it's the kind of question a high-school president might give, not the president of the United States. Bush's biggest failure was to detail Kerry's record, rather than just describing it as "liberal". "Show, not tell" is a good rule of thumb for effective criticism. And then there was the inevitable "mistakes" question. Bush didn't answer it - except to say he wished he hadn't hired Paul O'Neill. You'd think by now he'd have some kind of answer. But he seems to think he is incapable of error. That, in fact, is an obvious part of the problem.

 

KERRY THE DEMAGOGUE: Kerry was as strong and as presidential as he was in the first debate, and effective, I think, in countering the flip-flop charge. His strongest debate points were citing Republicans to criticize the president's war management, giving far more concrete proposals on healthcare than the president, burnishing his fiscal conservatism, and demagoguing the reimportation of prescription drugs. Yes, it was horrible pandering on the latter but it did the job and Bush didn't counter him. It's so depressing that neither candidate gave the honest answer to the reimportation problem: it will decimate the pharmaceutical companies' profits and wreck long-term research and development. But one thing you can tell from this debate: no one promised any new limits on government. Bush has killed that brand of conservatism dead. Kerry's big new weakness is that he really does seem to have reverted to the notion that Saddam should have been left in power. The Duelfer report definitely gives him ammunition on this, but the president is right to argue that such a position makes it difficult for Kerry to have credibility with our current allies in fighting the current war. The line Kerry is trying to walk between appealing to his anti-war base while reassuring pro-war independents got a little shakier tonight.

 

AN EDGE TO KERRY: Stylistically, Kerry seemed, well, calmer. When the camera cut to him during Bush's walkarounds, he was generally serene and respectful. His parries were cleaner than Bush's; his mind seemed more complicated - but not to the point of complete paralysis. Far from it. The contrast between a man who can make an argument and one who can simply assert what he believes to be a truth was striking. If we have learned anything these past three years, it is that conviction is not enough. Skepticism, openness to other arguments, thinking outside the box or against a bubble mentality: all these are useful in a war leader and Bush has none of them. In some ways, Kerry seemed more experienced than Bush, which, of course, he is. All in all, I'd say that Kerry had a minuscule edge in both the substantive and stylistic contest. But the fact that Bush seemed alive and kicking as a candidate will help him regain some initiative as well.

 

Maybe so – but there is the problem with is demeanor.

 

Ezra Klein says this (my emphases):

 

Bush yelled a lot.  He tried to compensate for last week's defensiveness with an abundance of aggression.  More than once, I thought he was going to sucker punch [the debate moderator, Charles ]Gibson, but he seems to have jammed the brakes at mere emasculation.  While it's certainly true that the last night's bully looked better than last week's dunce, it still speaks of a soft and unformed man.  That, I think, is the story of the debates.  The defining contrast between the two men isn't leadership, gravitas or intelligence, but simple maturity.  Whether Bush is seen hunched and scowling or stalking the length of the stage and shouting down the moderator, there's a serious sense that this guy is just not an emotional adult.  He veers wildly from one emotional extreme to the other, but remains, regardless of the day's visage and gait, a man consumed by his passions and frustrated by his critics.

 

I don't know George Bush, my judgments on him are produced by the weird entity transmitted by the cameras.  But the one thing I've found helpful in my viewings and evaluations is a simple thought experiment: if these guys had no handlers, no briefing books, no focus groups, but were stuck on a stage and forced to debate the issues, what would the outcome be?  When I run that scenario, I'm always left with two distinct images.  I'm left with a less concise, more unfocused, and zinger-free Kerry, and I'm left with Bush as a sputtering, angry fool.  Intelligent or not, this guy simply lacks an abiding interest in the art of governance.  Policy clearly bores him, competing arguments obviously tire him.  He's thrown himself into the exciting issues and cast them as heroic confrontations. Bush wants to be a president in the same way John Wayne was a cowboy -- he wants the power, the image, the glory.  And while Kerry may want that as well, there's no doubt in my mind that he's a man who delights in the policy meetings, who feels fulfilled when his legislation helps people, and who's decided that the path to history lies in the work, not the look, of governing.  And that goes back to the point about maturity: George Bush approaches the presidency as a child approaches law enforcement, and if the last few years and the last two debates have taught us nothing else, that's a dangerous way for our leader to think.

 

Man, that’s cold.  But I agree.

 

Others?

 

This: 

If Kerry and the Dems can't make an issue out of the fact that the president of the United States is utterly incapable of controlling his hairtrigger temper, they don't deserve to win this election. I mean, the man is a walking time bomb.

And this: 

OFF HIS MEDS? … I've been surfing around TV a little bit, and the one thing that surprises me is that there's very little comment about George Bush's demeanor, especially during the first half hour. His voice was several notches above presidential, he was interrupting both Charlie Gibson and the questioners, he was leaping to his feet, he was jabbing the air with Ross Perot-like abandon, and there were at least a couple of times when he looked like he was about to leap into the audience and throttle someone. It's one thing to be passionate, but it's quite another to look like you're off your meds and need to be restrained.

  ___

 

Oh yes, in the debate discussion of the abortion rights and who Bush would appoint to the Supreme Court if he is granted four more years to rule us, Bush brought up the Dred Scott Decision.  Huh?  I was puzzled, but I was tired and didn’t think about it much.  I figured Bush was trying to show off and got a little more detached from reality than usual – as that happens now and then.

 

Atrios explains - 

 

Dred Scott

 

There are mistakes which happen in live formats, and mistakes which are pre-fabbed, deliberate, and therefore you're held accountable for. Mistakes involving the issue of slavery are particularly offensive, no matter what the mistake.

 

Bush said:

 

Another example would be the Dred Scott case, which is where judges years ago said that the constitution allowed slavery because of personal property rights.

 

Dred Scott wasn't based on property rights. It was based on racism.

 

The decision of the court was read in March of 1857. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney - a staunch supporter of slavery - wrote the "majority opinion" for the court. It stated that because Scott was black, he was not a citizen and therefore had no right to sue. The decision also declared the Missouri Compromise of 1820, legislation which restricted slavery in certain territories, unconstitutional.

 

Well, fine, Bush is against slavery.  I’m sure that will get him some points somewhere.  But I see lots of chat on the net about how this Dred Scott business is code for the anti-abortion (pro-life) crowd.  Something about evil judges with grudges ruling on their own beliefs, not the law, and not on the constitution.  I didn’t follow it closely.  You could look it up, if you have the time.  But I do believe the constitution rates a black person as three fifths of a white person for voting purposes.  And we threw that out.  The whole issue of “strict constructionist” law is a topic for another time.

 

All in all, it was an odd debate.

 

Bush wouldn’t admit any mistakes.  Why would he – as that is a trap.  He did say he appointed some people he shouldn’t have – perhaps those who resigned and wrote those critical, pesky books?  He didn’t specify anyone, as he said he didn’t want to embarrass anyone on national television.  Fine.

 

In regard to the issue of not having enough troops in Iraq - as earlier in the week the former top American administrator in Baghdad, L. Paul Bremer III, told a private audience that the United States did not send enough troops to Iraq to establish security after driving Saddam Hussein from power – Bush just said that wasn’t his fault.

 

I remember sitting in the White House looking at those generals, saying do you have what you need in this war? Do you have what it takes? I remember going down to the basement of the White House the day we committed our troops as last resort. Looking at Tommy Franks and the generals on the ground. Asking them do we have the right plan with the right troop level? And they looked me in the eye and said, yes, sir, Mr. President.

Of course, I listened to our generals. That's what a president does. A president tests the strategy and relies upon good military people to execute that strategy.

 

Yep, he blamed the military.  They screwed this up.

 

Don’t blame him, just vote for him?  I don’t think so.































 
 
 
 

Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
 
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