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Debate reactions

I haven't managed to do a quick, impressionistic debate reaction for any of the previous three, so here's a go at it:

Every so often, perhaps four times in the last four years, I am reminded in a big way that Bush does have some of the skills of a real president, perhaps even of a good one. There was his speech at National Cathedral after 9/11, there's the potential brilliance (had they not been transparent frauds) of "compassionate conservatism" and "a uniter not a divider" -- ideas that had they been taken seriously would have guaranteed his reelection and a reshaping of American politics. In my eyes, these moments are very infrequent and most of the time I just can't believe that this man, with the vocabulary of a fifteen-year-old, a complete inability to construct even a simple x-therefore-y argument, and a determined refusal to hear dissenting voices, could hold so much as a symbolic office.

But tonight, I thought, the real president kind of showed up. It's not a president I would vote for, but it was believable, like Reagan, unlike the pissed-off preppie of the first debate or the steroid-addled punk of the second.

Weighing all the three debates, I thought Bush was operating at about 40% of his potential in the first two, and at perhaps 70% tonight. (I've watched the video comparing his lucid discussion of education in the 1994 Texas governor's race with his McNaghten defense in the first two with Kerry, so I'll use 1994 as the Bush benchmark.)

If the Kerry of the previous debates had shown up, I think Bush's campaign might have been able to spin it as a turnaround. Unfortunately for Bush, Kerry's performance was at least 120% of his potential. I didn't mean to make this so mathematical, but my point is that Bush's improvement was profound. But Kerry's was even better. In the series of answers on nasty social issues, which would normally be a minefield for Kerry, he was unbelievably eloquent and presidential. I mean the questions on the role of religion in decision-making, the question on abortion, and the question on gay marriage. In the answers on the first two in particular, I could feel the depth of Kerry's Catholicism and the paradoxes it presented, which is a deeply humanizing element even to a non-religious viewer. I think this guy might have been reading Amy Sullivan, whose comments on the last two debates make her almost the equal of Garry Wills as someone who has helped me understand the place of religion in American politics.

Sure, there were points that Kerry missed. He barely challenged Bush's supposed accomplishments, No Child Left Behind and the Medicare prescription drug law. He didn't hit Bush hard enough on the vicious intolerance of a constitutional amendment on gay marriage. He should have rebutted Bush on the flu shortage answer, pointing out that vaccines are already protected from lawsuits, so tort reform is not the answer to the flu-shot shortage. And there
are perhaps a dozen other examples. But Kerry did not fall into the most obvious trap, which was to respond to Bush's outdated "Liberal Liberal Liberal" campaign with a mealy-mouthed attempt to prove that he was really the 24th-most-liberal Senator and it's all very complicated. Instead, failing to get the desired reaction, Bush seemed to give up that line of attack after the first ten minutes, when it didn't get the desired effect, and instead to portray himself as the non-ideologue.

Given Bush's performance, I was almost certain that he would be judged the winner based on low expections alone, just as he was against Gore. But the instant polls seem to show Kerry as the clear winner. As unrigorous as those polls are, they will shape the coverage. The stench of defeat is all over Bush.

As a Kerry supporter, I'm happier with this outcome than I would have been with a repeat of the first two debates. After those two, the perception was simply that Bush lost, that something went awry, and not quite enough attention was paid to Kerry's strengths. This, I thought, was very different. As someone who absolutely had not recognized Kerry's strengths until recently (despite being in the same room with him a half-dozen times, and hundreds more if you count sitting on the staff bench in the U.S. Senate as being in the same room), I've concluded that this is a person who grows on you slowly, whereas Bush is one who shrinks. In the first debates, Kerry made Bush shrink; in the third, Kerry grew, to a level way above the line of plausible-as-president, and thus Bush's quite impressive recovery was irrelevant.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on October 14, 2004 | Permalink


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I'm heartened that you had such a positive response. I thought Kerry looked sleepy, was verbose, and didn't tie his comments together with enough short thematic remarks (of the "the president is out of touch with reality" kind). Bush seemed to me the one who had clearly improved. He certainly had more energy. So: I was concerned, as you were, that Bush would be announced the winner, and am cheered and surprised that the opposite seems to be happening. BTW, your drinking game idea turned out not to be much fun! Now perhaps that's why I found the debate so uninspiring...

Posted by: Dan | Oct 14, 2004 10:40:41 AM

Agreed that Kerry's invocation of service was a brilliant and deep stroke, along with an appropriate bible quote.

On substance, I think you're right on the money. On style, with Bush's "comeback" last night initially I was concerned that Bush was going to come off as more optimistic (forced smiles and head nods nonwithstanding) and Kerry too serious....then I remembered that I might be missing something....that such a contrast in a time like this plays to Kerry's strength, to who he really is.

In a Sunny Time, in an open election, Kerry's serious and thoughtful personality is no match for an Edwards, or even an on-his-game Bush. But it's more Cloudy than Sunny these days. Looks like Democrats have the right candidate at the right time. How often does that happen?

Posted by: Crab Nebula | Oct 14, 2004 10:45:06 AM

Kerry claimed the center.

In these partisan times, people have forgotten that this is what presidential campaigns are about ... claiming the center. Bush's "compassionate conservatism" and "uniter not divider" themes were constructed for this goal in 2000.

Note that Kerry frequently talked about: building consensus; reaching across the aisle to Republicans; breaking from his own party on key issues. Note that he made a point of praising Bush at least once per debate, and never attacking his character. Note that when asked questions about people who disagreed with him he first paused and emphasized how he respected their point of view (the abortion question in debate #2, and the Cardinal/abortion question in debate #3). Note that he maintained a polite confidence throughout the debates, never interrupting or appearing angry.

All those things together paint a picture of a man governing from the center.

Many lefties felt Kerry missed opportunities to contradict many Bush lies. But, this too reinforced the perception of governing from the center. Kerry was confident enough that he was willing to let some comments slide in the interests of keeping the debate flowing, and that left a clear impression with centrists.

Posted by: Observer | Oct 14, 2004 12:30:39 PM

I don't have a cite, but I believe I have read that flu vaccine doesn't fall under the legislation protecting childhood vaccine manufacturers from litigation. (Not that I think that had anything to do with the current shortage.)

Posted by: cafl | Oct 14, 2004 11:19:15 PM

earing on Alaska Natural Gas Pipeline Proposals October 2, 2001
Opening Statement of Chairman Bingaman

(Here's what COULD have been bringing YOU cheap natural gas in a year or so........IF Repubos and Bushie had not KILLED the deal. Could your state use its share of over one million jobs? Could our nation use the shift in trade deficits? Could our Treasury use the taxes on the gas? The taxes from good paying jobs on a $20 billion project? This was defeated in committee, 7 R's to 6 Dems with Bushie goading them on. Can YOU afford to let him and his oil-hors stall this project for ANOTHER four years? What's your heating bill going to be this winter??? Jack)

Good morning. The purpose of the hearing is to receive testimony on the status of proposals for the transportation of natural gas from Alaska to markets in the lower 48 states and on legislation that may be required to expedite the construction of a pipeline from Alaska.

The committee held a similar hearing on this topic over a year ago. Frankly, I had hoped that by this time, today’s witnesses would be discussing a commercial proposal and the state and federal governments would be actively working on legislation to expedite the pipeline construction.

I am concerned that we have made very little progress in the past 13 months towards the goal of adding Alaska’s natural gas resources to our domestic energy supply. According to DOE, the gas reserves in the Alaska North Slope equal 20 % of the total gas reserves -both onshore and offshore - in the lower 48 states. Bringing this gas to market would have huge energy security benefits for the United States. In addition, it would be a multi-billion dollar construction project on the part of the private sector, requiring some 1200 to 1600 miles of steel pipe just to get from the North Slope to the hub in Alberta, Canada. The Arctic pipeline, plus the additional pipeline expansion needed to move the gas into end-use markets, will provide a tremendous economic stimulus for the US and Canada. And no matter what route it takes, a natural gas pipeline will bring substantial economic benefits to Alaska.

I believe that we are at a critical energy security decision point today. Over the past year, interest in bringing liquified natural gas to the US has increased exponentially. With the planned reopening of two mothballed LNG terminals, expansions at existing facilities, and construction of new facilities, about 8 percent of our natural gas demand would be met with imported LNG in less than a decade.

By inaction, we start down a path to increased import dependence on natural gas. thereby losing the Alaska natural gas forever. Without Alaska gas, the U.S. will end up importing more liquified natural gas from countries like Algeria, Qatar, Nigeria, and Indonesia. Once those LNG facilities are in place, the Alaska gas pipeline may never be economic. We will never be able to produce enough oil to be independent of the world oil market, but we have the potential to retain the security of a North American gas market.

I believe we are at a critical energy security juncture here. It may be of interest to the members of this committee that this summer, 11 gas producing countries met in Tehran to plan a new OPEC for natural gas.

As Chairman of this committee, I am prepared to develop legislation to streamline the regulatory approval process needed to move forward with the pipeline. This legislation would need to supplemented by a mechanism to reduce the financial uncertainty for the companies that undertake to build the pipeline; I am committed to working with the Finance Committee on that piece of the legislation.

A pipeline transporting domestic natural gas reserves from Alaska to markets in the lower 48 states is a project that can provide real jobs across the country and in Canada; enable the US to meet the growing demand for natural gas; and prevent import dependence in the future.

Posted by: Jack | Oct 15, 2004 1:26:47 AM

We've got enough quick and impressionistic; we want more long and thoughtful (if sporadic) about why some budget rider on a housing bill is the key to the universe!

Posted by: angry moderate | Oct 15, 2004 8:56:47 AM

Unfortunately, the Republicans won the post-debate spin this time.

They did the same thing to Al Gore 4 years ago. Few candidates for President were more “squeaky clean” than Al Gore, but that didn’t stop Karen Hughes from expressing angry outrage at every minor criticism he directed at Bush. The result was that the election ended up being far closer than it should/could have been. Based solely on the record of the previous four years, Gore should have won by a substantial landslide. Based solely on the record of the previous four years, George Bush should be losing by a landslide today. Instead, this election is still too close to call. Why?

It’s because Republican strategists know now---just as they knew four years ago---that the KEY swing voters depend entirely on their “impressions” of the candidates. Republicans are savvy; they are cunning, and they know how to manipulate these people. Most Democrats may have been able to see through the phony outrage that the Cheneys expressed re: Kerry’s comment on their daughter’s lesbianism, but those impressionable swing voters saw only clips of angry outrage being expressed by the Cheneys and heard that this had become a big issue. Sadly, even though John Kerry won all three debates, his people lost the spin on the last one.

John Kerry could have turned the whole thing around if he had simply ridiculed the phony outrage they were expressing and exposed it for the cynical political stratagem that it was. By doing so he would have been able to further define the Republicans as conniving Con Artists who are trying to manipulate trusting voters with their devious duplicity. Unfortunately, Democratic candidates and their advisors tend to be stunned when they are targeted by publicly expressed Republican anger and feel as though they need to defend themselves. How should they respond? I suggest that Kerry’s rapid response team stay in constant contact with Jon Stewart for the duration of the campaign.

The kind of humor that will help Kerry in these last weeks is not more lame jokes like the one he uttered during the last debate (I had an immediate flashback to the failed attempts at humor of Mike Dukakis). All Kerry needs to do is give himself permission to start ridiculing Bush regularly from now on. Every time Bush falsely characterizes Kerry in a speech, John needs to mercilessly ridicule him for it and use the opportunity to define Bush as desperate and pathetic.

That is what Bush is doing to Kerry every time he stands up in front of his favorable crowds. Indeed, he has no record to run on, but ridiculing Kerry is the one thing that is keeping Bush in the race in the eyes of the swing voters. They really, really respond to that stuff. Get Jon Stewart's cell phone number, John. You're going to want to stay in constant contact with him from now on...


Posted by: Taxwisdom.org | Oct 17, 2004 8:34:12 AM

Interesting read

Posted by: rose | Jan 2, 2005 11:04:26 PM