Thursday, September 30, 2004

Ah, the debate

As you may have guessed, I was glued to the television most of the night watching the debate, and I've learned that when I see David Brooks babbling, I know it's time to turn off the TV, because the senseless spin can be quite distracting from my own thoughts. Just for a refresher, I hopped on CSPAN's site last night and watched the first debate in 2000. That debate was clearly won by George Bush, who had low expectations of him going into the debate. George won it because Al Gore kept talking about the nation's problems and Bush stood across from him every time and said very clearly that 'they've had 8 years to fix it.' So whenever Gore talked about some old widow in West Virginia who can't pay for her medicine or whatever, and some long explanation of what needs to be done, the response was always there that it Gore could have done something and didn't. But that strategy really made Bush's ideas the centerpiece of the first debate in 2000. In a comparison of the convention speeches, Bush's was hands down better than Kerry's. And I think the polls reflected that. Kerry was very long-winded, dry. Bush gave short, punchy ideas, and he stood back and basically said don't hand your country over to a flip-flopper. That theme has been carried forth in the past few weeks -- with great success. Kerry, in order to win, had to demonstrate that he is not a flip-flopper. Tonight, basically, Bush stood before us as the known quantity: We all know that Bush is decisive, but Kerry's leadership qualities are still largely a question. But by debating on Kerry's leadership qualities and by making them a central issue of his campaign, Bush fell into his own trap -- the same trap he used to ensnare Al Gore in 2000. What was most important about tonight was that the picture of Kerry didn't match the picture Bush has been painting. Kerry was very even, steady, both visibly and logically. He explained clearly his view on Iraq and succeeded in defining Bush as the guy who's not getting the job done. This debate was all about Bush's poor planning and execution of the war and how Korea and Iran have become a nuclear threat under Bush's watch. And Bush was shoddy on defense. He tried many times to bring it back to the flip-flop argument, but it never stuck. That image just didn't work for the calm, well spoken, clear-headed Kerry. And actually, Bush's weight shifting, long pauses where he searched for words and endless blinking made him look the part of a flip flopper -- or maybe someone who was more interested in simply saying the right thing rather than what he believed. Meanwhile, Bush let many of Kerry's accusations go unanswered. Whether or not anyone remembers exactly what was said, I think the impression that Kerry gave was strong and decisive: There is much that needs to be done in Iraq and in the world to stop our enemies. Bush gave a vague assessment of what's going on the war, and didn't give the impression that what he will do, which is as Kerry said, "more of the same." Kerry kept his responses short and precise. He didn't backtrack out of ideas, as he tends to do. He didn't drop a million clauses before he got to the point of his sentence. He was sharp, clear, consistent. In other words, he didn't fit the picture of the flip-flopper that Bush has painted. Bush was just up there flailing, trying to dodge bullets. While Bush said he was a decisive leader, Kerry acted like a decisive leader. Therefore, Kerry won the debate.


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