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Oct 1, 2004 8:06 pm

Debate Observations

This much is clear: Kerry is perceived by most observers to have won the debate. Or George Bush is perceived to have lost the debate. The differentiation between those two statements may not matter all that much. Obviously I am a liberal and I am a Democrat, and so I wanted Kerry to win and Bush to lose. But I do not think my impressions are merely those of a partisan. Or at least they are not solely the ramblings and spin of a partisan.

Kerry probably accomplished his main goals last night just by not sweating like a Yankees’ fan at a spelling bee and ordering Jim Lehrer to bring him caviar. If he did not exactly come across as likeable, he also did not come across as haughty or unlikeable. And he came across as Presidential. Bizarrely, the President did not. I say bizarrely, because George W. Bush seems nothing if not affable, likeable, and seemingly approachable. Not last night. I am not sure if someone spiked his water or what, but President Bush is the one who managed to come off as haughty, arrogant, unfriendly, and unpresidential. Al Gore was pilloried for his sigh-fest four years ago. But with his twitches and visible annoyance and face-making and, yes, audible sighs, it is as if the President never imagined that he could be hanged by how he handled himself when his opponent was speaking. By contrast, Kerry feverishly scribbled notes (that he never actually seemed to use from what I can tell) and rarely lost composure while Bush was speaking. That Kerry seemed like the more redeemable person after last night is the most shocking thing of all. He’s got two more debates to blow that, however.

Meanwhile, were I a Republican, I would be even more annoyed at something that seems to me to be inexcusable: Almost every time he was given his opportunity to talk, Bush stammered and stuttered and false-started for the first 5-10-20 second of his given time. By the time he hit his stride, which he almost always did, he was running out of time. This was awful to watch as a result, because the President seemed simply not to have been prepared for these questions, any of which the Rebunk crowd would have seen as obvious. What makes this worse – because we expect a certain amount of incoherence from the President anyway – is that it served to cover up something that the Bush campaign should be able to tout: The president knew his stuff. He came prepared. He had some arguments hidden beneath the fact that he was practically drooling all over himself after his time began. This seems inexcusable. Or would be if I wanted him to win. I don’t. So drool away, Commander-in-Chief.

Both candidates were pretty much on message, though Bush sometimes seemed programmed. We heard the “Wrong War at the Wrong Place and at the Wrong Time” criticism once or twice and felt that it was effective. Five, six, seven times? It really loses its punch. Especially when inserted in absolutely irrelevant places, and especially after Kerry more concisely countered with his arguments about how disarming Saddam was good, but that how the war was carried out was bad. I can understand not wanting to appear on the defensive, but the President was on the defensive, and rather than shift from the script to the other points that I have to believe a well-prepared group of advisors gave for him, he came across as a petulant little child who could not believe that his best argument for staying up after bedtime could not convince his parents.

And maybe I am making this up, but wasn’t there a time when we nerds could at least rely on the debates for at least one or two moments of wit, cleverness, and, frankly, bitchiness? I realize that the Republicans squeezed most hope for life out of these debates by dictating an absurd range of limitations, rules, regulations, and pettiness (keeping the temperature above 70 because Kerry sweats? That’s just plain pathetic.) But what is the President afraid of? Why can’t they address one another? Why are they not allowed to ask one another questions? Because Bush might lose or look bad? Um, too late. And the odd thing is that the only spontaneous moment of the whole affair was when the character question came up, and each said nice things about the other and his family. (Of course my answer to the question as Lehrer asked it to Bush would simply have been “No.” I still think a simple “no” to questions about whether the other guy’s character would prevent him from being an effective character would score a candidate a ton of points.)

So realistically, Kerry won. Republicans would surely quibble with parts of my case, but few serious observers are calling it a win for Bush, or even a draw. But more importantly, does it matter? If so, how much? My inclination is to say that Kerry will get a bit of a bounce that will likely simply serve as a corrective to much of what has occurred in the last month or so, since Bush got his convention bounce and then the nonsense about Vietnam took over the campaign. Kerry probably has a more receptive audience now than he did at this time yesterday. Most observers felt as if this election was going to be a dogfight until the end. As a result of last night’s debate, that continues to be possible, if not likely.

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