I came home last night to hear the end of the debate, and I was able to watch the first hour of it this morning before class. I watched the rest of it this afternoon, including the end again. I have to agree with those who say that Bush won on substance but lost what you might call the fashion show contest (as a friend put it in an email). Hugh Hewitt put together an excellent blow-by-blow dealing with the issues themselves, and that seems to me to come out with a clear Bush win, which is what Hugh concluded.
Bush missed some easy opportunities that Kerry had handed him, and one commentator tonight said it might have been because his advisers were telling him to go easy on him because they were worried about his perception among women. That sounds plausible, but I'm sure they're telling him now to go for the jugular in the next debate. I'm sure they're going to prepare him to use all those openings in the remaining two debates, so even though he didn't go for the jugular with them immediately he might still be able to pull off using them later because Kerry is on record saying them.
I want to focus on two themes that I think need to be addressed. First, Kerry really did seem at odds with himself in this debate, and I think Bush was sometimes (but not enough) able to move him around in circles without really going for the jugular just by taking a few themes from Kerry's own words and running with them. Some of the ones I noticed didn't get picked up in the discussion, and that's probably because of Bush's reluctance to appear mean. It's unfortunate, because Kerry's continued emphasis on his consistency really seemed to me to be at odds with what he kept doing throughout the debate. He wanted to have it both ways too many times to support the message he wanted to get across. Unfortunately, people watching these things don't pay attention to these factors and just notice that he sounded presidential and sounded consistent in his tone, so he must be right when he says he's being consistent. This fashion show mentality for evaluating political debates is a real sign of where the American media have ended up, and it's sad that the conservative commentators are part of it. So the second part of my comments will be about the demeanor of the candidates and the impressions people got of them that all the commentators are dwelling on at great length and on the basis of which they're calling the debate a win for Kerry or at best (for Bush) a draw, which to me seems to be ignoring the substance. But before I address that, I have four examples of Kerry's genuine disagreements with himself during this debate.
First, he talked about Bush's "back door draft" that involved keeping the military reserves activated too much, as if none of these people had signed up. Obviously, American forces are stretched a bit, so it isn't surprising that the reserves are being used more than would be ideal, but what can a president do about it now? A few possibilities suggest themselves, but they all seem bad. Both candidates have rightly rejected a draft. Kerry wants to expand the military, though how? I suppose he could try to use psychological pressure to get people to volunteer. That's what recruiters have to do to bring in more people than we're already bringing in, unless they have more real incentive to join. If Iraq is a quagmire, people aren't going to volunteer, so Kerry isn't exactly encouraging them. Maybe he could use more taxpayer money (and thus spend more money on the war than we already are, something Kerry has already said is too much) to provide additional motivation for people to enlist. I'm just not sure how any of these would make him look good. Then he says later on that he wants troops further extended into Africa if that's what it takes to avoid another Rwanda. Is this a consistent position? Well, if you're expanding the military through magic, you might as well do it even more, but this isn't a good set of statements to make in the same evening if you don't want to appear to be a flip-flopper. This is one Bush didn't pick up on, unless I missed it.
Kerry wants Iraq to be a quagmire and says President Bush and Prime Minister Allawi are either ignorant of the situation or deliberately misleading people. He, of course, ignores all the positives to emphasize the negatives and then complains when Bush ignores the negatives to emphasize the positives. Bush explains himself by saying the commander-in-chief needs to support the troops by emphasizing the good their doing and argue for the necessity of what we're doing by focusing on its good effects. Kerry has no excuse except to win an election. This isn't new with the debate, but the debate clarified to me the tension between this and something else he keeps saying. He thinks Iraq is a quagmire that at this point is going very badly, the kind of thing we would do best to try to get out of within the next four years. He qualifies this by saying we need to finish the job by doing it right and winning. So he's not just saying duck and run, as Kucinich was. The emphasis, though, is how bad the situation is and how difficult it will be to accomplish what he's saying Bush treats as really easy (despite the 15 times or so that Bush called it hard work).
Then in practically the next breath he says that we need to bring our allies (meaning those who were in bed with the enemy) in to help deal with Iraq. How does he suggest doing this? The only thing I've heard is that he's not Bush. That's how he thinks he's going to convince France and Germany to go into something he himself is treating as a quagmire. Would you send your troops into a quagmire created by a foreign leader you don't like just because the new leader of that country is not the same guy and is now calling it the quagmire you all along believed it to be? I don't think Kerry has given us any reason to think he'll be able to pull in more allies. I think he's given us every reason to think that his description of the situation will discourage anyone from wanting to go near the place. It's not a flip-flop, and it's not an incoherent position, but it's a hopeless way to try to beat Bush with two sticks that undermine each other. [This also has the parallel problem of discouraging people from volunteering for the mass expansion of the military he wants, which I pointed about above.]
Kerry complained that Iraq had nuclear facilities whose relevance to nuclear weapons is important enough that Bush should have secured them as soon as the major fighting was over. This isn't an admission of WMD. It is an admission of nuclear facilities that he thinks could easily have been turned into a threat. Yet he wanted to say a couple times that Iraq wasn't really a threat in the war on terrorism and was a distraction from al Qaeda. It's true that initially it was a partial distraction from al Qaeda (but remember that Kerry's assumption that al Qaeda was the only terrorist threat is false), and this doesn't necessitate a threat at the time. Yet Iraq has now sucked so many of al Qaeda in that it's been easy to take a lot of them out at a time. Despite all this, despite the real WMD programs we've found there, despite the actual WMD we've found in smaller quantities, and despite the WMD intelligence that European countries also had, not all of which has been refuted [and that Kerry knew of at the time and used to judge Iraq to be a threat], Kerry says that Iraq wasn't really a threat. He said he knows this now from knowing more facts. Of course, later on in the debate he realized the implications of this for moderate/swing voters when Bush did pick up on this, and he said of course Saddam Hussein was a threat. Well, it's possible to be a threat in some sense but not in another. What are those senses for Kerry here? The burden is on Kerry to explain why he wasn't trying to have it both ways in the same evening.
Finally, Kerry said that Bush isn't using our allies enough, by which he means those countries who were in bed with the enemy. This is part of his deceptive unilateralism complaint, which insults all the allies who did join in. Then he complains that Bush outsources to foreign help for fighting in Afghanistan. We know full well that if Bush had sent American troops, many on the left would have complained that we were westerners invading without allowing them to initiate their own rebellion. I know people who complained that we were already using our troops too much. Bush wanted to be sensitive to the issues of allowing Afghan troops to be their own freedom fighters and merely to help them out with NATO's troops. So both complaints seem too strong to me, but what's really bad about this is that they go in opposite directions. When it comes to people he can paint as barbarians because they're not the high-and-mighty western Europe, Kerry calls it outsourcing to warlords. When they're western Europeans, Kerry calls them our allies and wants to befriend them and not lose their friendship simply because they're corrupt. This smacks of the very elitism and snootiness that Kerry keeps getting accused of. Why is he giving in to that by treating Afghan allies in this particular conflict as if they're barbarians who shouldn't aid us while saying we're not using our allies enough?
So much for Kerry's consistent message. The consistency consists of wanting to say what satisfies the Deaniacs while still earning the vote of the moderates and swing voters, and he's usually sneaky enough to keep his comments more than a few minutes apart, but the holes are showing when he has to say it all in one night. These four issues are just the ones I've noticed. I suspect that there are more.
On Bush's posture, first it needs to be acknowledged that the questions were about Bush's record and not about Kerry's, something Lehrer may or may not have deliberately planned but was still incredibly unfair. For that reason Bush had to be on the defense the entire time, and Kerry was naturally on the offensive the whole time. It looked to me as if Bush was visibly frustrated that he couldn't jump in and correct Kerry's misstatements and false assumptions. I noticed a few times that Kerry wanted to butt in when the rules wouldn't have permitted it but stopped. Bush seemed to show his desire to do it a little more often, but Kerry more often seemed about to do it. I remember seeing Kerry raise his index finger and open his mouth at one point. If this isn't being annoyed, anxious to get his point in, irritated at what Bush was saying, and looking defensive, then neither was what Bush was doing. It's just that Bush was doing it a little more noticeably. Kerry was still doing it, and his came to attempts to butt in rather than just facial expressions. Why is that supposed to reflect more more badly on Bush?
I don't think I'd say Bush really looked irritated anyway. Some people are going so far as to say that he was insulted that he had to be there, as if he were above this sort of thing. I didn't really see him as reactive in any serious way. Kerry himself had some very strange mannerisms. He would nod every time Bush said anything devastating about him, as if he knew Bush was right. He would smirk in a noticeably condescending way whenever he had a pat answer for Bush. Anyone who taped it should go back and look at every time Kerry had cute rhetorical catch-phrase. Just before it when Bush is speaking, you're likely to find that arrogant smirk. People say Kerry performed better, and I think 'performed' is the operative word. As Reagan pointed out when running for governor, you can't really be a politician without being an actor, and Kerry was the better actor last night. The reason I know that is that I've heard all the pundits talking about him as the winner when it was clear that Bush was running circles around him at least half the time on substance and had him saying things all over the map out of realization that each thing he said would offend half his base. Bush knew it and did challenge him on a number of those things, though he left some obvious gifts from Kerry just hanging.
My impression of what Kerry did is he put on a show because he couldn't argue his way to consistency. If he had a consistent manner, if he had a presidential manner, then people would see him as the next president. If Bush then goes and says he's inconsistent, people don't have to pay attention to what Kerry says as long as they see how he appears and hear how he sounds. We'll see that Kerry will be perceived to have won, though the reasons people give for that have anything to do with content or policy differences. They have to do with irrelevant fluff. Voters don't pay attention to content, and the founding fathers knew that those more educated about it should be the ones doing the real voting. That's why they instituted the electoral college, and unfortunately it later got gutted. It still has some effect in very close elections, including the last one, but I think we need to return to electing those who will vote for president and not electing the candidate directly. The pundits treated last night's debate as if it were a fashion show, as my friend said in his email, because those who will be doing the voting will treat it that way. We'll see if the wisdom of a few days of analysis holds their original assessment. It usually doesn't with these things, and it may not this time either.