KERRY WON. But Bush wasn't bad. Thus the first debate between the two major-party presidential candidates ended essentially in a draw. John Kerry was far more crisp and articulate than George W. Bush, but Bush got his points across, and made the best case he could for the war in Iraq.
My first impression was that Kerry was considerably better than Al Gore four years ago - but that Bush was also much better than he was in 2000. Yes, Bush fumbled and paused and looked down, and got a little peevish somewhere around the 30-minute mark. But if we've learned anything in the past four years, it's that no one but us Bush-bashers cares.
So it comes down, essentially, to what those elusive undecided voters are looking for. Polls still show a great deal of discontent with Bush's presidency. If voters were looking for a reason to switch to Kerry, then it doesn't matter how Bush fared tonight. All that matters is that Kerry came across as presidential and in control. But Bush, Dick Cheney, and company have succeeded in making this election as much about Kerry as Bush, which means that it's become almost a two-incumbent race. That would tend to negate any big boost Kerry might have otherwise gotten tonight.
Debate moderator Jim Lehrer, whose passivity was such a great help to Bush four years ago, was so-so tonight. For the most part, he asked the right questions, although in such a bland, nonconfrontational way that it was easy for both candidates to avoid danger zones and stick to their talking points. Lehrer was so narrowly focused on Iraq that Kerry's and Bush's answers began to get repetitious. By my reckoning, it wasn't until after 10 p.m. when Lehrer finally asked about something other than Iraq or homeland security, changing the topic to Iran's and North Korea's nuclear problems. And even then, Kerry had already brought up those topics on his own a couple of times.
I'll try to say something about the spin tomorrow. Until then, a few random observations:
- The cutaways were hilarious. Kerry kept looking around, taking notes, and at one point mouthing silently but intently to someone who was apparently in his field of vision. Bush stood stone-faced, his lips pursed as though he were pissed off that he had to be there. Kudos to C-SPAN for sticking with the double-podium view for the entire debate.
- Bush built his message on two wildly disingenuous themes: that Kerry is somehow unpatriotic for criticizing the war effort, and that the war in Iraq is part of the war against terrorism. Fairly early in the debate, for instance, Bush asked for a chance to respond to a Kerry charge and came back with this:
BUSH: I don't see how you can lead this country to succeed in Iraq if you say wrong war, wrong time, wrong place. What message does that send our troops? What message does that send to our allies? What message does that send the Iraqis?
Bush returned to that theme on several occasions during the course of the debate. Needless to say, you can't run for president if you don't offer a critique of the incumbent's foreign policy, but Bush espouses a Zell Miller Lite philosophy that the president simply should be above criticism. Bush would like to return to the 1940s and '50s, when politics "stopped at the water's edge," as the old cliché used to go, and no one would openly challenge the president's conduct of international affairs. Having almost single-handedly created a foreign-policy disaster, Bush now wants to win re-election by impugning the patriotism of anyone who calls attention to that disaster.
As for the Iraq-terror connection, Kerry repeatedly referred to the war in Iraq as a distraction from the war on terror, observing correctly that Bush has far fewer troops in Afghanistan, where there might actually be some hope of capturing Osama bin Laden, than in Iraq. Bush's strategy, not surprisingly, was to cast the war in Iraq as part of the war on terrorism - frequently in starkly dishonest terms. For instance:
BUSH: I understand how hard it is to commit troops. Never wanted to commit troops. When I was running - when we had the debate in 2000, never dreamt I'd be doing that. But the enemy attacked us, Jim, and I have a solemn duty to protect the American people, to do everything I can to protect us. I think that by speaking clearly and doing what we say and not sending mixed messages, it is less likely we'll ever have to use troops....
KERRY: Jim, the president just said something extraordinarily revealing and frankly very important in this debate. In answer to your question about Iraq and sending people into Iraq, he just said, "The enemy attacked us." Saddam Hussein didn't attack us. Osama bin Laden attacked us. Al Qaeda attacked us. And when we had Osama bin Laden cornered in the mountains of Tora Bora, 1000 of his cohorts with him in those mountains. With the American military forces nearby and in the field, we didn't use the best trained troops in the world to go kill the world's number one criminal and terrorist. They outsourced the job to Afghan warlords, who only a week earlier had been on the other side fighting against us, neither of whom trusted each other....
BUSH: First of all, of course I know Osama bin Laden attacked us. I know that....
- Finally, somebody ought to stick a cattle prod up CNN reporter David Ensor's rear end and make sure he's paying attention the next time. In the post-debate analysis, he accused Kerry of making a false statement - that weapons of mass destruction are crossing the border into Iraq every day. Ensor sourly intoned that he had no idea what Kerry was talking about, and that he couldn't find anyone who did.
Okay, David. Pay attention. Read this as slowly as you need to. Here is what Kerry said:
KERRY: This president just - I don't know if he sees what's really happened on there. But it's getting worse by the day. More soldiers killed in June than before. More in July than June. More in August than July. More in September than in August. And now we see beheadings. And we got weapons of mass destruction crossing the border every single day, and they're blowing people up. And we don't have enough troops there.
In other words, the weapons of mass destruction are people - the suicide bombers and other terrorists who are crossing into Iraq and transforming the country into a place of violence and chaos. Was Kerry even a little difficult to understand? I don't think so. Yet Ensor all but accused him of lying.