Kerry was much more clear and articulate than usual, and he didn’t mess up. Bush sounded a little nervous at times, and his sticking so closely to his talking points made him seem a little forced. I personally don’t think the debates could possible hurt Bush, since his supporters seem impervious to even the grimmest realities of war, not to mention a little nervousness on their leader’s part; however, I was worried that if Kerry made the slightest mistake it would be all over the morning’s papers like a Dean scream. That Kerry didn’t screw up, and actually did fairly well is a big relief.
Looking at the substance of the debate Evaluating who “won” the debate, I think there were five main points discussed: character, freedom, multilateralism, preparedness, and nuclear proliferation. Bush focused almost entirely on character. He tried to paint Kerry as both negative and inconsistent, implying that these were negative traits in a leader; that they sent the “wrong message” to the troops. I don’t think he was particularly effective in doing this, even though he repeated it over and over again.
His claims that he has promoted “freedom” are so silly that it is hard for me to take them seriously, but I suppose they’ve done studies which show this tests will with his target audience. I wish Kerry had brought up the fact that there aren’t 10 million voters in Afghanistan! A real missed opportunity here. But Kerry did make it clear how bad things are in these countries, and how they are getting worse, so I think he effectively undermined the claims that these countries are “free.”
Kerry was somewhat more successful at trying to paint Bush as being less than forthright, but he didn’t harp on it. Indeed it was Jim Lehrer who asked him to talk about it. Kerry tried to keep focused on multilateralism instead. He even linked the two, suggesting that Bush’s biggest deception was lying to congress that he would work closely with our allies. I think this strategy is mistaken as it really sounds like Kerry is making a case for the defense, trying to explain why he voted for the war. He makes the argument well, but he needs to be making the case for the prosecution, not for the defense.
Kerry went the offensive three times, first when he brought up the issue of “homeland security,” (I hate that phrase! Could anything sound more proto-fascist?), secondly discussing the shift in focus from Bin Laden to Iraq, and the third time when he discussed nuclear proliferation. The first was really the highlight of the debate, since he made a strong case that Bush had not done a good job strengthening “first responders.” Bush could only claim that he had spent X amount of money on this, but the damage was done. The second was good too, except I worry it will backfire when there is an October Surprise. On the issue of nuclear proliferation Kerry was less successful. For one thing, he ended up making Bush look like a multilateralist in North Korea by his insistence on bilateral talks. Still, the point that Korea developed nuclear weapons while we were diverted with Iraq is one that might hurt Bush.
In the end, I think Kerry effectively parried most of what Bush tried to throw at him, and even dished back a little, while Bush was clearly on the defensive. But the reason I think Kerry definitely “won” the debate is that for most of it he was defining the issues, Bush was consistently forced to defend himself, or reduced to repeating the same talking points so as to avoid responding. It will be interesting to see how the media spins it in the morning.
If you missed the debate you can read the full transcript here.
UDPATE: Kevin Drum on the history of how debates have swayed elections. Some interesting surprises.
Here’s what President Aleksander Kwasniewski of Poland thinks of the coalition today: “They deceived us about the weapons of mass destruction, that’s true. We were taken for a ride.”
UPDATE: More debate fact checking from Amardeep Singh.
UPDATE: Amy Sullivan thinks Kerry might be onto something with his focus on “allies”:
The repetition of “allies” wasn’t, as I’d believed, a wonky way of thinking about Iraq. A Stan Greenberg poll that was released last week asked Americans what bothered them most about the situation in Iraq. The idea that it diverts resources from a larger war on terror ranked 12th out of 12 concerns; the thought that it has alienated our allies was third. So maybe Kerry’s onto something.
UPDATE: More fact checking by Brad DeLong.