Thursday night's debate was by far the most enlightening 90 minutes of the 2004 presidential campaign. More than the conventions, more than the Swift Boat fiasco, more than the candidates' respective military services, more than positioning on the War on Iraq, last night's sparring match brought out the true colors of both John Kerry and George W. Bush.
Take away the issues for a moment and examine the respective personalities of the candidates. Under the pressure of a huge national audience, uncertain of the upcoming questions and well aware of the sensitivity of anything they say, Kerry exuded confidence and thorough knowledge while Bush stammered and repeated rehearsed statements. In a reversal of the perceived norm, Kerry radiated personality while Bush seemed nervous, flat and detached. And just as critics derided Al Gore for his sighs in 2000, so too will they lambaste Bush for his smirks and winces each time Kerry spoke (though Bush's critics, as if it even needs to be said, are not the same people as Gore's).
Plug in the issues, and the partisan divide gets even more pronounced. Bush, who benefited from moderator Jim Lehrer's softball questions while Kerry bore the burden of the issues, nevertheless managed to come off as ill-prepared as a college student making a long presentation without preparation (I would know about this). But if you're reading this, at my joint, at this point in time, then you've already heard, read and seen that to death. No need to beat a dead horse on what a reckless, inarticulate, defensive, simple, smug, uncaring rat-bastard Bush is, as fun as that can be. So let's get to the paraphrased highlights!
Bush quickly showed his ability to answer tough questions, even if the question he was answering was entirely in his head.
LEHRER: Do you believe the election of Senator Kerry on November the 2nd would increase the chances of the U.S. being hit by another 9/11-type terrorist attack?
BUSH: No, I don't believe it's going to happen. I believe I'm going to win, because the American people know I know how to lead. I've shown the American people I know how to lead.
Kerry fared better at answering the question at hand. Then again, so are most intelligent people without major secrets to hide:
KERRY: I believe in being strong and resolute and determined. And I will hunt down and kill the terrorists, wherever they are. But we also have to be smart, Jim. And smart means not diverting your attention from the real war on terror in Afghanistan against Osama bin Laden and taking if off to Iraq where the 9/11 Commission confirms there was no connection to 9/11 itself and Saddam Hussein, and where the reason for going to war was weapons of mass destruction, not the removal of Saddam Hussein.
Kerry went for the throat from the outset, leaving Bush with no choice but to defend the indefensible:
LEHRER: "Colossal misjudgments." What colossal misjudgments, in your opinion, has President Bush made in these areas?
KERRY: First of all, he made the misjudgment of saying to America that he was going to build a true alliance, that he would exhaust the remedies of the United Nations and go through the inspections...He also promised America that he would go to war as a last resort...And we pushed our allies aside...And Iraq is not even the center of the focus of the war on terror... The president moved the troops, so he's got 10 times the number of troops in Iraq than he has in Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden is.
Bush immediately rebutted Kerry's claims by countering...uh..."I know you are, but what am I?"
BUSH: My opponent looked at the same intelligence I looked at and declared in 2002 that Saddam Hussein was a grave threat...He also said in December of 2003 that anyone who doubts that the world is safer without Saddam Hussein does not have the judgment to be president...I agree with him. The world is better off without Saddam Hussein...I was hoping diplomacy would work. I understand the serious consequences of committing our troops into harm's way. So I went to the United Nations. I didn't need anybody to tell me to go to the United Nations. I decided to go there myself.
DEE-fense! (clap clap) DEE-fense! (clap clap) DEE-fense! (clap clap) Keep him on the defense, Senator Kerry! Because if Bush is weak on anything, it’s DEE-fense.
By invoking the name of Osama bin Laden, Kerry forced Bush to acknowledge the real enemy, one which he had all but deleted from the national consciousness. This led to an amusing exchange, in which both candidates attempted to appeal to the religious right by applying that well-worn commandment, Know Thine Enemy:
KERRY: Does that mean that Saddam Hussein was 10 times more important than Osama bin Laden -- than, excuse me, Saddam Hussein more important than Osama bin Laden?
BUSH: Of course we're after Saddam Hussein -- I mean bin Laden.
That religious right thing was a joke, by the way. But the quotes aren't. What the transcript misses is that Bush was clearly trying avoid the mention of bin Laden's name, as he had successfully over the past two years. Or he was genuinely confused over the difference between bin Laden and Hussein. Either way, you know?
Bush accused Kerry of calling the war on Iraq "the wrong war at the wrong time at the wrong place." FIVE TIMES! Kerry also repeated a mantra throughout the night regarding the Iraq War, albeit one with more merit (and not five times):
KERRY: 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, 1,000 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. That's the enemy that attacked us. That's the enemy that was allowed to walk out of those mountains. That's the enemy that is now in 60 countries, with stronger recruits.
Kerry certainly didn't mince any words about the wrong-headedness of the War in Iraq: The terrorism czar, who has worked for every president since Ronald Reagan, said, "Invading Iraq in response to 9/11 would be like Franklin Roosevelt invading Mexico in response to Pearl Harbor."
Bush responded to Kerry's allegations of unnecessary cowboy warfare by reminding us that FOUR nations, not three, originally joined us in the Coalition of the Willing (patent pending):
BUSH: Well, actually, he forgot Poland. And now there's 30 nations involved, standing side by side with our American troops. And I honor their sacrifices. And I don't appreciate it when candidate for president denigrates the contributions of these brave soldiers. You cannot lead the world if you do not honor the contributions of those who are with us. He called them coerced and the bribed. That's not how you bring people together. Our coalition is strong. It will remain strong, so long as I'm the president.
Bush attributed the problems in Iraq with--this is not a joke, I swear--WINNING TOO FAST!
BUSH: No, what I said was that, because we achieved such a rapid victory, more of the Saddam loyalists were around. I mean, we thought we'd whip more of them going in. But because Tommy Franks did such a great job in planning the operation, we moved rapidly, and a lot of the Baathists and Saddam loyalists laid down their arms and disappeared. I thought they would stay and fight, but they didn't.
BUSH: And now we're fighting them now.
That's right! They didn't stay and fight, but now we're fighting them now. What did they do, leave, go to Piggly Wiggly and come back tanned, rested and ready? Thank God this man is in office, right? In any event, Bush acknowledged that the transition in Iraq is a process not devoid of growing pains:
BUSH: It is hard work. It is hard work to go from a tyranny to a democracy. It's hard work to go from a place where people get their hands cut off, or executed, to a place where people are free.
Yes, any society where HANDS are executed certainly has a long way to go. As does any nation that practices the barbaric custom of execution. Hey, wait a minute...!
Bush, for one, expressed awe at Kerry's ability to say amazing things:
BUSH: My opponent just said something amazing. He said Osama bin Laden uses the invasion of Iraq as an excuse to spread hatred for America. Osama bin Laden isn't going to determine how we defend ourselves. Osama bin Laden doesn't get to decide. The American people decide.
Of course, Bush (who fancies himself the voice of the entire American people) brilliantly defended his actions with an impenetrable counter-argument:
BUSH: I decided the right action was in Iraq. My opponent calls it a mistake. It wasn't a mistake. (...he said while clicking his red ruby slippers...)
But what would a war be without its bread and butter, the troops? Both candidates acknowledged major troop dangers and supply shortfalls:
KERRY: I've met kids in Ohio, parents in Wisconsin places, Iowa, where they're going out on the Internet to get the state-of-the-art body gear to send to their kids. Some of them got them for a birthday present. I think that's wrong. Humvees -- 10,000 out of 12,000 Humvees that are over there aren't armored. And you go visit some of those kids in the hospitals today who were maimed because they don't have the armament.
BUSH: My message to our troops is, "Thank you for what you're doing. We're standing with you strong. We'll give you all the equipment you need. And we'll get you home as soon as the mission's done, because this is a vital mission."
If Bush's words aren't the most ambiguous and least reassuring message ever spoken to U.S. troops, then...you know what? I can't even finish that sentence!
But have no fear, brave soldiers! No matter how this election turns out, rest assured that the next president will address your concerns, because they both possess the firsthand knowledge of war that comes only from personal experience:
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...
BUSH: And it's hard work. I understand how hard it is. I get the casualty reports every day. I see on the TV screens how hard it is. But it's necessary work.
Bush talked about his empathy for the sacrifices of soldiers in Iraq, citing his interaction with Missy Johnson, a war widow from Charlotte, N.C.
BUSH: I told her after we prayed and teared up and laughed some that I thought her husband's sacrifice was noble and worthy. Because I understand the stakes of this war on terror. I understand that we must find al Qaeda wherever they hide.
Of course, this does not quite explain why I have been to more military funerals than Bush has ever deigned to attend. He understands the stakes, maybe, but not the costs. Kerry, on the other hand, does:
KERRY: I understand what the president is talking about, because I know what it means to lose people in combat. And the question, is it worth the cost, reminds me of my own thinking when I came back from fighting in that war. And it reminds me that it is vital for us not to confuse the war, ever, with the warriors. That happened before. And that's one of the reasons why I believe I can get this job done, because I am determined for those soldiers and for those families, for those kids who put their lives on the line. That is noble. That's the most noble thing that anybody can do. And I want to make sure the outcome honors that nobility.
Additionally, Kerry reaffirmed his commitment to military strength by vowing to extend troop divisions and expand benefits (also, he said "backdoor draft"):
KERRY: Also believe that it is -- one of the reasons we can't do it is we're overextended. Ask the people in the armed forces today. We've got Guards and Reserves who are doing double duties. We've got a backdoor draft taking place in America today: people with stop-loss programs where they're told you can't get out of the military; nine out of our 10 active duty divisions committed to Iraq one way or the other, either going, coming or preparing. So this is the way the president has overextended the United States.
Bush also took the time to discuss another ongoing time of trial for American families, further helping his image as a non-insulated man of the people:
BUSH: I appreciate the fact that his daughters have been so kind to my daughters in what has been a pretty hard experience for, I guess, young girls, seeing their dads out there campaigning.
Won't ANYONE think of the children?!! I mean, some are discovering the futile tragedy of losing a father...because he's out CAMPAIGNING! What could possibly be rougher than that?
Of course, the candidates talked about other countries besides Iraq. But not too much. They bickered a lot about North Korea and China, and then got on the subject (despite Bush’s efforts) on nuclear material in Russia. Bush disavowed his self-professed good buddy Russian President Vladimir Putin and his rollbacks on liberty in the name of security (cough):
BUSH: No, I don't think it's OK, and said so publicly. I think that there needs to be checks and balances in a democracy, and made that very clear that by consolidating power in the central government, he's sending a signal to the Western world and United States that perhaps he doesn't believe in checks and balances, and I told him that.
Remember back when Bush said he "looked into Putin's eyes and saw into his soul?" Wasn't that funny?
On the political front, Kerry did very well for himself, looking relaxed and knowledgeable while coming across as a man with an actual personality. In one stunning victory, Kerry took the "Head of State" route and turned his most negative connotations into positives:
On voting against the $87 billion Iraq bill: Well, you know, when I talked about the $87 billion, I made a mistake in how I talk about the war. But the president made a mistake in invading Iraq. Which is worse?
On being an outspoken Vietnam anti-war hero: I believe that when you know something's going wrong, you make it right. That's what I learned in Vietnam. When I came back from that war I saw that it was wrong. Some people don't like the fact that I stood up to say no, but I did. And that's what I did with that vote. And I'm going to lead those troops to victory.
On being a flip-flopper: But let me talk about something that the president just sort of finished up with. Maybe someone would call it a character trait, maybe somebody wouldn't. But this issue of certainty. It's one thing to be certain, but you can be certain and be wrong. It's another to be certain and be right, or to be certain and be moving in the right direction, or be certain about a principle and then learn new facts and take those new facts and put them to use in order to change and get your policy right. What I worry about with the president is that he's not acknowledging what's on the ground, he's not acknowledging the realities of North Korea, he's not acknowledging the truth of the science of stem-cell research or of global warming and other issues. And certainty sometimes can get you in trouble.
As for Bush, he reinforced his image as a rambling, incoherent, defensive, arrogant know-nothing who smirks under pressure. Well, at least he’s consistent.
Watching Kerry absolutely cream Bush in every rhetorical and real sense, combined with C-SPAN's post-debate phone calls and Jon Stewart's hilarious analysis, had me pumped in a way I hadn't been pumped since 2000—the 2000 football season, that is, when the New Orleans Saints finally won its first playoff game. That year, they shockingly eliminated the defending-champion St. Louis Rams. After last night, a Democratic parallel seems all but inevitable (knock on serious wood).
So, naturally, the next-day declarations appalled me. Experts rate debate a draw? What could possibly lead any sane and honest American to assume that both candidates lent equal merit to the debate? As the CBS article explains, the case for a tie is quite strong:
"It’s a positive outcome for Kerry."
"'I don't view this as a tie,' he continued. 'I view this as a superb dual presentation that presented the American people with a clear choice...'"
"all agreed Kerry scored points by standing toe-to-toe with Mr. Bush on foreign policy and national security. "
"Kerry’s over the bar and he’s in the game."
"According to Ornstein and other experts, Kerry came off looking presidential."
Of course, the article did have high praise for Bush as well, being that he tied with Kerry and all:
"Although visibly perturbed by Kerry’s attacks, Mr. Bush was ardent in arguing that the war in Iraq was worth fighting and that he was the best man to lead us in that fight. "
"And if many Americans deem the debate a tie, there is a sense that Mr. Bush gains by not losing. "
"Going into tonight, President Bush won if he didn’t lose."
Bush won if he didn't lose. That seems to be the prevailing sentiment on the conservative blogs I've seen today. Their usual Kerry criticism came with an extra helping of Bush praise...faint praise. Talk about damning...
"He also stumbled in speech more than Kerry" --IMAO
"I think it was a draw... which means Kerry won says [since?] this was supposed to be Bush's strong point." --IMAO
"Watching Bush trying to articulate his positions is an often painful experience. During last night's debate, it was clear that Bush was having an 'off' night. He looked tired and irate." --antiprotester
"Bush can't talk. Plain and simple. He seriously needs to take speech and phonetics classes. Kerry has obviously taken several. He's calm and poised. Bush sounds and acts nervous...In my Republican view, Bush blew this one. If he doesn't do something in the second debate, he's gonna struggle the rest of the way to Nov 2." --Masked Truth Peddler of Spreading Understanding
"First off, let me say that I was really hoping for a Bush home run last night and it didn't happen...Kerry turned in a strong performance. He sounded like a debater and politician at times...He definitely looked like a presidential candidate." --Right Makes Right!
"So...nobody lost, which means Bush wins." --Right Makes Right!
And if Bush wins, especially after Thursday night, everybody loses.