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TAP's Take

Check out The American Prospect's overnight commentary. Harold Meyerson:

Not a moment too soon, Kerry shucked the Senate-speak, abandoned the adverbs, stopped depending on dependent clauses, and, in plain and forceful English, stated how Bush had put the nation at risk and had no plan whatever to extricate us from Iraq. Nobody had talked this way to Bush -- in public, anyway -- since Bush became president. And Bush did not handle it very well at all.

He blinked. He squirmed. He scowled. He repeated his lines ad nauseam. He embarked on answers in which it was clear his chief hope was that the two-minute limit would soon descend and spare him from the necessity of yet another repetition of his charge that Kerry has mixed messages -- or, as he called them during one particularly vexed reiteration, “mexed missages.”

Garance Franke-Ruta:
After months of being forced to defend himself on unfriendly political terrain, John Kerry last night placed a remarkably petulant George W. Bush on the defensive during their first debate. While both men trotted out many of their favorite lines from their stump speeches, a calm, serious Kerry added new and eye-opening factual information to the picture, displaying a faculty with the details of foreign policy that far outstripped the president’s. Bush repeatedly invoked the broad general principles that have taken on a talismanic quality in his speeches, but the phrases often felt worn and lacking in the fine-grain details or memorable anecdotes that give articulations of such principles heft and power.
Big mess of young people. Specifically, me:
Krauthammer, at least when I’ve seen him, manages to exhibit a certain seriousness of purpose in his demeanor and tone; with Bush, the disconnection from reality seeps from every pore, from every inappropriate pause, from every misplaced emphasis, from every moment of staring blankly into space while his opponent speaks. The easygoing, somewhat charming Bush of the 2000 campaign is gone. So, too, is the moralistic, crusading Bush of the address to Congress after the September 11 attacks. We don’t even get the Bush of the catastrophic 9-11 attacks themselves, where a disoriented president at least seemed genuinely disturbed by the events of the day.

Last night’s Bush looked more like the victim of a psychopharmacological experiment gone awry -- the result of a botched effort to create the speechwriter’s dream candidate, the one who sticks to the professionally written script come what may, an effect achieved only by shutting down the neural pathways that might allow the outside world to impinge upon his psyche. He reminds me of Zack Braff’s character in Garden State, driving off from the gas station with the nozzle still stuck in his tank, presumably spilling fuel everywhere. Except that was funny. It was a gas station in a movie.

Iraq existed in Lehrer’s debate last night in rather the same way that Iraq exists for the president’s re-election campaign: as an abstract measuring stick, a test of resolve and leadership and judgment. Secondarily, it’s a handy pretext by which to expound on a vision of the general foreign-policy principles and international goals one wants to see shape U.S. action in the future. What Iraq was not, under Lehrer’s studiously evenhanded and humble stewardship as moderator, was an urgent, immediate reality, an emergency. It was not a presently unfolding situation on the ground that had to be confronted, and could not be wished away. Iraq was an issue. It wasn’t a fact.
For weeks, some of us at here at The American Prospect have complained that Kerry hadn't settled on a uniform characterization of Bush. Everybody has known for months the lines upon which the Bush-Cheney campaign had chosen to demonize Kerry. (I think it has something to do with "flip-flopping," or, as the dignified statesmen like to call it, "sending mixed messages.") But it wasn't until last night that Kerry showed voters the George W. Bush he wanted them to see: headstrong, irrational, and -- most importantly -- lacking in judgment. Bush the Bullheaded, yes, but more devastatingly, Bush the Blunderful.
Bush needed all the help he could get in the authoritative department last night. His traditional hunkered stance at the podium left him looking narrow and slight, not thoughtful and intense as was probably intended. And try as he might, Bush cannot wipe his trademark grimace-smirk (“smirmace,” if you will) off his face when someone dares to take him on. As was expected, Bush clung to his talking points and catchphrases, occasionally spitting out his words. Still pushing the Kerry-as-flip-flopper point, Bush made 10 references to the senator’s supposed mixed messages or signals, and closed his remarks on that note. And though Bush has never been quick with facts and figures, he never forgets a name. Tonight he rattled off the names of dignitaries and military widows, even referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin by his first name (twice).

But Bush also stumbled on a couple of words and phrases, referring to the mullahs in Iran as “moo-lahs” and calling the terrorists “a group of folks.” And in a moment of true presidential gravitas, Bush recalled his bafflement at the velocity of the fall of Baghdad. “I mean, we thought we’d whip more of them going in,” he said.

No one was expecting Lincoln-Douglass redux last night, but when the only real unscripted moment between the two candidates involves banter about the president’s daughters, it ought to signal the disservice done to the public interest by these intense regulations.
The point is -- Kerry wins. And next we get our charismatic guy (Edwards) against their evil troll. And then there's going to be the Kerry-Bush domestic policy debate. Seeing as how Bush couldn't come up with anything new to say about his alleged strength, I have no idea what he'll pull out of his sack for that one.

October 1, 2004 | Permalink


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I was pleasantly surprised that the format didn't get in the way of a good debate last night - it wasn't the two separate press conferences I had been lead to expect. There was a real extended conversation. I give Lehrer a lot of credit for maintaining the continuity of the discussion, and using his discretion wisely. With the format that was chosen, it is much better to have a single questioner, rather than a panel of reporeters, each competing for thier own highlight moment.

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Oct 1, 2004 9:24:14 AM

"I have no idea what he'll pull out of his sack for that one."

How about: "John Kerry should take his tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show back to Massachusetts, where it belongs."?

I know you're all feeling enthousiastic, but ask yourselves if the swing voters in the swing states ( the only people who matter ultimately ) will ready be convinced by this ( if a significant number of them bothered to watch the debate or watch the discourse about the debate or the discourse about the discourse about the debate ).

Posted by: WeSaferThemHealthier | Oct 1, 2004 9:25:35 AM

I think that many swing voters will be swayed. Bush has been very vulnerable on the issues all along, but has pulled ahead by virtue of winning the personal battle with Kerry. Specifically on the question of "who do you trust more to win the war on terror." The Bush campaign had managed to paint Kerry as a weak, indecisive flip-flopper. People were beginning to see Kery as lacking in "commander-in-chiefliness".

Kerry's very presidential performance will allow him to recapture those voters who were with him on the issues all along, but doubtful about his character.

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Oct 1, 2004 9:43:08 AM

Beware the global test.

Posted by: praktike | Oct 1, 2004 10:13:06 AM

"The point is -- Kerry wins."

On style, yes. But on substance, he didn't help his case at all. Do you think anybody who was confused on his foreign policy position made any more sense out of it last night?

Saddam was a threat, but we should focus on Osama. We need allies, but our current allies suck. I voted against the 87 billion, still not sure why.

Plus, he said a few things late that Bush failed to hammer on, but could hurt Kerry bad:

1) Lets give nuclear material to Iran! I can't believe they are sticking with this horrible plan.
2) Lets cancel our nuclear programs, and I won't use nukes ever. Looks weak, and loses the deterrence effect.
3) GLOBAL TEST FOR PREEMPTION. Wow, Bush at least hit that one home.

Posted by: Reg | Oct 1, 2004 10:42:26 AM

Also, this smirk stuff is stupid. To those who don't hate Bush, he looked like a normal person.

Kerry's smile looks very fake and annoys the hell out of me, and I doubt swing voters will want to see that mug in their living rooms for 4 years, but I'm coming from the opposite side of the Bush smirkers, so maybe its not annoying to nonpartisans.

Posted by: Reg | Oct 1, 2004 10:45:39 AM

1) Blunderful is not a word

2) Smirmace is not a word

3) 'Mixed messages' does not mean the same thing as 'flip-flop'. That was a big mistake.

4) In the narrative, the next debate will be 'Empire strikes back'. Expect Bush-wins spin.

5) Can the Jedi win in Episode 6? Are bloggers like Ewoks -- inarticulate, annoying, always underfoot? Is Matthew Yglesias a Wookie? Exactly how hairy is he?

Posted by: Ikram | Oct 1, 2004 10:52:08 AM

George Bush:

1. Letting our enemies determine how we protect ourselves and requiring help from the Chinese for our protection:

"Again, I can't tell you how big a mistake I think that is, to have bilateral talks with North Korea. It's precisely what Kim Jong Il wants. It will cause the six-party talks to evaporate. It will mean that China no longer is involved in convincing, along with us, for Kim Jong Il to get rid of his weapons. It's a big mistake to do that. We must have China's leverage on Kim Jong Il, besides ourselves."

2. Hopelessly pacifist and unwilling to keep America's defenses strong:

"And we have a duty to our country and to future generations of America to achieve a free Iraq, a free Afghanistan, and to rid the world of weapons of mass destruction."

3. Considers Osama bin Laden's life to be precious:

"Every life is precious. That's what distinguishes us from the enemy. Everybody matters."

4. Unable to give a straight answer when Lehrer asked what is the 'single most serious threat to the national security to the United States':

"And that's why proliferation is one of the centerpieces of a multi-prong strategy to make the country safer."

I have more on Bush & Kerry's performance at the debate at my blog.

Posted by: Blar | Oct 1, 2004 12:20:50 PM

The blindness of the left is unbelievable. I hate Cheney, he's an evil troll, therefore Edwards will roll over him. I have no idea who will win the VP debate but I sure as hell wouldn't assume that it will be a cakewalk for either side.

Posted by: Cheeky Lawyer | Oct 1, 2004 12:39:58 PM

Edwards v. Cheney = Robin v. The Penguin.

Cheney will win iff he brings that trick umbrella....

Posted by: Davis X. Machina | Oct 1, 2004 2:43:20 PM

To WeSaferThemHealthier:

Aside from Sushi, latte etc are you not aware of what Bush's tax cuts have done to your economy? You're flying on a wing and a prayer. Clinton - who I assume you see as 'tax-expanding' - got your country out of the economic distaster left over from Reagan which lost George Bush 1 his election and left you all trillions in the black. Bush's tax cuts, quite apart from meaning enormous cuts in a host of different areas in the US, have sunk the US back in to the red on a massive scale. How is this good?

Posted by: Jake UK | Oct 1, 2004 3:11:17 PM

EXCUSE ME, Matt, Krauthammer's a PSYCHIATRIST, not a psychologist. Don't you dare put him in the same camp with me!

Posted by: Rebecca Allen, PhD | Oct 1, 2004 4:01:04 PM

"I have no idea what he'll pull out of his sack" for debate 2 . . .

I agree with those before me in this thread: it will be low and nasty, calculated to make Joe McCarthy look like a Sunday School teacher.

Which is why we should be prepared to ask if he is still molesting goats.

Posted by: TomR | Oct 1, 2004 5:10:22 PM

_1) Lets give nuclear material to Iran! I can't believe they are sticking with this horrible plan.
2) Lets cancel our nuclear programs, and I won't use nukes ever. Looks weak, and loses the deterrence effect.
3) GLOBAL TEST FOR PREEMPTION. Wow, Bush at least hit that one home._

1) Fair enough. That was cringe-worthy.

2) I think what Kerry's getting at is nuclear deterrence works alongside a policy of containment, when the other side (i.e. the USSR) has capabilities that rival/equal our own. In that situation MAD is effective, because your adversary believes you will use nukes if he does. However, now we live in an anti-proliferation world, where the goal is to secure existing weapons and give non-nuclear capable nations the incentive NOT to produce them. We do that with a mix of suasion, coercion, and moral leadership; flaunting our dominant position by developing a new generation of small-scale "useable" nukes undermines our moral leadership and undermines the case we're trying to make, that in the post-containment world other nations don't need nukes for security.

3) The "global test" for preemption: he's talking basic international law on this point. Preemptive action as a corollary of the right to self defense has always been accepted under international law, provided it is a genuine defensive action against an imminent threat and not pretextual. What Bush calls preemption is really a new doctrine of preventative war, obviously fraught with pitfalls.

Posted by: Handle | Oct 1, 2004 5:26:49 PM

Big mess of young people. Specifically, me:

What, is Garance Franke-Ruta not young?

Posted by: JP | Oct 1, 2004 11:22:28 PM

Does anyone remember the video game Mike Tyson's Punchout? Remember how lame a TKO-- a technical knock-out-- felt compared to an actual, straight-up knock-out? I mean, you still won, but it just wasn't that cool of a win.

That's how I feel about Kerry's performance last night: he was the clear winner-- he just wasn't the emphatic winner I hoped he'd be.

Don't get me wrong-- there were moments of brilliance. The best line of the night:

I made a mistake in how I talk about the war, but the president made a mistake in invading Iraq. Which is worse?

This line may have single-handedly crushed the whole "flip-flopper" crutch that Bush has relied upon throughout the duration of his campaign. Kerry finally did what he had to do: he admitted he was a flip-flopper, but pointed out that verbal inconsistency is nothing compared to consistency in actions that are logistically and morally wrong. In other words, it is better to make mistakes and change opinions, than cling to a dogma that is bringing America to it's knees.

This is the message that Kerry needs to harp on-- that Bush may indeed project a "strong" image, but that Bush is flexing his muscles in a way that is destructive to America. Kerry should harp on the fact that he, unlike Bush, will be sensible. And sensible leadership--when you look at examples of leaders throughout world history-- always trumps irrational leadership, whether it's "strong" or not. Stalin was strong and irrational, FDR was sensible and strong.

I don't mean to be critical of Kerry-- really, this is just constructive criticism-- but, come the next debate, he needs to press much harder. Americans rarely listen to debates; they listen for buzz words, key phrases, zingers. If there's anything Bush did do right, it was his consistent repetition of key phrases such as "hard work," "inconsistent is not something a leader should be," and "a freer Iraq means a safer America."

Kerry needs some zingers, and he needs to repeat them, incessantly, at the next debate. Personally, I suggest these three:

"Bush is living in a fantasy land."

"Colossal error of judgment"

“I know what it’s like to risk my life for this country, and I will only risk your child’s life as a last resort.”

He's got to pound these messages into the American psyche, until all of us can imitate a Kerry phrase as easily as we can imitate a Bush phrase.

Posted by: BoldPrint | Oct 2, 2004 5:30:59 PM

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