Bush-Kerry Debate I: The Morning After
Tom Bevan of RealClear Politics has his own analysis as well as his usual roundup of the editorial pages.
I don’t think there is any question that John Kerry helped himself with his performance tonight. Just how much, and how much it may matter in the polls is a different story altogether.
Nevertheless, as a practical matter Kerry not only survived this debate and avoided being knocked out of the race tonight by President Bush, he’ll probably emerge in the coming days with a reenergized base and a few undecideds in his column. The early spin among the punditry seems to be quite favorable for Kerry, and you don’t have to be a black-helicopter wingnut to know that the MSM has everything they need to start churning out Kerry comeback stories from now through the end of the week.
That’s probably right on both counts. Bush should have been able to knock Kerry out last night using the same rhetoric and points that worked so well at the Republican convention. He didn’t. Kerry wins by going on to Round 2. As for the media, even if one doesn’t believe there is a natural tendency to support the frontrunner, most will acknowledge that they love a horserace. The media gets much more mileage out of a horserace than a blowout.
Fred Barnes argues that Kerry did well but not well enough:
Sure, Democrats are bound to be more excited about the Kerry campaign today than they have been at any time since the Democratic convention in July. But that’s not enough, by itself, to lift Kerry back to parity with Bush. What Kerry needed was some embarrassing moment for Bush, a clumsy statement perhaps or an unpresidential moment of indecision, that would be played over and over again on TV news shows for the next few days. That didn’t happen. Kerry annoyed Bush, even exasperated him at times. But he didn’t force Bush to make an error.
True enough. But the election isn’t tomorrow; it’s nearly a month from now. If Kerry emerges from a debate with a sitting president having held his own, he becomes plausibly “presidential.”
Dick Morris says there were actually two winners last night, one on substance, the other on style.
PRESIDENT Bush’s positions on the issues aired in the debate last night are so sound and John Kerry’s so contradictory that the Republican could not help but win the debate. But, despite the contradictions of his positions, Kerry showed Americans that he looks and acts like a commander-in-chief and someone we could trust with power.
So Bush could not but win the debate. Kerry has taken such awkward and obviously wrong positions that Bush had to emerge as last night’s winner. But Bush seemed disengaged, distracted and, at times, even bored. His performance reminded me of the style Ã¢€” or lack of it Ã¢€” that he brought to the pre-primary debates of 2000. He seemed to convey a message of: Don’t bother me, leave me alone, you don’t understand and I can’t bother to explain what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. The president’s closing statement was so focused and polished, so intent and energetic that the contrast between a speech he has memorized and one which he ad-libs was obvious to all who watched. If the Bush of the last two minutes was on display for the 90 minutes, the election would have been over last night. By contrast, Kerry looked presidential, collected and, above all, strong and confident. If you’d seen the two men without knowing which was the president and which the candidate, you’d have guessed wrong. Kerry looked like the guy in charge.
That’s pretty much how I saw it as well.
David Korn is uncharacteristically analytical:
The snap polls taken by networks immediately after the debate found a decisive edge for Kerry. Yet it’s doubtful the overall dynamics of the race were altered much. These 90 minutes, in a way, reinforced the fundamentals. Bush is the fellow with the uplifting themes: we’re fighting for freedom, democracy, and our own survival in Iraq against killers who want to shake our will; it’s tough work; the costs are indeed high; and I will be the strong and resolute leader who leads us to triumph. Kerry is the one with the sobering words: Iraq is a mess; we’re not any safer; we must change course; and I have a better plan. It’s inspiration (arguably misguided) versus critique (arguably not so inspiring). These are two rather distinct approaches, and they represent more of a psychological than an ideological split.
Indeed. Bush would have blown Kerry away with that contrast had he delivered his lines as he is capable of doing. There was no need to ad-lib given the format.
Korn also saw a big sound byte:
When Kerry said that if an American president wants to launch a preemptive strike, “you have to do it in a way that passes the test, that passes the global test where your countrymen, your people fully understand why you’re doing what you’re doing and you can prove to the world that you did it for legitimate reasons,” Bush saw an opening. “I’m not exactly sure,” he said, “what you mean, ‘passes the global test,’ you take preemptive action is you pass a global test. My attitude is you take preemptive action in order to make this country secure.” Expect to see a Bush ad soon in which Kerry is mocked for believing the United States must “pass a test” before taking action to defend itself.
I agree that it was the closest thing to a real gaffe last night. Had Bush’s response been less stumbly, it would have scored major points.
Bob Novak thinks Kerry gave his side hope but didn’t do enough to really help his candidacy.
John Kerry was more glib than George W. Bush, more on the offensive and more precise in making his case. On debater’s points, the Democratic nominee won a narrow victory. But he needed more than that. With President Bush increasing his lead in the polls, Sen. Kerry could have used a knockout punch. But that would have been very dangerous and could have backfired. Although Bush certainly was not entirely on the defensive, Kerry was the attacker throughout. Kerry may have undercut Bush’s great advantage as commander in chief. The debate was a significant boost for Democratic morale, which had been slipping badly. Republicans could have been happier, but they were not dismayed.
In summary, this was not a debate where the challenger clearly rattled the incumbent — as Ronald Reagan did in 1980 and Bill Clinton did in 1992. Nor was it a debate where the incumbent overwhelmed the challenger, as Bill Clinton did in 1996. It was indecisive, which was good news for John Kerry.
I tend to agree. Despite the expectations game, one would think holding one’s own against an incumbent president four years into his term has to be good for the challenger.
Cox & Forkum
Heh. That didn’t take long.
Update (1133): Scoring the Debate: More Viewers Say Kerry Won Debate, But Voter Preferences Remain the Same (ABC News)
John Kerry won the first debate and with it a shot at reinvigorating his campaign for the presidency, an ABC News poll found. But in the first blush, vote preferences among viewers were unmoved. Among a random sample of 531 registered voters who watched the debate, 45 percent called Kerry the winner, 36 percent said it was President Bush and 17 percent called it a tie. It was a clean win for Kerry: Independents by a 20-point margin said he prevailed. Moreover, while 70 percent of Bush’s supporters said Bush was the winner, considerably more Kerry supporters Ã¢€” 89 percent Ã¢€” said their man won.
As is customary, the debate did not immediately change many minds. Bush’s support was 50 percent among viewers before the debate, and 51 percent after it; Kerry’s, 46 percent before, 47 percent after. Ralph Nader had 1 percent before and a tad less than that after.
So, the movement was less than the margin of error. Quite interesting.
Tim Russert thinks both candidates were “polished” and the debate substantive:
I also think that this is the kind of debate the countryÃ¢€™s been yearning for. We heard real differences of opinion on the war in Iraq, on the war on terror on homeland security, on North Korea.
I agree that there were differences; I’m not sure they were presented in a way that will resonate.