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 — or lack of it — 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.

John Podhoretz apparently read my live blog last night and condensed it into a column.

Update (0945):

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 — 89 percent — 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.

Update (1240): Steven Taylor and Kris Vilamma have more polls saying roughly the same thing.

Tim Russert thinks both candidates were “polished” and the debate substantive:

I also think that this is the kind of debate the country̢۪s 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.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2004, Democracy, The Presidency, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Here’s a global test cartoon already.

  2. pat says:

    Kerry performed better than Bush but left himself exposed on Iran and North Korea. Kerry said “I think the United States should have offered the opportunity to provide the nuclear fuel, test them, see whether or not they were actually looking for it for peaceful purposes.” Iran is energy rich, led by Islamic fanatics, and has already threatened Israel with nuclear holocaust. Yet Kerry still thinks we should offer them nuclear fuel as a test.
    The “Moolahs” (Bush jibe or flub?) will build their arsenal in bunkers yet Kerry wants to deprive the US of the sole means of destroying those bunkers.
    “..the president is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to research bunker-busting nuclear weapons..We’re telling other people, “You can’t have nuclear weapons,” but we’re pursuing a new nuclear weapon that we might even contemplate using.”
    Kerry still doesn’t understand the difference between free countries retaining nuclear weapons for defense and rogue regimes seeking to acquire nuclear weapons for offense.

  3. Ducktape says:

    Actually, I thought it was the President who flubbed the Korea response, and also the Iran response.

    On Korea, it sounded to me as if we’re having our country’s best interests dictated by what China says. When Kerry said that “this happened on your watch,” the President’s answer was something quibbling about enriched uranium rather than plutonium, which didn’t address the “your watch” issue at all in my mind — it came across as quibbling over something non-important.

    On Iran, Moooolahs aside, the President listed out the things “we’ve done” regarding sanctions, and when Kerry said that the sanctions were US-only and that (essentially) he hadn’t gotten the European countries to sign onto them, his comeback was that “we didn’t do those sanctions – they’ve been around long before we took office.” Which then begged the question in my mind, then what -have- you done about Iran?

    This was not the President’s finest hour (or 90 minutes). He did OK in the beginning, but I very much got the impression that he was focussed at staying “on message” and when some of his talking points didn’t match the questions, he seemed to get really annoyed.

    If there was one really non-Presidential moment, it was when he came back about how “I know Osama bin Laden attacked us…” and then had to pause and repeat “I know that.” If he was going to take the line about how “the enemy attacked us” when the topic was IRAQ, he sure should have been prepared for that comeback from Kerry.

    This was supposed to be his strong suit, and all he really had to do was to look and sound presidential. He didn’t do that, and instead looked frustrated and somewhat petulant, especially during the cutaways (didn’t they tell him that the camera could be on him all the time?). I doubt his performance pushed anyone away who was already planning to vote for him, but for those who really are still making up their minds, I don’t think he did himself any favors.

  4. Attila Girl says:

    He could have done better, but this format doesn’t play to his strong suits, and it does play to Kerry’s. Yet Kerry made more substantive gaffes: he was the one who gave the other side better campaign-ad fodder, especially with 1) that “global test” remark, 2) his disparaging remark about bunker-busting bombs, and 3) his insistence on bilateral talks with North Korea.

  5. Cindy says:

    In response to the bunker busters business. Our country built its greatness on strong moral and leadership values. If countries were built on military might alone, then Hitler’s and Nero’s empire would still be in power and we could join their axis of evil.

    I’m not for these “bunker busters”. Oh where is the true beauty of our homeland if we abandon our moral and Christian principles in favor of nuclear proliferation of any kind?

  6. Jim says:

    Gallup/CBS released their post debate poll, but the MSM only zeroed in on one category — the debate. Actually in the categories more important for re-election, Bush is doing well. Here are the poll findings which actually favor Bush:

    Who won the dabate?
    Bush 37%
    Kerry 53 %

    Who would handle the Iraq situation better?
    Bush 54%
    Kerry 43%

    Who do you trust more to handle the Commander-in-Chief job?
    Bush 54%
    Kerry 44%

    Who demonstrated they were tough enough for the job?
    Bush 54%
    Kerry 37%

    Who expressed himself more clearly?
    Bush 32%
    Kerry 60%

    Had a good understanding of the issues?
    Bush 41%
    Kerry 41%

    Agreed with you on more issues?
    Bush 49%
    Kerry 46%

    Was more believable?
    Bush 50%
    Kerry 45%

    Was more likable?
    Bush 48%
    Kerry 41%

    Jim Kouri

  7. bryan says:

    I think Kerry did better in the debate, but the debate is Kerry’s strong suit. bush is doing better in stump speeches. Today, they had a sound bite of Kerry on NPR in what amounts to his “stump speech” and it sounded like he was just whining. “Mr. President, we’re not talking about waning, blah, blah, blah” Like he was still debating the debate.

    That, and he needs to stay away from Diane Sawyer.

  8. ken says:

    Those who would chose Bush over Kerry after watching the debate last night are as out of touch with reality as is Bush.

    We live in a real world folks. Your fairy tale leader is about the dumbest man who ever held office. If you pick him it says more about you than it does about anything I could possible say.