Bush-Kerry Debate Roundup

I’ll be watching the debate elsewhere this evening and may or may not do any live blogging of it. I’ll do a roundup at some point, either tonight or in the morning.

Feel free to do a “do it yourself” version by linking to this post. Anyone who links and TrackBacks this post will be displayed underneath the signature block for all to see. Think of it as a Debate Traffic Jam.

Update (2100-2300 or so): A bit of live blogging after all. So far, both candidates seem rather nervous, which I suppose is to be expected. Kerry’s answer on the first question, as to whether he would keep the country safer from another 9/11 attack than Bush, was rather lame. Bush’s answer is better but his delivery has been awkward. One would hope both candidates calm down as the debate settles in. Kerry’s rhetoric on Iraq as a diversion from capturing Osama is rather idiotic; there’s no evidence at all that we’ve quit trying to find Osama. Indeed, his wife seems to think we already have him and are keeping him as an October surprise.

Kerry seems to be settling into his standard stump speech on question two. Too many unconnected and rather dubious stats. Nothing so far that’s going to warm him up to normal people. Bush’s retort has been good: ‘I agree with what Kerry said back then.’

Fox News Channel is ignoring the restraint against reaction shots.

Both Kerry and Bush have stumbled on the Osama/Saddam distinction.

Bush is doing well with his argument that Iraq and the war on terror are interconnected. Kerry’s idea that it’s one or the other is rather obviously strained. Bush continues to drop not-so-subtle hints that Kerry is inconsistent. Kerry’s retort that Iraq wasn’t the center of the war on terror before our invasion is reasonable as well. Kerry’s continuing insistence that Bush sent our troops to war without body armor is odd, given that he voted against funding it.

Kerry’s made up some stat that we’re spending $500 million on Iraq cops. Huh? He contrasts this with various programs that could conceivably be funded in homeland security. It’s not an argument I buy–most of these things are state and local programs–but it’s one that may resonate with Middle America. Bush’s response–how is Kerry going to pay for it?–is reasonable enough but the delivery was awful. Bush correctly points out that he has indeed provided massive funding upgrades in many areas of counterterrorism and homeland security, although that was rather obvious as a response to 9/11. Kerry’s linkage of “tax cuts for the rich” to gaps in homeland security may work, even though it’s a bogus argument.

Bush still doesn’t seem to be comfortable. He’s responding to Kerry’s standard talking points as if he hasn’t heard them before and simply finds them baffling. He should have zingers ready for them. He seems exasperated rather than strong.

Bush’s recounting of why a free Iraq would enhance our security is well taken if inartful. Kerry’s citation of phantom troops who say “We need you” is rather laughable. Bush’s citation of various flip-flops and their message to the troops is dead-on, if tired by now. But, presumably, so-called swing voters will find it all new.

Kerry’s revisionist history about how the UN was going to help but we turned them down was idiotic. Bush’s response, again, seems to be one from exasperation rather than a Reaganesque humor. Coming across as irritated isn’t likely to be helpful with swing voters.

Lehrer’s asking Kerry about things he said in 1971 is interesting. Kerry’s dodge of it was rather skilled. He’s reached a comfort zone and Bush hasn’t. Bush seems bent on repeating “wrong war, wrong place, wrong time” and “mixed messages!” every time it’s his turn. He continues to repeat himself. Not simply coming back to a common theme–which is fine–but simply repeating talking points, inelegantly, over and over.

Kerry’s insistence that he now wouldn’t have gone to war, knowing what we know now, is reasonable. It’s not very meaningful, though, coming from Kerry. Bush should be able to knock this out of the ballpark but he hasn’t at this time.

Lehrer’s question about what specific “lies” Bush has told is good. Kerry’s answer isn’t. He’s basically restating long-debunked assertions. Bush keeps making odd faces–more reaction shots from Fox. Fortunately, there’s no sighing. Kerry’s assertion that he has more experience dealing with foreign leaders than Bush is simply idiotic. Senators, especially ones who don’t show up to vote, simply can’t compete on that plane with a sitting president. Bush’s response–that Kerry looked at the same intelligence and reached the same conclusion–is perfectly right.

Kerry’s argument that he has had one position on Iraq is a joke. Bush tried to deliver a snappy line–“My opponent’s only consistency is that he’s been inconsistent”–but stumbled on it.

Bush’s answer to whether it’s been worth 1052 American dead has been quite good. He’s still a bit stumbling but is at least coming across as genuine. His use of a specific woman who’d lost her husband and their shared tears and prayers is something I’m a bit uncomfortable with but is one I think likely to connect well with most folks. The best moment by either candidate so far. Kerry’s response is the third mention so far tonight of his service in Vietnam. His line about not “confusing the war with the warriors” is fair enough, but then stumbling around talking about diplomacy and visiting his Web site for his policy positions is rather lame.

Bush has finally warmed up to the debate but both candidates are still rather stiff. No zingers or clever comebacks by either so far. I don’t expect either candidate to come up with anything “new” at this point, but there’s not much coming out of this one that I can see. Of course, I pay a whole lot more attention to this on a day-to-day basis than most folks.

Bush’s response to the question on pre-emptive strikes, that he hopes he’ll never have to but that he would, is reasonable enough. Kerry’s response that Bush confuses Iraq and “the enemy that attacked us” is rather odd given other things he’s said. His continued insistence that Iraq was a diversion from doing more in Aghanistan is similarly unsupported. Kerry says 35-40 countries in the world had more ability to make nukes than Saddam. That may well be, although the number seems quite high. That’s hardly the point, is it? How many of those countries are our declared enemy?

Bush continues to make exasperated faces at Kerry. It’s not exactly “doing a Gore,” but it’s not helpful. Granted, by the rules of the debate, we’re not supposed to know that.

Bush finally jumped on an idiotic statement by Kerry about “not passing the global test.” He didn’t have a funny, memorable line prepared but at least he makes a case that most Americans will agree with–that American leaders make decisions about American foreign policy, not foreign nations. Oddly, though, he then seems to make a Kerryesque argument about diplomacy being the way to solve the nukular problem in the Korean peninshuler. He’s likely right about the value of getting China involved, but it would have been nice if he’d made the transition more smoothly and actually made a logical connection about why unilateral action is necessary in some cases but not possible in others.

Interesting: A Sudan question. Kerry agrees that genocide is in place. His argument that the African Union could/would solve the crisis with US logistical support is laughable. His noting that we’re too overextended to send in troops is arguably right. Bush, too agrees that it’s genocide and notes that we’ve committed $200 million to help and, again, refers to UN sanctions which he eschews in other cases. Bush, too, wants to pawn off the problem on the AU. The bottom line is that neither thinks it worth American casualties, which I think probably right, although neither so states.

Both candidates were gracious on the “what do you admire about your opponent” question, both doing the now-standard homage to the other guy’s family values. Bush manages to work the words “mixed messages” in several more times. One hopes he’s getting a cookie for every time he says that–assuming he likes cookies. A lot.

Kerry has never waivered in his life. Interesting.

Kerry, apparently in consultation with Amy Carter, pronounces nuclear proliferation to be the gravest threat facing the nation. The proliferation of “R’s” at the end of Russia (now, “Rusher”) is less of a problem. Kerry opposes the building of bunker busting nukes, saying it sets a bad example, thus indirectly comparing the United States to rogue states. Bush fails to respond to this, missing the distinction between pure proliferation and proliferation to terrorists. Bush makes the addition both times, but fails to note that it’s different than proliferation, period.

Bush handles the Russia (a/k/a “Rusher”) question well. Yes, Putin’s anti-democratic actions are bad but he’s a strong ally in the war on terror facing some nasty choices. He makes a strong case for the value of democracy. Kerry saw “files with names in them” during a trip to Russia, though.

Overall, Kerry was more polished than Bush. We never saw the charming, congenial side of Bush that connects so well with people. We never saw that side of Kerry, but then we never have. I’m not sure at this point who will come away “the winner.” It was, though, one of the duller of these debates I can recall. Given the fact that we’re at war, this is a foreign policy debate, and the candidates have very different views, one would have expected more sparks. If they were there, I missed them.

The Fox News commentators basically agree, seeming to give the nod to Kerry if modestly.

Fred Barnes agrees that there was no memorable sound byte and says the debate was “relentlessly high toned.” He thought Kerry did better than he expected. Mort Kondracke disagrees with me, thinking the president started off very strong, but that Kerry came back strongly and rallied toward the end. Bill Kristol said that Bush had a chance to knock Kerry out of the race tonight and didn’t. Ceci Connoly notes the constant repetition of “wrong war, wrong time” and that Bush “seemed to run out of material 2/3 of the way through.”

The crew wasn’t sure how to take Bush’s “annoyed” expression, not knowing if it would help or hurt Bush. (I think it would hurt Bush.) Kondracke noted Bush sighing multiple times, which I didn’t see. I would note, again, that the rules of the debate specifically precluded reaction shots.

Kristol notes, correctly I think, that Bush didn’t hammer the 9/11 issue enough, noting how successful it had been during the Convention.

Ultimately, both candidates were unusually careful and both missed opportunities to get pre-planned barbs in after the other guy repeated an oft-used campaign line that was debatable. Using the standard Steven Taylor test–it’s the soundbytes, stupid–hasn’t helped me get a sense of this one, either. None of the sound bytes I’ve seen look particularly memorable to me.

(Live blogging concluded.)

Update (10/1): Several transcripts of the debate, since some will likely expire due to link rot.

Transcript: First Presidential Debate September 30, 2004 from Coral Gables, Fla. (WaPo)

Transcript of the Candidates’ First Debate in the Presidential Campaign (NYT)

Transcript: Who could best prevent another 9/11? (CNN)

Transcript of presidential debate (Des Moines Register)

See also Bush-Kerry Debate I: The Morning After, my roundup and analysis of the first day’s columns, polls, and other reactions.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2004, Democracy, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
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. Tom says:

    MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough said that Bush started off very strong, but once Kerry got on the offensive, he carried the debate.

  2. wilma fantle says:

    I have to admit to being disappointed with how our President did tonight. He seemed to ramble more than I expected. The split screen shots didn’t help either as he didn’t look strong. Kerry surprised me and came off clearer and more forceful than I expected. It’s a long way still to the election but I’m not as confident as I was.

  3. dw says:

    Memo to Mr. Bush:
    1. THE CAMERA IS ALWAYS ON YOU. Look like you respect your opponent.

    2. I know you want to use nice, simple, easy-to-soundbite sentences, but please, for the love of every English teacher in America, use complete sentences.

    3. From now on, every time you say “Saddam” when you mean “bin Laden,” you have to put a quarter in the swear jar.

    Memo to Mr. Kerry:
    1. Do you HAVE to name-check Wisconsin every chance you get? You’re not co-headlining the Kohl Center with Cheap Trick for chrissakes.

    2. I know you want to not sound Bostonian and patrician, but it’s KO-fee and RUSH-ya.

    3. Glow-in-the-dark teeth? Not presidential.

    And some talking points for the two candidates.

    Mr. Bush: The whole flip-flop thing is going to come back and bite you. Drop it. And pull the focus off the Iraq war and onto the future and the overall goals of the War on Terror.

    Mr. Kerry: Here’s a real easy one for you. North Korea has missiles that could deliver a nuclear payload to Seattle. With some modifications, they could get LA, too. I know all the debates are back east, and neither of you have really come this far west, but just once you should mention that. Oregon, after all, is a swing state.