Bush-Kerry Town Hall Debate

‘My intention is to live blog tonight’s proceedings as I have the last two debates, although I may not get around to it. If I do, I’ll do it as a stream of updates to this post.

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Update (2053 – whenever): I’m live and watching the Fox News coverage. Chris Wallace describes this debate as “a town hall meeting in a straightjacket.” That’s about right. The format is one that I’ve never thought particularly useful. Oh my: There is apparently a red line that the candidates are not permitted to cross, so as to preclude interaction with each other or the audience. Why not an invisible dog fence and shock collars?

There is apparently some minor controversy about ABC News, whose Charlie Gibson is moderating. There’s a memo from on high (news director Mark Halperin) that instructs Gibson to be more aware of Bush’s mistakements than Kerry’s, as the formers are “more aggregious.” You’ve gotta be kidding me.

Bush and Kerry both appear amiable and comfortable during the meet-and-greet.

Kerry gets a question about why he’s so wishy-washy. He promptly brings up WMD, which has nothing to do with the question, and then gets to Bush having lost jobs in America. Bush survives the first reaction shot–he’s looking fairly blank. Bush looks much more comfortable as he gets his turn at the question, which isn’t surprising given that it’s a big part of his stump speech. He’s much more conversational and natural than he was in the first debate. I’m not sure whether this is a function of the format or preparation.

Bush gets a question about why pre-empt in Iraq but not, say, North Korea. Bush does the “9/11 changed everything” spiel. He’s doing radically better than at the first debate. The questions have been rather softballish so far, though. Neither of them was even slightly unpredictable or something a reporter wouldn’t have asked. So far, no “You’re our national daddy, how will you take care of me?” questions. Kerry says the world is more dangerous because of Bush–not al Qaeda? He keeps denying that he’s changed views and bringing everything back up to domestic policy. Both guys are on their talking points and not doing anything in terms of mannerisms that are going to distract. My guess is that this is to Bush’s advantage–both because of lower expectations and because his positions are more sellable.

These questions absolutely suck! “Senator Kerry, would you have the same Iraq policy as President Bush?” WTF?! Charlie Gibson picked them so either, 1) he’s an idiot or 2) these were the cream of the crop. Given that the room is full of definitional morons, I suspect the latter.

Bush is chuckling at Kerry’s silly answer to the silly question. Much better than scowling.

Kerry is going to get training of Iraqi troops done faster and get the allies on board. He doesn’t tell us how. Bush points out that he’s actually meeting with Iraqi leaders every day and notes that Kerry’s plan is remarkably like his own and that all the negative talk is hurting the cause. He’s repeating a lot of the lines from the Pennyslvania stump speech. He’s animated, relaxed, and confident. Indeed, some of the swagger is back. Kerry counters that “the right war was against Osama bin Laden.” Bush rightly points out that 1) Kerry thought Saddam had WMD and 2) Osama ain’t what the war is about. This is a slam dunk point that I think he sells well.

Bush gets a question about repairing relations with Europe. Bush does a good job with it, noting that unpopular decisions are often right. He notes Reagan’s parallel in the Cold War, his decision not to deal with Arafat, and to not join the International Criminal Court. He also notes that 30-odd countries are in the Coalition. Kerry says that Bush didn’t follow the rule he set forth in 2000 about only going to war with an exit strategy and enough troops and then repeats the “they fired Shinseki” lie. Bush jumps back up and says that he polled the generals and followed their advice. A pretty subtle reminder that he’s been commanding the armed forces while Kerry has been yapping in the Senate and campaign trail.

Kerry gets a question about UN sanctions and Iranian nukes. Kerry argues that Bush let Iran and North Korea build their programs and did nothing about it. Kerry says we need to lead the Brits and Germans and French to crack down on proliferation and, especially, Russia’s loose nukes. He again brings up the US bunker busting nuke program as a bad idea. Bush makes a self-deprecating joke about scowling and then says he’s been doing exactly what Kerry suggests but that simply turning things over to the UN is “naive and dangerous.” He points out that it was he that pointed out that Iran, Iraq, and North Korea were an Axis of Evil.

Bush gets a question about the draft. “We’re not going to have a draft. PERIOD. The All-Volunteer Force works.” He then explains why. Exactly right. He even gets into a fairly nuanced discussion of defense transformation and the replacement of muscle power with high technology. Fairly impressive. Kerry responds that he doesn’t support a draft and then responds that a few generals and admirals support him. He says that Bush has overextended the military and that the overuse of the reserves amounts to a “backdoor draft.” That’s pretty silly, given that WE’RE AT WAR. Bush responds that Kerry’s continued nonsense about “Going it alone” denigrates the Coalition. Kerry points out, fairly, that several countries have already left the coalition. He then, nonsensically, re-asserts that 90% of the casualties are US, which Cheney ate Edwards’ lunch on. Bush wasn’t able to respond, though, because of the format.

Kerry charges that Bush chose a large tax cut over homeland security. This is rather ironic, since Kerry continues to charge that Bush didn’t do enough to create jobs. Bush notes that he’s tripled the homeland security budget and that Kerry voted time and again to cut the intelligence budget. Bush defends the PATRIOT Act as necessary for making us safe. “I don’t see how you can win in Iraq if you don’t think you should be there in the first place.” He also notes that this is a long war that requires steadfast commitment.

Gibson asks Kerry if another terrorist attack is inevitable. He says it is–because Bush says so. Bush says he’s worried about the enemy and that the only way to defeat it is to defeat its ideology by spreading freedom as in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some goober asks Bush why he’s cut off safe and cheap drugs from Canada. Bush says that he hasn’t, he just wants to make sure that the FDA and others create safeguards to ensure that we don’t import knockoff drugs from the Third World. He then talks about getting generics to the market, drug discount cards from seniors, (bonus points for calling Missouri “Miz UR eh”), and modernization of Medicare with prescription drug coverage. Kerry makes a series of charges about Bush siding with big corporations over little people. Bush reminds us that Clinton had the same policy on drugs and then zings Kerry for not having done anything in 20 years in the Senate on the issue–whereas Bush has done more in 3-1/2 years.

Kerry gets a question about how to reconcile concern about health care and putting a sleazy tort lawyer on his ticket as Veep. Fairly amusing, although he essentially ducks it and says that JohnKerry.com has a plan on tort reform. He repeats the Edwards line that insurance is only 1% of healthcare costs, which is certainly untrue. He has a plan. Bush points out that Kerry has $200 billion worth of plans that he can’t pay for. He also notes that Kerry could actually vote for a tort reform plan if he ever showed his ass up to vote. He charges that Kerry’s “plan” is socialism–“that’s what liberals do.” Bush gets the words “trial lawyer” in several times.

A question about how Bush can have not vetoed all the deficit spending. Bush notes that the 90’s stock bubble burst before he came to office and that–oh, by the way–WE’RE AT WAR. “We have an obligation to spend that kind of money.” He defends his tax cuts to get out of recession. He’s very much on his game tonight–he’s doing as well here as he does with a friendly audience out on the stump. Kerry notes that Bush had a massive surplus when he came to office and a huge deficit now and that we’ve lost jobs. He says this is the first tax cut during a war, ever. Of course, we didn’t really have an income tax to speak of in any war before Vietnam–and we had a tax cut during that one under John Kennedy. Bush points out that the recession was one of the shortest in history because of tax cuts. Kerry gets in a dig about a big tax refund for Enron.

Kerry gets asked to take a pledge not to raise taxes on people earning under $200,000 a year. He takes it and claims that he’ll have all sorts of great tax giveaways for people who do what the government want them to. He promises to roll back to Bill Clinton levels for the rich and gets in a fairly amusing line that only he, Bush, and Gibson would be affected in the room. Bush notes that raising taxes is in keeping with Kerry’s record and that there’s no way Kerry could pay for all his programs without raising taxes–or breaking all his wonderful promises. Kerry has brought up John McCain’s name several times. Bush points out that Kerry is the most liberal guy in the Senate who’s raised taxes 98 times.

Some yahoo asked Bush about his record as an environmentalist. Bush rattles off a few programs that nobody gives a rat’s ass about. Why did this moronic question make the cut? He actually manages to spin out a rather long, complicated answer on it. My eyes glazed over during parts of it but it seemed credible. Kerry then comes back with some nonsense about this being the worst environmental president in the history of mankind, which is demonstrably idiotic. Has anyone noticed the air and water getting worse than four years ago? Bush then gets in a great dig about the Kyoto Treaty, tying it in to jobs and Kerry’s desire to kowtow to what Europe wants.

Kerry tells us that Bush has no plan to lower the cost of healthcare, which is rather odd since Bush spent five minutes tonight talking about it already. Bush comes back and talks about tort reform, says that Robert Rubin says Kerry’s plan doesn’t work, and talks about various programs to cut costs.

In all honesty, I’m bored out of my mind now. Both guys are doing quite well tonight but we’re now talking about technical minutae.

Funniest moment of the night: Kerry gives some example about Bush owning a timber company and being counted as a small business for tax purposes. Bush says, “I own a timber company? That’s news to me!” After a long pause, he asks “Anybody want to buy some wood?” Classic.

Bush gets a job about the erosion of civil liberties after 9/11. Bush makes a solid argument that we’re not abridging rights, just taking away roadblocks that make it hard for government to protect us from the terrorists.

Kerry gets a question on embryonic versus non-embryonic stem cell research. Kerry says he respects the morality behind the question and then mentions Nancy Reagan, Christopher Reeve*, and Michael J. Fox, those noted scientists. Kerry says we should use embryoes from fertility clinics that are going to be destroyed anyway if there’s hope that it’ll cure disease. A reasonably solid answer. Bush notes that he’s the first president to allow the funding of stem cell research but that we have to be careful because of the need to balance the need to destroy life to save it. He notes that he doubled the NIH budget to help find cures. Kerry accuses Bush of waffling on this one, which is a fair point.

Bush gets a Supreme Court question. He gives the standard answer about picking someone who applied the Constitution strictly. He uses the example of the Pledge and the “under God” clause and reaches back to Dred Scott. He flubs the Scott history and, given that the case was from the 1850s, it was an odd choice anyway. Kerry reminds us that Bush’s favorite justices are Scalia and Thomas. Kerry says he wants to appoint justices like Potter Stewart. He then comes up with bizarre canards about protecting the rights of women and minorities, as if those are in danger.

Kerry gets a question on SPENDING TAXPAYER MONEY on abortion. He points out that he is a Catholic and was an alterboy but that he doesn’t think it’s something that should be legislated. He would council people on abstinence and so forth but allow them to make their own choice. A reasonable enough position and, frankly, the only one in play given that Roe v. Wade simply isn’t going to be overturned, making the question moot. He then, unwisely in my view, goes on to say that he’d overturn policies banning support of abortion overseas. Bush says, flatly, that he wouldn’t spend government money on abortion and that he wants to criminalize the killing of fetuses during murders (not really a federal issue). Kerry says it’s not that simple and then talks about the nuances of partial birth abortion. Bush says it’s pretty damned simple.

Bush gets a moronic question about three wrong decisions that he’s made and what he’s done to correct them. Bush wisely sidesteps the direct question and notes that he’s sure he’s made a lot of tactical mistakes in Iraq but that he’ll stand by the big decisions he’s made. He then goes on to explain why he thinks the Iraq decison was the right one. He also defends the tax cuts. He says he made some mistakes in his appointments but that he won’t name names. This is, of course, a ridiculous softball for Kerry since it’s about Bush mistakes. He then gets to his standard “Bush rushed to war” spiel. He then says Bush didn’t buy body armor for the troops he sent. Bush points out that Kerry voted against the $87 billion to fund it and that Saddam is out of power now.

Kerry opens his closing remarks amiably, saying he respects Bush for his convictions. He then does his standard stump spiel and uses the phrase “I have a plan” over and over. He thinks we have a national crisis in all manner of things but, thankfully, he HAS A PLAN to fix all of these things. I’M AN OPTIMIST!

Bush is conversational in his remarks, taking us back through the last four years and tells us what he’s done to make the country safer and what he’ll do if given another four years. Pretty much standard stump speech stuff.

I’m not sure if there was a winner on substance here. Stylewise, both guys did quite well. Given expectations–and the huge improvement over the first debate–that probably translates to a Bush win.

Britt Hume thought Kerry was “lawyerly” and Bush “confident.”

Chris Wallace says the headline is that “Bush came to play” and, at the very least, held his own. He pronounces the debate “terrific” overall as an exchange of very different candidates with very different worldviews.

Both Hume and Wallace give credit to Gibson and/or the audience questioners for asking real questions rather than posturing and trying to grandstand as in past iterations. Hume notes, as he did before the debate, that he and Gibson are good friends from their days at ABC.

Bill Kristol notes that the Bush talking point changed from “Kerry the flip-flopper” to “Kerry the Liberal” and did a very good job of doing that, requiring Kerry to defend himself on that. He thinks Bush could have done a better job of hammering Kerry’s past weak record on defense, especially the ’91 Gulf War opposition vote.

Mort Kondracke concurs on the last point, saying that vote could be devastating to Kerry and he’s surprised the Bush team isn’t using it more effectively. He thought Kerry was very effective of being on the attack most of the evening.

Fred Barnes thinks Bush supporters heaved a great sigh of relief over Bush’s great improvement. He thinks the debate was essentially a tie but that this means a win for Bush expectations-wise. He notes some missed opportunities for Bush to hammer Kerry.

Chris Wallace has Marc Racicot, GOP Chair on. That’s a good cue for me to stop blogging on this; the party guys don’t say anything unusual. If someone surprises me, I might log back on.

Update (10/11): Sadly, Reeve died over the weekend. Christopher Reeve, ‘Superman’ Star, Dies at 52

FILED UNDER: 2004 Election, Afghanistan War, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Bill K says:

    I am surprised that you are okay with the National Reservists being on constant rotation.

  2. sgtfluffy says:

    Where is the pony tail hair guy questions??

  3. arky says:

    Did one of these guys serve in Viet Nam, or what?

  4. keith taylor says:

    Bush killed on the closing statements.

  5. Bill K says:
  6. dw says:

    Snap perception:
    Kerry held his own pretty well, though he struggled painfully at the end with the abortion questions. Damn, he looked smug at points.

    Bush was haranguing at points, almost sounding like “don’t you KNOW that things are better?” That ultimate question on “3 mistakes,” I mean, gawd, you DON’T paint the questioner as a critic or an enemy. Bad form.

    On the whole, Bush did as well as he could for a town hall debate. Kerry was by-the-numbers the whole way. I scored it 6-5 Kerry, but it well could be a draw. It ain’t going to help Bush much with the 14 uncommitted voters left in America, though it will go a long way to get the GOP base to stop wavering.

  7. Keith says:

    Okay, so we had poor intelligence info on Iraq before the war. Isn’t Kerry a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. If intelligence was bad, why didn’t he fix it. He didn’t even show up for meetings. Why isn’t he held accountable for his failure to ensure that we had good intelligence? Now, aren’t you glad that we finally do know the truth about Iraq’s WMD program? Sorry, we had to send in troops to get the intelligence. See Senate Intelligence Committee.

  8. Michael A says:

    John Kerry stated on the question of Supreme Court Justices that he would appoint someone who whould ‘interpret the Constitution of the United States according to the law’. His position is fundamentally backwards. A truly qualified Justice would interpret the LAW according to the Constitution.

  9. dondo says:

    As with Cheney, Bush won the “quotable zinger” quotient — but as with Cheney, Bush had to play with reality to do it. As noted above, he *does* own shares in a timber company. Probably going to hear about that this week.

    Also, regarding your dismissal of the environment as an issue, Bush has an absolutely dismal environmental record. He’s emasculated the EPA (scaling back tremendously both on investigations and on enforcement of infractions), his malapropriately named environmental actions (“Clean skies,” et al) are all broadly decried as significantly regressive, and the specific programs he cited are all either coincidental (eg, the hydrogen research is being conducted by GM and others, in no way attributable to Bush or his regime) or completely news to me (and I have been paying attention to this).

    You don’t give a rat’s ass about the environment? What the hell world do YOU live in?

  10. Teri says:

    I think the Dred Scott reference might be due to the fact that some of the Dred Scott history took place in St. Louis and the case was heard in the Missouri Supreme Court before it went to the US Supreme Court. I wonder if somebody thought it would play well locally.

    If so, they are giving Missouri public schools a lot more credit than they deserve.

  11. Robert Hughes says:

    “I’m not sure if there was a winner on substance here. Stylewise, both guys did quite well. Given expectations–and the huge improvement over the first debate–that probably translates to a Bush win.”
    Watching from the UK, I agree. However, leave aside the Bushisms, (Did he really say Kerry would have left Saddam in power in Iraq instead of in jail and “the world would have been better off”? Or did I doze off for a moment and dream that??? there are a couple of buttons that he didn’t punch and I don’t know if he can go the whole campaign without punching them.
    Neither he NOR Cheney mentioned free trade. If they have decided the issue is double edged and to leave it alone in, (yes I agree the slightly simplistic setting of the debates), then I doubt they can sustain that through the final debate which is about jobs, jobs, jobs. Cheney shrewdly threw the healthcare issue onto “Find yourself a good job and you can buy your healthcare!” but that can’t be covered next time unless free trade is taken head on. One of the questions tonight was about free trade, and was ducked by both candidates. Next time the question of how America competes when wages are a twentieth or a fiftieth in competitor countries must be confronted.
    If my kid uses a digital camera worth $10, which she won in a fair, and it produces better quality than we might have obtained from a $1000 camera five years ago, that represents an advance in our standard of living from free trade, even though not many American workers are going to buy healthcare, put their kids through college and pay their mortgages by building cameras for $10!
    Also, I am married to a girl who works for an Ohio company which makes earnings for America from its worldwide business. Those Mich**l M**re type people oppose American multinational business because they say it exploits the world! And causes terrorism of course!
    Why then would the same people be able to get away with saying that globalisation makes the American people poorer?
    Kerry is trying to get away with saying he has “A PLAN!” for just about everything. How is he going to pay for it? In every case by piling all the taxation onto “The richest 1%!” This was not properly countered in any of the debates, and I wonder if that will do. The proposal is old-fashioned Socialism of the most ugly kind, and however it plays to voters who are suckers for an appeal to envy, it WOULDN’T WORK!
    The kind of people he wishes to raid, (and he has the decency to admit it’s people rather like him), can easily take a jetplane and find somewhere where it is OK to be successful and enjoy the benefits of your success; like America would have been before Kerry’s revolution. Because, make no mistake, for all his Ciceronian delivery and grey hair, this guy is an unreconstructed sixties radical who has learned nothing and forgotten nothing since he was an anti-Vietnam war agitator in the late ‘sixties.
    How Bush/Cheney handle it I don’t know, but it has to be handled.
    Tonight the President has the momentum, but it could turn to dust if the next debate is not properly thought through.

  12. Linux says:

    # BUSH DEFENDS IRAQ WAR: “We all thought there was weapons there, Robin. My opponent thought he had weapons… But Saddam Hussein was a unique threat. And the world is better off with him out of power.”

    # KERRY REBUTTAL: “I’ve never changed my mind about Iraq. I believed Saddam Hussein was a threat… But I would have used that force wisely… Not rushed to war without a plan to win the peace.”

    # THEN KERRY SAYS IRAQ WASN’T A THREAT: Says situation has gotten worse in Iran while Bush was “pre-occupied with Iraq where there wasn’t a threat.”

    # KERRY SUGGESTS WITHOUT IRAQ WAR, OBL MIGHT BE CAUGHT: “If we used smart diplomacy we could saved $200 billion and Osama bin Laden might be in jail or dead.”


  13. Kate says:

    Best moment: Bush walking right through Charlie Gibson’s attempt to add his own tangential question. I doubt a single person watching didn’t look at Kerry and know that he would have backed down.

    “If you can’t stand up to Charlie Gibson, how are you going to stand up to Al Qaeda?”

  14. Linux says:

    RNC releases “Kerry on Iraq”


    A MUST SEE!!!!!!!!!!

  15. The timber joke is explained here. Perhaps it’s not such a good joke after all.

    Bush notes that he’s tripled the homeland security budget

    Yes, but on the ground here’s what you get: D.C. hamstrings border officers. Despite new anti-terrorism demands, DHS freezes payrolls, frees illegals: Despite increased anti-terror demands, immigration inspectors guarding the nation’s borders are laboring under an internal budget crisis that has forced freezes on overtime pay and new hiring – as well as the release of hundreds of illegal immigrants from detention centers.

    It’s probably not Bush’s fault.

  16. bryan says:

    I’m surprised you didn’t pick up on the fact that Kerry was calling for federal funding of abortion for poor women, saying “I don’t think we should deny poor women their constitutional rights.” If that’s not federal funding for abortions, I don’t know what is.

    and this whole crap about “legislating my convictions” is pure B.S. all legislation is about legislating convictions.

  17. McGehee says:

    Bryan, you know why Kerry is against the notion of “legislating his convictions.” He doesn’t have any.

  18. Gary says:

    This says it all….

    debate summary photo

  19. dw says:

    That’s not fair, McGehee. Kerry does have convictions! He’s convinced that he could do a better job than Bush. Or, maybe not. Yes. No. But you know… hmm. Yes. But let… YES! He can do a better job. Most of the time. Or not.

    Abortion and stem cells were Kerry’s worst moments since he’s trying to play both sides. For most of the last two debates Dubya has been on defense, but here was a moment where Kerry was weak and Bush had a shot. He hit abortion out of the park, but he made a monster blunder with stem cells when he talked about “not killing life” then turned around and said that he approved the current stem cell lines because “those embryos are already dead.” Pragma and abortion don’t mix, not in the pro-life camp.

  20. McGehee says:

    dw: LOL!

  21. bryan says:


    Very funny. But I do think there are sizable portions of the pro-life camp (younger) who can manage some pragmatism on the stem cell issue, and see Bush’s stand as the best of a bad situation. But Kerry’s way over on the other side. I thought it was ironic that Bush mentioned partialbirth abortions and double-homicide legislation, but it was Kerry who appeared the strident one on abortion. Go figure. “Culture of Life” is probably a better phrase than “pro-life” used to be for the anti-abortion side.

  22. Anjin-San says:

    Great, Bush has tripled the homeland secuity budget, 30 billion a year now. We blow thru that much in about a month in Iraq. Pretty easy to see where Bush’s priority is. The WMD report showed conclusivly that there was no “gathering threat” in Iraq. Bremmer says Bush blew it on the ground there. Record high oil prices… almost 1100 dead American Soldiers. Billions upon billions of $$$ going down a rat-hole while kids in my area are getting school band and sports programs cancelled.

    You guys really support this clown?

  23. Kate says:

    You need to find out more about the report actually says. While you’re at it, go read Paul Bremer’s piece in the NYT.

    BTW… why does Bush get the rap for being inarticulate? Weren’t we treated to a long, painful moment during his response on stem cell research of Dr.Kerry pointing at the back of his neck, stammering and gulping air?