Second Thots

Sometimes one has to step back, take pause, and have some "second thots"

Friday, October 01, 2004


Debate analysis

I want to provide a rundown of my 'five points of truth' as talked about in the debate, then discuss my overall assessment of last night's big event.

1. George Bush lied about going to war. In fact, moderator Jim Lehrer asked John Kerry specifically what George Bush lied about. Kerry backed off from using the word 'lie' and, instead, proceeded to give a list of things George Bush misled the American people about, which included items not even related to Iraq. Bush responded by directly addressing the primary issue: intelligence leading up to the war. He stated again that John Kerry had access to the exact same information he did and authorized the use of force.

This point has to go to Bush. 'Fact checking' by the GOP afterwards has even demonstrated that Kerry has indeed called Bush a liar. He couldn't stick to that harsh accusation during the debate, and Bush responded with a forceful defense of his decision to go to war. Kerry tried to score with some indirect hits. Bush defended with a direct response. The 'lie' charge didn't stick.

2. John Kerry is a flip-flopper. Bush didn't use the word even once throughout the course of the debate. Instead, he described Kerry's policy stances as examples of sending "mixed signals" to the troops, allies, and the rest of the world. He also considered this to be a disqualification for the job of commander-in-chief. In fact, he repeated the words, "mixed signals" throughout the debate. Kerry defended himself rather well on this issue, partly because Bush didn't challenge him on any of the apparent contradictions of his overall positions. If John Kerry were asked to explain his consistency in one clear paragraph, he probably couldn't. Bush never asked him to.

This point has to go to Kerry. We all know Kerry voted for the war because he wanted to be on that side of the issue. Once the war started to go badly, and Howard Dean was winning the Democratic nomination with a vehement anti-war stance, Kerry voted against the funding and has tried to handle both sides ever since. Despite rationalization on the left, the flip-flops are inexcusable. But Kerry didn't have to explain his initial vote, and he proceeded from there to outline his differences with Bush, despite having given Bush a blank check with his authorizing vote. Kerry also explained that he could still win the war because you have to deal with the situation given, despite not outlining how his plan would be different from Bush's. If Kerry wins on this point, it's partly because Bush was incapable of articulating what I just did.

3. The progress of the war in Iraq. Kerry backed of the gloomy outlook he took during his much talked about speech last week. Instead, his message was that of, "help is on the way." Bush reiterated his criticism of a Commander-in-Chief who would sow doubts in the minds of troops on the ground by sending those "mixed signals".

This point has to be considered a draw, partially because Kerry withdrew, and Bush didn't really follow up.

4. America is safer today than it was on 9/11. In essence, the candidates repeated many of the things I predicted they would say on this point. However, Kerry did talk about some of the weaknesses of in homeland security and port inspections. Bush talked about the money spent and the tireless efforts made by him and the people working for him on a daily basis.

Again, this point has to be considered a draw. We knew their positions beforehand. Both repeated these positions in a way which was predictable.

5. We are better off without Saddam Hussein in charge of Iraq. Bush emphasized this point heavily. Kerry addressed it indirectly by calling the war a distraction, yet also adding that men were not dying for a mistake - a reference to his famous remarks upon coming home from the war in Vietnam.

It's upon this last point that I want to start making my general remarks on the debate, since I think John Kerry flipped-flopped on it, but Bush didn't call him out on it in a strong enough fashion for people to take notice - which was a significant snapshot of the way the debate progressed throughout the course of the evening.

As Bush pointed out, Kerry continued to be sending mixed signals on the war. He voted for it, but thought it was a colossal error in judgment. And Bush reminded people of these contradictions. But Kerry came across as presidential in his explanations, while Bush kept repeating many of the same criticisms without specifically referring to Kerry's comments on the night.

There was one exception, which I thought was one of the best lines of the night. Kerry gave his opinion that Osama bin Laden was using the Iraq war as a call-to-arms against America. Bush, rather pointedly, stressed that he doesn't care what Osama thinks. What America does and thinks is most important. Nothing else. The 'global test' calling out by Bush was good too, as well as some other general reminders of why it's important that he keep fighting this war on terror and the war in Iraq.

On my scorecard, then, I have it 2-2, with the final point being used as a general commentary on how the debates transpired overall. And, on that score, Kerry passed the test of looking presidential, while not having to explain too much about how his positions on the war actually make sense. Viewers at home will have to decide for themselves what they think, which is something Kerry shouldn't be too unhappy about. As a frontrunner, Bush couldn't afford to be too aggressive, and his ability to make pin-point attacks is limited, anyhow.

So, Kerry came out unscathed. And we'll see in the upcoming days if Bush can still afford to act as the frontrunner. Did Kerry convert people? Did Bush maintain a continuing dynamic in the race? I think these are the questions to be answered in the period when voter sentiment gels after the debates.

Early indications are that people think John Kerry won. But that the general poll numbers still haven't moved. This tells me that people are still waiting to be converted, and that Bush is clinging to his war-time presidential status without taking the chance of looking desperate by going too negative. This means he might be holding on. For how long is yet to be determined. If he leaves Kerry's explanations unchallenged, he'll be betting that voters won't. Kerry will be hoping he can keep getting away with it. We'll see.

A tie on the scorecard. Some wiggle room for Kerry if voters give him the benefit of the doubt, like Bush did on many points last night.

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