Thursday, October 14, 2004
Did Kerry win the battles, but lose the war?
I don't think the presidential debate tonight changed much. That might not be a good thing for John Kerry. If there has been one factor he has used to his greatest advantage to date, aside from all the bad news about Bush over the past few months , it's his skill as a debater. I think he failed tonight to use that skill to make the decisive argument of why America should change presidents in 2004. In fact, I thought it was his weakest debate of the three.
So much of the prevailing wisdom was that Bush would do well on foreign policy and Kerry would do well on domestic issues. But as David Brooks pointed out during a segment on this evening's Newshour with Jim Lehrer, Kerry's expertise in the US Congress was on foreign affairs, and George Bush's strength as a candidate in 2000 was his domestic record in Texas. I think what we saw tonight was Kerry not as swift or decisive as he was on the war in Iraq, as amazing as that seems to be, and Bush progressively better , as the night went along, in touting his domestic record over the past four years.
It's not that Kerry was weak. As seems to be the case with the first two debates, he may well walk away from the third with the title of winner. But I don't think he will have done it with a particularly memorable performance, as may have happened in the first debate. I don't think he was able to communicate any large themes by which he'll get people excited about his vision or agenda for his country. Indeed, it's hard to discern just what that vision and agenda might be.
Bush, in contrast, started the evening shaky - the opposite of what happened in the first debate. His early attempts at levity and humour appeared contrived and even awkward. As the night went on I thought he became more comfortable with himself, he started speaking about issues dear to him such as education and faith, and the lighter moments started working to his advantage, especially when talking about his wife Laura. He also managed to calm down enough to stop making faces or interrupt the moderator. By night's end, he appeared comfortable, confident, and personable, and wasn't confronted with an overwhelmingly superior opponent. If you're a Kerry supporter, you might come away from this one feeling Kerry just lost his best opportunity to take away the presidency from the man they love to hate, George W. Bush.
Interestingly, in these last two debates, where domestic issues were to have some prominence, Kerry failed to make almost all of the arguments Democrats and the left have been making about the economy and jobs. If you were to listen to Bruce Springstein, Michael Moore, or Dan Rather, you would think that America was well on its way to becoming an impoverished nation dominated by people as rich as John Kerry and George Bush. But Kerry made no mention of Hoover, scant mention of jobs statistics, and glossed over the differences Bush critics love making between the George Bush and Bill Clinton economies. To add to his failure of making things look as bad in America as he tried to make things look bad in Iraq, he also failed to outline his vision of an American economy except to vaguely reference "plans" and taxes. Is this enough to comfort undecided voters? Is it enough to energize his voting base?
Kerry might well have won the debate. I have underestimated the reaction to his performances the first two times around. I may well have done it tonight. I just don't think his performance was such that it will matter come election night. We're a few weeks away now. Kerry was able to seem presidential. I'm not sure if he was able to convince enough people that he should be presidential after November 2nd. He left himself open for the Bush campaign to negate whatever impression viewers had of him during this debating season. My guess is that's just what they intend on doing.
People sure know Bush. Don't know if they yet know Kerry. That makes him open to all kinds of characterizations in the final stages of this race. Might be like throwing darts - everything sticks.
Note - Voters in Canada might be familiar with this phenomenon. After making significant gains during the early stages of the campaign, and even having a pretty decent showing in the two debates, people still didn't know that much about Conservative leader Stephen Harper. Well, the Prime Minister sure filled in those blanks. And we know who won that one, don't we, Canucks?
UPDATE (Sunday October 17, 6:15pm): Judging by some of the latest polling data, looks like some of my debate night prognostications were about right. If you take a look at those poll numbers, Bush has taken the lead since the third and final debate, which would contradict some of the prevailing opinion that Kerry had won the debating season.
This has to be worrisome to Kerry supporters. If he failed to use the debates to take the lead going into the stretch drive of this presidential race, it's hard to see what normal campaign development will do it for him. Kerry's greatest perceived strength has been the debates. He now appears to be trailing Bush as a consequence. That can't be the outcome his people were looking for. It might also explain some of the fear tactics they are now employing in accusing Bush of going full steam ahead with a military draft only John Kerry seems to think is necessary.