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Lincoln-Douglas it wasn't

Just as I did in the first debate, I thought I'd post my random thoughts on the debate, for those who don't want to read the transcript. These are in no particular order; they just reflect the notes I jotted down while watching the debate:

  1. The two campaigns' micromanaging of the debate format probably turned out to be a good thing. Not only would a looser format probably have included lots of time-wasting applause, but it would have led to the candidates playing for applause lines rather than attempting to dance around the questions.
  2. Kerry's more loquacious than Bush, so even though he's pretty much doing the same thing as Bush in repeating his talking points ad nauseum, it doesn't sound quite the same. By the seventeenth time Bush says, "Wrong war wrong place wrong time" or "Voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it," you're ready to strangle him; when Kerry repeats the claim that Saddam Hussein was a threat but the President should have worked with allies and raised taxes on rich zzzzzz. Sorry, I fell asleep. Was Kerry saying something?
  3. Worst moment in the entire history of debates since the beginning of recorded human history: Vice presidential candidate Admiral Stockdale forgetting to turn on his hearing aid, and then asking "Who am I? Why am I here?" Second worst moment: George Bush explaining that he would not appoint any judges who would uphold slavery.
  4. George Bush did much better in this debate than in the first one, both substantively and stylistically. Stylistically, he was much more comfortable in this format than in the first one, or maybe he was just much better prepared. Substantively, he finally began responding to some of Kerry's charges and some of the legitimate criticisms of his record.
  5. Is Bush finally responding to the charges because he has finally figured out what the answers should be or because he has finally realized that the public wants him to respond? Either way, thank goodness he finally pointed out that the War on Terror is bigger than Osama Bin Laden or Al Qaeda.
  6. Wouldn't it have been great if someone in the audience had stood up and said in response to Kerry's tax plan that he also made $200,000? Well, it probably would have been a lot more likely in New York, where $200,000 isn't exactly high society, than in St. Louis. (Did someone think to ask Charlie Gibson what he thought about Kerry's plan to confiscate his income?)
  7. If Kerry says "I have a plan" one more time, I'm going to join Al Qaeda.
  8. How many internets does George Bush think there are?
  9. Does George Bush not point out Kerry's many mistakes because (a) Bush is playing a conservative strategy, or (b) Bush doesn't know the facts, or (c) Bush is too inarticulate to come up with the counterarguments fast enough? For instance, might it not have been helpful if he pointed out that the Senate rejected Kyoto 95-0, instead of letting Kerry put all the "blame" on him?
  10. Biggest pander: both candidates -- primarily Kerry, though -- promising to support the reimportation of drugs from Canada. The safety issue is a smokescreen, of course; the real problem is economics. What do these people think will happen if reimportation happens on a large scale?
  11. Worst dodge: Charlie Gibson asked each candidate to explain how each could fulfill his promises to reduce the deficit. Bush responded by saying that it wasn't his fault and that he did a good job in cutting taxes to shorten the recession. Kerry responded by saying that it was Bush's fault and he lost jobs. Neither one came close to an answer. (Bush did say "Make sure Congress doesn't overspend" before he segued into his rambling about tax cuts. Kerry just said, "You are my priority.")
  12. In response to the question about pledging not to raise taxes, for a moment I thought Kerry was going to say, "Read my lips: no new taxes." He passed on that opportunity. Probably a wise decision.
  13. Kerry finally boldly says "I mean, you've got to stand up and fight somewhere." Unfortunately, he's not referring to the Middle East; he thinks that the right fight is class warfare against the rich.
  14. Kerry whined about "artificial deadlines." Does he not understand what an ultimatum is? Of course, he opposed the first Gulf War for the exact same stated reason.
  15. When is Bush going to say what's obvious: Osama Bin Laden is deader than Ralph Nader's campaign? (Answer: it's too politically risky for him to say it without having seen the corpse personally. But it's clearly true.)
  16. There's an old story about Lyndon Johnson spreading a rumor that his opponent had sex with pigs. LBJ's campaign staff approached him and said, "But you know that's not true." Johnson's response was, "Yes, but I want to hear him deny it." (Well, that's the clean version of the story, anyway.) It's what I thought of when I heard Bush's response to one of Kerry's lectures on the threat from Iran and North Korea: "I fully understand the threat." When the president is forced to publicly make the argument that he understands what's going on in the world, he's in some trouble.
  17. By the same token, Kerry said on that subject, "And if we have to get tough with Iran, believe me, we will get tough." In fact, many of us don't believe you, John. And the fact that you need to exhort people to believe that you'll get tough "if we have to" is a pretty big black mark on your resume.
  18. Kerry thinks that soldiers are amputees because they "didn't have the right body armor"? Whoosh! Soldiers are amputees because they did have the right body armor, stupid.
  19. There may be an argument for government-funded stem cell research, but "Michael J. Fox wants us to do it" isn't it.
  20. Why is George Bush so obsessed with the USA Patriot Act? Some of the provisions are useful in fighting terrorism, to be sure, but he acts as if it's the holy grail of anti-terrorism. Why is he so adamant about protecting and extending it, instead of admitting that it could be scaled back without doing that much harm?
  21. Bush: "I've got a plan to increase the wetlands by three million." Three million what? Dollars? Acres? EPA bureaucrats?
  22. Corporate scandals came up a couple of times. Kerry's reference to Enron seemed to fall somewhat flat. Made me think of Paul Krugman's incredibly idiotic prediction that Enron would be a bigger story than 9/11.
  23. Shocker: Bush is able to bring up several points on the drug issue without stumbling. He cites the generic drug issue, he discusses the drug discount cards, he talks about the new prescription drug benefit. I'm not even saying he's right on all of them. I'm just surprised he didn't get lost halfway through the first point, the way he often seems to. Similarly, he managed to tick off numerous bullet points relating to his environmental record.
  24. Kerry's answer on abortion was awful. Truly awful. There are ways to connect with voters about values -- Kerry just doesn't know what those ways are. He thinks life begins at conception but he can't legislate it -- after all, what business does the legislature have in outlawing murder? -- but he can lecture women? Is he hoping to reduce unwanted pregnancies by inducing a miscarriage with the sound of his voice? And he thinks being pro-choice means that the government has to pay for abortion? (I wonder if he thinks that the second amendment means that the government has to give guns to poor people.)
  25. Bush brings out the big guns, with the old GOP standby: don't vote for him because he's going to raise your taxes. Well, it's tried-and-true. Does it show that Bush is getting desperate or that he's got another effective talking point besides "we've got to be steadfast"?
  26. So much for the "ownership society" theme; did that even come up once in the debate? I thought that was supposed to be the GOP's vision for the future. Does Bush have a domestic vision for the country? Or is "getting re-elected" his only one? To be fair, his closing statement was a pretty good one. Too bad it's mostly empty rhetoric and it didn't come until the end of the debate.

I think Bush clearly won this debate (though not by a large amount). He bounced back strong from the debacle of the first debate, where he looked completely unsure of himself. If some people were worried, afer that first debate, about whether he was presidential material, this debate would reassure them. (Of course, if significant numbers of people were worried about whether he was presidential material, he's screwed, because he has been the president for four years. If he hasn't convinced people yet, he's cutting it awfully close to the wire.)

The problem for Bush is that Kerry also seemed pretty solid, and (as I said after the first debate) since Bush won't win on his record, he has to win by convincing voters that Kerry is a risky unknown. Kerry is effectively dispelling that worry, at least superficially. That is going to force Bush to go on the offensive in an attempt to establish its validity. Which is going to require negativity. (Let's see how many times the media trots out the ghost of Willie Horton when this happens.)

I'm not sure that a fourth debate, a third one between these two, is really going to add much. Unless one candidate has a total screwup, it's not going to change anybody's impression of either candidate.


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