Two days after the first Debate between President Bush and Senator Kerry, a lot has been written and said about the way each man expressed his positions, and several errors/mistakes/lies-he-thought-he-could-slip-in by Kerry. The Kerry advocates werequick to claim victory, as were the Bush advocates, with a number of supposedly balanced commentators saying it was a draw. All were to some degree right, and to some degree wrong.
First, about Senator Kerry. To his credit, I have to say that he handled his position and presentation well. His appearance was very well-managed. Personally, I think the manicure was a bit much, but I have to say, he looked fresh and ready, whatever was done with his face over the previous weekend, blended well with his makeup and was enough to keep him from sweating as he did at the DNC. Also unlike the DNC, Kerry sounded like he meant what he said. To someone who knows nothing about John Kerry, the product on display in Miami was well-done, with very few errors.
Next, about President Bush. We know that the President spent the day doing his job, meeting people and assisting in relief efforts. but it left him tired and dehydrated, and he showed it. He mumbled at times, his posture wasn't as straight as Kerry's, and he appeared to fade in the middle sections. To someone judging by the surface, Kerry clearly had the advantage.
In an earlier post, I noted five key elements of the debate. In terms of sweating and appearing confident, Kerry had the advantage. Also, Kerry did a fairly good job of not showing irritation to Bush's comments. I have to say, it did look strange, how Kerry ducked his head and nodded to a number of Bush zingers on him, but I admit it was preferable to showing a clear petulance. He did that at least once, though, when President Bush pointed out it was not wise to insult our allies' commitment to Iraq. Bush also controlled his temper well. While he did show some anger, it was at the right time, and in the right way, anger at Kerry's ignorance of the effects of his suggestions, the anger of a President at an amateur's foolishness, not the personal pique of a man who doesn't like being attacked. If you watch the tape, you can observe that Bush does not react to insults about his personal judgment and character, and Kerry's comments are sometimes much more about attacking Bush, than in answering the question.
And that point brings us full-on to the real question about what was accomplished. As I have noted before, this debate was not about collecting the voters; for the most part, Bush and Kerry have lined up their voters, and what we are looking at now, are seven categories of voters:
1. Bush voters, who will not consider Kerry under any conditions
2. Bush voters, who are comfortable with Bush and are not likely to change, but who could be moved by a major blunder or surprise
3. Voters who are in some doubt, but lean to Bush, although they might consider Kerry
4. Voters who have not made up their mind
5. Voters who are in some doubt, but lean to Kerry, although they might consider Bush
6. Kerry voters, who are comfortable with Kerry and are not likely to change, but who could be moved by a major blunder or surprise
7. Kerry voters, who will not consider Bush under any conditions
It's obvious that groups 1 and 7 were never on the table, and since neither Bush nor Kerry made any horrible mistakes, groups 2 and 6 won't budge. From what I have read in the polls, that takes 92% of the voters out of things. For the remaining three groups, the question comes down to what would make the difference. A lot of people have theories, but they often forget that since so much of the campaign has not convinced these voters to decide on a man, they are waiting for something specific and significant.
Somewhere between 55 and 60 milion people watched the first Debate. Of those, all but about 9 million were watching for a reason other than choosing their candidate. The Kerry camp, running behind, wants to push the idea that most people haven't made up theirminds yet, but that's just not so. So, the real questions to be handled here, are what would make these final fence-sitters choose a candidate, and how did the first debate change the decision.
Cut to the chase, there are really only four things which would decide the as-yet-unclaimed vote: Domestic Issues, Character, Foreign Policy, or Whim. If the guy is waiting on Domestic Issues, then this first debate was of no value. If the voter is working on his whims, then it is as likely to come down to a coin flip or the color of a tie, as anything which happens during the debates. Thursday addressed the two remaining areas; Character and Foreign Policy.
Bill Clinton proved that you can win votes on style alone. I think that explains a lot of Kerry's tactics in recent weeks. Some people will pay attention to the way a candidate looks and sounds, and completely miss the emptiness of his positions. Kerry has discovered that he cannot commit to a firm position on any foreign policy issue, because he has come down on both sides too often; no matter what he says, he ends up being his own worst critic. Kerry answered that, by speaking forcefully (if inspecifically) to every question, playing his image up to cover for his lack of substance.
George H.W. Bush lost in 1992, at least in part because he was unable to connect with the average guy; in the debates he appeared to waver, and to not respect the average American. he was about the "vision thing", and so had no time for real people. In 2000, George W. Bush showed he had learned that lesson. He might not have been as impressive as Al Gore in his answers, but he was sincere, genuine. And the same Dubya was on message Thursday. Yeah, he wasn't as slick as Kerry. So? Every answer Bush gave, was delivered as a real guy speaking from the heart. Also, the President was consistent. It's not the kind of thing to impress elitists in Paris or Berlin, but it plays well in the heartlands. That's why the same people who said Kerry won the debate, also said they still preferred President Bush to Senator Kerry.
Finally, there were the Foreign Policy questions. President Bush won in this area for three reasons:
1. Bush answered the questions. OK, that sounds basic, but the fact is, if you had questions for Bush, he answered them. You can say what you like about his positions, but at least he's clear.
2. Kerry did not answer the key questions. Quick, what is Kerry's plan for summits? Who would be invited, and when? What would Kerry say to Tony Blair, or other leaders of nations who stood by America? What is Kerry's plan for Iraq after their elections? All in all, the fact is, that a lot of people wanted Kerry to explain exactly where he stood, and he still won't do it. While I have explained why that is, the fact remains, Kerry has left some people cold, because he won't give direct answers.
3. Jim Lehrer reminded us about Rathergate. Jim Lehrer asked sveral questions which were biased against President Bush, like claiming Bush has admitted his Iraq plan was a mistake, or sugegsting Bush was dishonest in his SOTU address. But Lehrer never once addressed Kerry's Senate voting record on Defense or Intelligence, never once asked if his lies to Congress should be considered in comparison with his worldview on war. People have questions they would like to have answered, and by hiding them insteadof asking them, Lehrer reminded some people that the field is still not level.
Both candidates know what they need to do for the next debate, and as before, the spin machines are hard at work, for the VP debate and the Townhall Presidential debate this week. But in effects from the first debate, Bush looked clumsy but solidified his position, and Kerry did not accomplish what he needed.