The transcript is already up.
First, I was surprised by the amount of real substance. The questions (all on the subject of foreign policy and the military) were hard, and the answers actually addressed them. Second, I was surprised to see Bush losing his cool. He nearly interrupted a couple of times, and frequently demanded the opportunity to reply, and once said "Let me finish" even though his time wasn't up yet. Third, I was surprised to find myself genuinely impressed by Kerry. He mentioned Vietnam only once or twice, and it made sense in context when he did. He had at his fingertips the hard facts that the blog-world loves, on Bush administration failures. His self-control was better than Bush's, and he seemed neither stiff nor aristocratic. He said about four times as much as Bush did, in the same amount of time, because Bush hesitated and hemmed and hawed and repeated himself. Before the debates, the rumor had been that the Kerry team wanted the air conditioning down low so that no one would see their candidate sweat, but it was Bush who looked like his collar might be getting damp. Incidentally, Bush's blue suit and blue tie looked less assertive, in my opinion, than Kerry's black-with-red.
Afterward I talked to my dad, who is my prototypical Bush voter. He agreed that Kerry had "won" the debate, in the sense of being better prepared, and making more unrebutted points. But he thought Bush's hesitations played well to some extent, as though he were "speaking from the heart" instead of reciting memorized lines. We agreed that it was unfair that only Bush could get away with this. He also thought Kerry hurt himself with undecided voters by talking so much about the U.N. In particular, when answering a question about whether he believed in the validity of "pre-emptive" wars, he said "No president, though all of American history, has ever ceded, and nor would I, the right to preempt in any way necessary to protect the United States of America. But if and when you do it, Jim, you have to do it in a way that passes the test, that passes the global test where your countrymen, your people understand fully why you're doing what you're doing and you can prove to the world that you did it for legitimate reasons." The words "global test" and "prove to the world" made my dad's eyes roll. He doesn't believe the US should be answerable to anyone else. I do, but I can see his argument, and I think Kerry did step into a trap there. The other thing he didn't like was "If the president had shown the patience to go through another round of resolution, to sit down with those leaders, say, 'What do you need, what do you need now, how much more will it take to get you to join us?' we'd be in a stronger place today." That really was a trap, because Bush had just said "And if he had been in power, in other words, if we would have said, 'Let the inspectors work, or let's, you know, hope to talk him out. Maybe an 18th resolution would work.'" He walked right into that set-up.
My dad also thinks that Bush's "on message" strategy is almost foolproof, and that as long as Bush keeps repeating "flip-flop," it doesn't really matter what Kerry says. Unless, of course, he gets a simple message or two of his own. My dad thinks that the Clinton staffers he's taken on are telling him that message should be "The Iraq war was bungled," with a side of "This president has cost us jobs" in the domestic policy debate. Those are pretty good messages, even if they're still a little too nuanced, in comparison with Bush's. At least Kerry's message is no longer simply, "I served in Vietnam."
I think he did a pretty good job summing up his position on Iraq in one of the thirty-second extentions, and it does seem consistent with all of the other things he's said: "I know exactly what we need to do in Iraq, and my position has been consistent: Saddam Hussein is a threat. He needed to be disarmed. We needed to go to the U.N. The president needed the authority to use force in order to be able to get him to do something, because he never did it without the threat of force. But we didn't need to rush to war without a plan to win the peace."
(I'm not sure he really needed to be disarmed, since he didn't have any weapons of mass destruction after all, but at the time, of course, Kerry didn't know that.)
The most right-on moment for me was near the end. The question was, "What is the greatest threat to national security." Kerry's answer was, "Nuclear proliferation. Nuclear proliferation. ... You talk about mixed messages. We're telling other people, 'You can't have nuclear weapons,' but we're pursuing a new nuclear weapon that we might even contemplate using. Not this president. I'm going to shut that program down, and we're going to make it clear to the world we're serious about containing nuclear proliferation." (But I'm sure my dad didn't like that.) I was impressed that he said he would send troops to the Sudan, if it were necesary and possible, with our already overtaxed military. I was also relieved to hear Bush say, "The military will be an all-volunteer army," out loud and in public.
Kerry's best jabs were better than Bush's, I think. He got Bush good on the subject of nuclear weapons in places other than Iraq, in particular North Korea. (Again, Bush's "too manly to lose face by holding bilateral talks, because that would be "giving in," probably played well with my dad. Better they should have nuclear weapons than we should compromise.) Bush protested that this was his priority too, but Kerry pointed out that Bush has already had four years to do something about the problem, and has accomplished almost nothing. Kerry -- and Jim Lehrer -- made Bush's friendship with President Putin look pretty bad too. "Mr. Putin now conrols all of the television stations. His political opponents are being put in jail." And, of course, he's consolidating power anti-democratically. Bush all but called him "Vlad." And Kerry's description of the sucky situation in Afghanistan, and the half-hearted effort to find bin Laden, really ought to cost Bush a dozen percentage points, if there were any justice in democracy.
Bush's very worst moments were in the mode of "protesting too much." Paraphrased from my own notes: "Allawi is not a puppet!" And after he answered the question, would he ever lead us into another pre-emptive war, with "I would hope I never have to..." and then "The enemy attacked us." Kerry: "Saddam Hussein didn't attack us." Bush said: "Of course I know Osama bin Laden attacked us. I know that." And Bush's protests rang a little hollow, because earlier he had pulled a Rumsfeld: "Of course we're after Saddam Hussein... I mean bin Laden." He also managed to repeate the phrase "hard work" in every other sentence, and said of Iraq, "I see on the TV screens how hard it is."
One moment which should be counted as an embarrassment for Bush was his answer the the question "Would a Kerry win increase the risk of a terrorist attack in the US?" The right answer to that was, "Of course not. And even if it did, would you really want to let possibility of a terrorist attack influence your vote? You want the terrorists to decide our election?" But that's not what Bush said. He said: "No, I don't believe it's going to happen... I believe I'm going to win, because the American people know I know how to lead. I've shown the American people I know how to lead." That is shameful.
Bush's message was that the US won't let our allies influence our policy. By contrast the terrorists, as he likes to emphasize, have already influenced almost everything in our political life -- have "changed everything" and left no room for "pre-September tenth (sic) thinking". Unfortunately the average undecided voter may actually see a greater loss of honor in domination by our allies than intimidation by our enemies. Those Kerry gaffes that appalled my dad may have repelled more undecided voters than Bush's over-protesting. So while in the end I was pleasantly surprised by the format, the content, and Kerry's performance and would have to declare him the winner... Bush may have won the sympathy of more undecided voters.
My mom has decided she's not voting for either.