Friday, October 01, 2004

Presidential Debates

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.


Eric said...

I'm going to put up my take on last night's debate when I've had another coffee, and a conversation with a prospective employer. However it's nice to read something by somebody who appears to have seen the same debate I did, because a LOT of the media stuff so far today seems to have been about some entirely different debate that must have happened before or afterwards.

My first thoughts are that I've gone from seeing Kerry as the only alternative to GWB to seeing him as somebody who might be competent and sensible. Then I'm not a fan of "great leaders", I've lived for years under supposed "great leaders" and it really isn't a lot of fun. All it really means is somebody who is good at getting their own way all the time. Kerry doesn't seem to be a "great leader", in fact he gives the impresssion of not wanting to be a "great leader", I like that.

What I'm interested in is whether anyone in the USA cares that GWB doesn't seem able to distinguish between Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden, and whether anyone cares that a debate on US foreign policy didn't so much as mention trade relations with the EU, poverty, or anything to do with South or Central America.

Mary said...

Man, I have to edit this entry! I'm apparently illiterate at one in the morning. I also should add something about how annoying it is that Bush didn't answer the "Would Kerry's election make another attack more likely" question with the "of course not" that it demanded...

You said, "What I'm interested in is whether anyone in the USA cares that GWB doesn't seem able to distinguish between Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden,"

And the answer is the people who care about that are many, perhaps even a majority... they are Democrats. I asked my dad, though, "Don't you think that's a terrible Freudian slip?" And he agreed it was. But he still thinks Hussein was a threat (to be fair, Kerry said so too) and that the time to fight him was before he attacked us or anyone else, while he was weak. Better to fight over there than over here, is basically what he says... And yet he too thinks Bush has done a bad job actually managing the war, independent of whether it was "the right war" or not.

"and whether anyone cares that a debate on US foreign policy didn't so much as mention trade relations with the EU, poverty, or anything to do with South or Central America."

Speaking for myself, I don't mind that. An hour and a half is not too little time for our would-be leaders to devote to the question of whether it was right to go to war. I do care about those other things, but their positions don't differ that much (maybe Kerry could've got in a dig about steel tarriffs) and for unconvinced audience members, Kerry talking about those issues would be as off-putting as the "trade federation" scroll at the beginning of The Phantom Menace. I really thought they were going to jump around like that, from topic to topic, and I think it would have left us with only the same old soundbites on Iraq and Afghanistan. So I'm glad they didn't. Anyone who cares about steel tarriffs already knows how Bush has mismanaged these things anyway...

Anonymous said...

Great insights. I just find it strange how people can say that one candidate clearly won a debate, but still vote for the other candidate. What are these people voting on? I agree Bush spoke from the heart, but what does this mean? Anybody can speak from the heart, but to do so in a well thought out, efficient manner is whats important for a president.

I should also read over the transcript, I just don't have time. But I remember feeling that Bush dodged his question on more than one occasion giving his rehearsed panderings on why he is winning the war on terror. Specifically the example you gave when asked if there would be a higher risk of terror if Kerry won was the most ridiculous moment of the debates. Kerry on the other hand seemed to answer all his questions in a way that made me feel that he had actually thought about these problems before. Does this mean Kerry is not speaking from his heart?


Anonymous said...

"Anybody can speak from the heart, but to do so in a well thought out, efficient manner is whats important for a president."

I disagree very much. Their view is much more important than their rhetoric.


"What I'm interested in is whether anyone in the USA cares that GWB doesn't seem able to distinguish between Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden,"

I reject the notion that it means he can't distinguish between the two of them. And I think that "true" Freudian slips are rare, and instead what we see are merely inopportune associations. It's not terribly unusual for me to call a twin by their twin's name while knowing which one I'm talking to, or to almost call a new girlfriend by an ex-girlfriend's name.


As per the Kerry winning + terrorist attacks.. I do believe that if Kerry wins there's a greater risk of attack. I'm ignorant, but correct me if I'm wrong : wouldn't Kerry's victory result in scaling back anti-terrorism funding, or no? I think that I'm not the only one who expects weaker protection and weaker retaliation under Kerry, I think the terrorists believe that as well. What will Kerry do if they attack us? Run to the UN which has a shitty track record? I have complete faith that Bush would show them lightning for screwing with us, and that this fear factor in of itself will help keep them at bay.

I'm surprised you say "Of course not" to the possibility of increased terrorist attacks if Kerry gets the office. What's your rational for believing they'd be the same or decrease?

Mary said...

No, Kerry won't cut funding for antiterrorist activities. Yes, Kerry will manage them more competently -- intelligence reform, intelligence sharing, port inspections, first responders, containment of nuclear materials. All of this:

Most importantly, Kerry will not invade unstable middle eastern countries while alienating our allies, which is like kicking a hornet's nest, in terms of making yourself a target for terrorism.

Mary said...

-- And the reason I'm pissed off that Bush didn't say "of course not" when asked whether a Kerry win would make the country more vulnerable, is that anything else is a kind of threat. "Vote for my opponent and you'll be attacked!" This kind of fear-mongering is the worst thing about the Bush administration. Scared people will give up a lot of liberties, will go along with a lot of evil actions... Scared people are controllable, and this administration encourages and exploits fear.

Anonymous said...

"He doesn't believe the US should be answerable to anyone else. I do, but I can see his argument,"What is that argument, specifically?

As a rule, I don't think any single country needs to be answerable to any other single country, although that would depend on their relations. But it should be to the world community, definitely and automatically.

Anonymous said...

You wrote:

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.

Who should the US be answerable to, if not the American people? What other body has any legitimate authority over what the American gov't does? I really hope you don't mean the ICC--what elected body picks those judges? What elected body does the ICC have to answer to? Who writes those laws? Your dad is right to roll his eyes.

Mary said...

"He doesn't believe the US should be answerable to anyone else. I do, but I can see his argument," What is that argument, specifically?Just that you're better off following your own conscience, even if what you're doing is unpopular. After all, societies sometimes become sick. Very wrong deeds become socially acceptable, even obligatory. (I leave you to come up with your own historical examples.)

A lot of people, especially religious people, think that the Western society in general is sick. The old values have been de-valued, and our culture has become decadent. They see Europe, which is more crowded and more cynical, as further along that path than the U.S. (I think it is true that Europe is further along some path than the U.S., in the sense that the U.S. today resembled Europe a hundred years ago, before the World Wars...)

Anyway, they think that the American government should consult only the will of the American people, and the American people only their own consciences, when deciding upon a course of action.

My main problem with this logic is that while it is possible to be the only healthy member of a morally sick society, it is also so very easy to fool yourself, when you are insane, into believing that you are the normal one and all those other people are sick... I worry that we are becoming a nation of paranoiacs.

Besides, there's a difference between listening to what other nations have to say and then choosing your actions based on your own conscience, and simply ignoring everyone else.

Eric said...

There are a LOT of kies being told about the ICC and since they tend to be subsidiary to the main issue (should a nation care about what other nations think) nobody seems to be challenging them. The ICC is responsible to an assembly of the states that have signed up to be party to it. ALL the USA has to do to have a say in the way the court runs is to sign up to the Rome Treaty. The sticking point isn't that the court is unaccountable, it is and it always has been. What it isn't going to do is allow any nation to sit in judgement on others according to rules they aren't willing to comply with themselves. Whatever the issue is that the Bush government have with the ICC it isn't that it's not accountable to anyone because that is patently untrue, it isn't that the judges are unaccountable because that patently obviously is untrue. Whatever the reason is they are lying about it. Again.

As to whether any government has a moral responsibility to take the opinions of other nations into account, I'm British, it's not like we have any choice. It's really up the the American people whether they want their nation to be distinguished from Iran, North Korea, Sudan and Zimbabwe on the grounds that they are better "neighbours" or on the grounds that they have a far bigger stick than anyone else. I suspect that may be one of the issues that polarises the US electorate, though not when put in those terms.