Thursday, October 14, 2004

Why Kerry won the debates
I'm trying to post this before having read too much spin or information, other than the three polls clearly showing a Kerry win in the third debate (CNN, CBS, ABC). Looking back over the debate tonight, there were a few points at which Kerry stumbled. His answer on Social Security was god-awful. He never adequately answered the cost questions about health care. And his answer about his wife was just beyond all realms of weird. But he still won, and won decisively. Why?

First, what the folks at the National Review simply don't seem to understand is that the smirking, snarky, petulant, angry, and impatient Bush who showed up for the most of these three debates does not appeal to swing voters and independents. Republican partisans think that he showed "resolve" and "decisiveness" in the first half an hour tonight, but the man seemed completely unpresidential and rattled. This has been the most damaging contrast for Bush throughout the debates. While the president repeatedly lost his cool and his focus, Kerry maintained a calm and serene manner throughout all 270 minutes of the three debates. Forced to confront biting criticism directly for the first time in four years, Bush reacted badly, and appears to have damaged his standing with independents and undecideds. Kerry, meanwhile, seemed like a man of significant stature in contrast.

Second, Bush simply has no response to Kerry's most effective lines of attack. He never once denied or offered an explanation for under-funding No Child Left Behind. Kerry's attacks on port security have gone utterly unchallenged. Kerry's attacks on Bush for taking the focus off of al-Qaeda to invade Iraq have been very effective, and have elicted no coherent response from the incumbent. The Bush team apparently believed that an attack on the older portions of Kerry's record would suffice as responses to these criticisms, but frankly, no one gives a hoot which way Kerry voted on the first Gulf War or whether or not he voted to cut the MX missile in 1986. Most people don't know what the MX missile even is. The idea that Kerry has voted to raise taxes hundreds of times is patently implausible, and even the most gullible voter realizes that Bush is fudging the numbers. Bush keeps claiming that Kerry would give a veto over foreign policy to foreign governments when he obviously said no such thing and merely needs to refer to the debate transcript to refute this ridiculous charge.

Third, the debates, including the VP debates, have succeeded in crippling Bush's credibility and his reputation as a straight-shooter. It took the DNC about five seconds to come up with pictures of Cheney and Edwards meeting several times before the debate, and about 2 seconds to come up with the transcript of the interview where Bush says quite clearly that he isn't very concerned about OBL. Kerry's charge, that Bush "has not been straight with" the American people, has been hugely successful. The Cato Institute, no friend of Kerry, shredded Bush's assertion that non-defense spending has grown slowly on his watch. Even tonight, Bush was repeatedly put on the defensive, about Pell Grants, the NAACP, No Child Left Behind, and so forth. Bush's pathetic attempt to paint Kerry as "out of the political mainstream" were not particularly effective. Has Kerry stretched the truth too? Absolutely, but not nearly as often as Bush.

Substantively, not even I thought Kerry beat Bush too badly. But as we all know, the debates are about more than substance. That's a lesson that the Bush team used to defeat Gore in 2000. They seemed to have forgotten it this year, and Bush may end up paying with his job.

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