Debate Fares Better Than Expected

Why talk about the debate here? Much of character is about subtext, and there is some interesting subtext in the debate that never got explored on the programs I watched or read about that I'll go into here.

The only way to assess the debate fairly is to step away from partisanship. If you're partisan, please don't read. You'll only get upset when I challenge your party favorite. I do have some bias, true, having decided for whom to cast my vote, yet being independent of either party, I feel free to break with that decision, especially if I hear something that contradicts my news sources which have a slight bias in favor of Kerry. That said, I hold no animosity toward Bush--a position necessary for anyone wanting to discuss the issues rationally and weigh the campaigners' statements.

I was surprised at the split screen, showing candidates' expressions as the other talked. I liked the procedure but thought it was prohibited by the rules of no response shots. It was nice to see when the candidates expressed disapproval. Bush expressed his grimly while Kerry was often stoic but sometimes seemed a little smug. Bush lost a point for being a little too eager to respond a time or two, wanting to pick up immediately when Kerry stopped. Although I may have been distracted at the moment not to notice, Kerry might have as well--the way the transcript reads.

Two polls showed Kerry leading in the "win" category although I thought it a draw overall, which surprised me. Prior to the debate I expected Kerry to come out on top with a handful of zingers--on the main debate, I agree with McCain that there were no zingers, but on one tangent, Kerry did land one that I haven't heard any place weight on--perhaps for good reason.

Post-debate discussion at ABC was more slanted toward Kerry in their approach. NBC had little bias, asking great questions, but I didn't much care for their implied approach of seeing Kerry as the underdog going in.

Jim Lehrer asked good, sharp questions. The transcript can be found here.

Neither candidate answered the first two questions. In fact Lehrer had to ask some questions twice. Instead, both wanted to get their main messages out, A.S.A.P. Lehrer ought to have just said, "Gobbledy-gook?" to let the candidates air opinions until they were ready to roll with the questions.

Lehrer: Do you believe you could do a better job than President Bush in preventing another 9/11-type terrorist attack on the United States?

Kerry proceeded to describe how he would have handled Iraq. It may be that Kerry did answer the question, implying that handling Iraq well will prevent another terrorist attack here in the U.S. Kerry claimed to bring in a more international alliance into Iraq although NBC quite rightly asked how he could when several nations said they would not go in. He made vague the mention of more preparations for Iraq elections, but not what. His best point was "reaching out to the muslim world." How he would do this, he did not say, but at one point he did suggest that people look at his plan outlined at JohnKerry.com.

Bush trotted out his list of success stories like Libya and friends.

Lehrer: Do you believe the election of Senator Kerry on November the 2nd would increase the chances of the U.S. being hit by another 9/11-type terrorist attack?

Bush didn't answer this, but he did seem honest about the hardships on the American soldier in Iraq. Kerry trotted out his list of military supporters and said he thought he would have done a better job at getting bin Laden: "The president relied on Afghan warlords and he outsourced that job too."

Lehrer: [asking Kerry to explain a vague statement earlier] What colossal misjudgments, in your opinion, has President Bush made in these areas?

Kerry mentions Bush's campaign promise to use war as a last resort, alliance was not international, Hussein was not as dangerous as bin Laden, and no more inspections. The first two are good points, and the third is a good point but hindsight is 20/20. The fourth point on inspections is problematic. I'm not sure what happened to the scandal with the oil for food program. The U.N. had no plans to enforce Iraq violations. So for my money, we ought to have been more worried about how perpetual sanctions would affect the average citizens of Iraq. Perhaps for some, there was a vested interest in keeping sanctions in place.

Bush came up with a surprise for me: "My opponent looked at the same intelligence I looked at and declared in 2002 that Saddam Hussein was a grave threat." I didn't know that. So that takes away Kerry's thunder on comparing Hussein to bin Laden. Bush raised a good point about Hussein's continued deception (apparently perceived) of inspections. And the inspections had been going on for about a decade.

Lehrer: What about Senator Kerry's point, the comparison he drew between the priorities of going after Osama bin Laden and going after Saddam Hussein?

Bush made a good point--"we can do both"--and a bad verbal slip. He mixed up Hussein and bin Laden, seemingly admitting Kerry's point.

Kerry pointed out a lack of a plan for Iraq after war, cast doubt on our ability to do both by pointing that troops had to be diverted from Afghanistan (although a general should verify whether this diversion prevented our capture of bin Laden). Another good point was about families having to buy "state-of-the-art body gear" for their sons. Why should that be? Nobody pointed out Kerry's verbal slip--at least I hope it was a slip: "we got weapons of mass destruction crossing the border [of Iraq presumably from context] every single day." Does he believe WMD are still out there?

Lehrer: [politely rephrasing his first question] As president, what would you do, specifically, in addition to or differently to increase the homeland security of the United States than what President Bush is doing?

Kerry said increasing cops, firehouses, better tunnels and bridges, and inspections at ports.

Bush said he has increased border patrol, changed FBI's priorities toward the threat of terrorism, and made a offense as important as defense. Bush touted the Patriot Act.

Here opponents seemed to want to talk about taxes.

Lehrer: What criteria would you use to determine when to start bringing U.S. troops home from Iraq?

Bush said when Iraq had control of its country. A free Iraq does wonderful things for security in Middle East and U.S. NBC reported that Bush's figure of 100,000 Iraq security forces was off by almost half due to having to turn some candidates away, presumably operatives of the opposition.

Kerry did not mention his exit strategy although he has campaigned on this issue. Presumably, it's at his website, but I didn't find it with an admittedly cursory look. A search function might be helpful. He talked about bringing in more allies and the need to be more vigilant about guarding sensitive areas in Iraq: "We didn't guard the nuclear facilities. We didn't guard the foreign office, where you might have found information about weapons of mass destruction. We didn't guard the borders." I've already pointed out a similar interesting statement two questions above.

Lehrer: [Comparing Kerry's experiences of Vietnam to Iraq] Are Americans now dying in Iraq for a mistake?

Kerry: No. Saddam was a threat, but a series of things should have happened before entering the war. Bush should have listened to his Army chief of staff about more troops and to Secretary General Kofi Annan when he offered the United Nations.

Bush mentions the Iraq war was more than just unilateral with 30 nations involved. Kerry says that their involvement is not nearly that of ours, but then when isn't UN forces mostly composed of the U.S.? Which is not to denigrate the UN's involvement which would be more of a show of unanimity.

Throughout Bush brought up the worry of sending a variety of mixed messages. I don't think Kerry has mixed agendas, but I must admit thinking that he had changed his mind. I suspect this comes from tailoring your message to specific groups that later get broadcast to the general public. I don't think the flip-flopping allegation stuck well in this debate.

Lehrer: [to Bush] You have said there was a, quote, "miscalculation," of what the conditions would be in post-war Iraq. What was the miscalculation, and how did it happen?

This didn't get the candidates to say much of interest except what I said about Kerry's assessment of alliances in the question above, moved up for comparison.

Lehrer: You've repeatedly accused President Bush -- not here tonight, but elsewhere before -- of not telling the truth about Iraq, essentially of lying to the American people about Iraq. Give us some examples of what you consider to be his not telling the truth.

Kerry repeats his message from the question about "the priorities of going after Osama bin Laden and going after Saddam Hussein." Bush did do some interesting turning the tables on the question--giving no new information, but reversing the question so that Bush does not think that Kerry was misleading on whether we should go into the war in Iraq. The transcript reads as though maybe Kerry had tried to rebut Bush a little early, but I may have been distracted to notice as it played out on screen. Either that or Lehrer had assumed Bush was finished before he was.

Lehrer: Has the war in Iraq been worth the cost of American lives, 1,052 as of today?

Bush and later Kerry both turned this potentially difficult question into a touchy feely one about nobility and sacrifice. I was a little worried about Kerry's response regarding faster training for Iraqi security. I'd heard some experts suggest that their security hadn't been getting enough training. I liked the ring of his statement "it is vital for us not to confuse the war, ever, with the warriors," which I take to mean we the people taking our frustrations with the war out on the troops as happened with Vietnam although I could be mistaken. But it had a ring that rolled around in my head for a minute.

Lehrer: [to Kerry, perhaps returning the favor of asking the same question he put to Bush] Can you give us specifics, in terms of a scenario, time lines, et cetera, for ending major U.S. military involvement in Iraq?

Kerry: "I didn't say I would bring troops out in six months. I said, if we do the things that I've set out and we are successful, we could begin to draw the troops down in six months." I liked how Kerry suggested we let the Iraqis know we have no long term designs on Iraq, but I'm not sure this is an impression that can be erased by any reassurance of an invader, no matter how well intentioned. He pointed out the design of bases giving the wrong impression to some. Departing a little, he said we ought "not back off of the Fallujahs." I've heard some Iraqis wanting swift action taken on this issue, but others wanted more diplomacy.

The only new point Bush made worth mentioning was "One of his campaign people alleged that Prime Minister Allawi was like a puppet." The Kerry campaign probably ought to keep its mitts on Bush and his campaign and away from people Kerry may have to work with.

Lehrer: [to Bush but follows up with a similar question to Kerry] Does the Iraq experience make it more likely or less likely that you would take the United States into another preemptive military action?

Both agreed that it may be important for the security of the nation. Otherwise, not much here except two moments of being less candid:

Bush: "When I was running -- when we had the debate in 2000, never dreamt I'd be doing that. " I was under the impression that that was one of the priorities of his administration--to curtail the fear of Saddam's determination to develop WMD.

Kerry: Bush "just said, 'The enemy attacked us.' " I didn't find where Bush said this.

Kerry did make a good point: "Thirty-five to forty countries in the world had a greater capability of making weapons at the moment the president invaded than Saddam Hussein. And while he's been diverted..., North Korea's gotten nuclear weapons and the world is more dangerous. Iran is moving toward nuclear weapons and the world is more dangerous."

Lehrer: Do you believe that diplomacy and sanctions can resolve the nuclear problems with North Korea and Iran?

Bush: Multilateral talks
Kerry: Multi- AND bilateral talks
Bush: Bilateral talks will let North Korea walk away from the multilateral table.
Kerry: No, it won't.

I wondered why sanctions and diplomacy couldn't have worked for Iraq as well, but then it had gone through a decade of such.

Lehrer: neither one of you or anyone else connected with your campaigns or your administration that I can find has discussed the possibility of sending in troops.

Kerry: Army is overstretched, but we can offer logistical support.
Bush: Impose sanctions and U.S. is leading donor of aid.

Here's something much of the media isn't talking about: Kerry spoke of increasing active duty and special forces but enrollment I'd heard was down. Bush in his closing statement said he wanted only an all-volunteer army. Does that mean that Kerry would require a draft and not Bush? or that Kerry believes an active ad campaign for more troops for the young will be productive? Or is Bush not being realistic about military need for troops?

Lehrer: Are there also underlying character issues that you believe, that you believe are serious enough to deny Senator Kerry the job as commander in chief of the United States?

Here comes Kerry's unexpected zinger. Bush really relaxed during this question that he let his guard down to say something that Kerry capitalized upon. Is it important? It will depend upon the woman.

Bush was generous with Kerry's character as a soldier (unlike one analyst at ABC said, Bush has had kind words for Kerry before), as a father, and as a politician although he disagreed with his policies. (I think he was hoping for a laugh from the audience, but they were silent as instructed although Kerry did grin when Bush said, "I won't hold it against him that he went to Yale.") The character criticism was a repetition of the mixed messages mentioned above.

Kerry was also kind. Although he only specifically mentioned admiring Bush's wife, he admitted chuckling with(?) his daughters. Kerry's criticism was of Bush's certainty, to which Bush responds that certainty coupled with tactics that shift as necessary.

The zinger?

BUSH: I'm trying to put a leash on them.
KERRY: I've learned not to do that.

This was a joke although what Bush wanted to put a metaphorical leash on his daughters for is unclear. If you watch the footage, you see Bush's humor and relaxation evaporate. What women will load into this statement could be telling. Some will dismiss it as a joke, some will hold on to it as a gender-charged issue. But I think it does show a difference in both's parenting styles. What does that mean? This little unguarded moment may tell more than most of the rest of the debate. But I would hate to hear people make too much of it one way or another.

Lehrer: If you are elected president, what will you take to that office thinking is the single most serious threat to the national security to the United States?

Kerry had absolutely no hesitation on this response: nuclear proliferation--although he did later include WMD to match Bush's more general concern. He's worried about Russia's weapons falling into terrorist hands and our developing bunker busters which also use some nuclear material although it is supposed to be somehow more focused in effect. There was an article on this Popular Mechanics (or Popular Science?).

Bush said WMD in the hands of terrorists and that missle defense was necessary.

Lehrer: Did you misjudge [President Putin and Russia] or... do you feel that what he is doing in the name of antiterrorism by changing some democratic processes is OK?

Both oppose. Bush commends Putin for being a valuable ally against terrorism. Kerry seemed a little more critical and tails back off into his position on North Korea. (I forget whether this was repetition or his wanting to get a word back in on the subject.)


A final criticism of both debaters is that sometimes a sentence was all that was needed to rebut, especially after already having had one rebuttal. I suspect both these guys as students would fill all white space offered for their essay questions. Sometimes the succinct, well-put sentence is worth more than watering it down with other words. Since it is an oral medium, it may pay to repeat the statement once if the debater felt it necessary.

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