Thursday, September 30, 2004

The First Presidential Debate: Kerry won on style, lost on substance...

Update: Looks like the big bloggers (who were frankly a little depressed at the strength of Kerry's performance) are starting to realize that Kerry's tactical victory is not leading to strategic success. Check out the poll results, too.

Fans of John Kerry will surely be heartened by his performance at the first debate. He was personable, articulate, and had obviously prepared well for his encounter. He responded quickly to the anticipated questions and barbs with well-scripted answers that were clearly designed to neutralize earlier gaffes (such as the "I voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it"). Unfortunately, while Kerry definitely won on style, he lost on substance. His performance was surprisingly good, but it doesn't matter. Too many people distrust him.

I believe the majority of Americans who have been paying any attention at all to the presidential campaign will not have been swayed by Kerry's performance. I say this after watching the debate with members of my wife's family, many of whom voted for Clinton back in 1992. While many of them have expressed displeasure at aspects of Bush's presidency and were willing to give Kerry the benefit of the doubt earlier in the campaign, subsequent Kerry fumbles and equivocations have shaken his credibility in their eyes. The Bush campaign's charge of "flip-flopping" has taken hold in their consciousnesses, and they now look skeptically at his statements. Many of them disagreed with my observation that Kerry was the better debator, but they all liked Bush's answers better.

Bush's performance was adequate from a stylistic point of view but devastating on substance. As he reiterated, we know where he stands and what his positions are. Bush hammered his themes of consistency, the will to win the war on terror, and the determination to take the fight to the enemy wherever they may be. At times he showed exasperation, and at times it seemed that he was genuinely annoyed at Kerry. In short, he was George Bush... sometimes inarticulate, always plain-spoken, never subtle, and eminently believable.

Bush's major shortcoming tonight was his failure to take advantage of several opportunities to bloody his opponent after Kerry repeatedly exposed himself to withering ripostes. George Bush could have destroyed Kerry tonight -- the opening was there -- but he failed to finish his opponent off when given the chance. His best salvo was when he picked up on Kerry's "global test before preemptive action" remark. Everyone sitting around our TV agreed with Bush that this was a bad idea, but Bush missed a real opportunity to say something along the lines of "If you think America needs to pass a 'global test' administered by France or Germany or the UN then vote for my opponent. But as long as I'm president I promise you this: under my watch this country will never have to ask permission or seek approval before we can defend ourselves." This failure to capitalize on a rhetorical mistake wouldn't have been made by Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton, and it could have been disastrous... if Kerry was a more serious challenger.

If Kerry had done a better job earlier in the year -- if he had been consistent with his message -- then his performance at the debate would have been worth something to his campaign and he very likely would have gained substantial ground in the polls. Fortunately for Bush and unfortunately for him, he didn't. A majority of the voters see Kerry as a politically expedient candidate rather than a person who believes in and stands on principle. Regardless of what he says now, he has said something previously that contradicts it. Kerry has lost credibility, and he won't regain it in the eyes of enough voters before the election. He is stuck in the muddy ground of his misstatements and the rainy season has started.

Oh well, take heart John! Think of all of that free time you'll have to go skiing or windsurfing.