Friday, October 01, 2004

Andy's Debate Analysis

I've had trouble sleeping lately, and not just because of mice.

Recently I've been very depressed about the prospect of Bush's re-election. I asked myself, "How can people not see through this phony? How can Kerry run such an anemic campaign?"

I had trouble falling asleep last night, too.

But for a different reason.

From the moment the debate began last night, my heart was pounding. For a country addicted to "reality tv," it was interesting to watch two men struggle with current, ongoing situations that weren't cooked up by studio executives targeting certain audience demographics. And, unlike with The Real World and its ilk, you and I have a stake in this outcome.

John Kerry spoke clearly and authoritatively, calmly projecting the gravitas he is so famous for. As a performer, I recognize when someone knows how to take a stage and control it, and it's a quality I greatly admire. Kerry may have literally stood to the left of center, but he stole the show. I only caught one statement from him that I would characterize as misleading: during the Republican National Convention in New York in August, there was no alteration of subway service. However, all entrances and exits to the subways and commuter trains at Penn Station, which is basically underneath Madison Square Garden, were closed except for one for security reasons. Additionally, the Republicans did request that subway and train service be suspended, but that request was denied. Kerry's point was that vital infrastructure -- such as public transportation -- has not been adequately secured under Bush's tenure. The fact that the RNC wanted trains stopped during the convention only serves to reinforce Kerry's point.

Though I wish Kerry had taken an opportunity to clarify that he voted for a version of the $87 billion Iraq bill that would have been paid for by a reduction of the tax cuts and against the final version that was put on the nation's American Express card, he firmly established that he has held consistent views on Iraq:

"From the beginning I did vote to give the authority because I thought Saddam Hussein was a threat, and I did accept that intelligence. But I also laid out a very strict series of things we needed to do in order to proceed from a position of strength. And the president, in fact, promised them. He went to Cincinnati and he gave a speech in which he said, "We will plan carefully. We will proceed cautiously. We will not make war inevitable. We will go with our allies.'' He didn't do any of those things."

Mr. Bush's performance, on the other hand, was a wash. He had the same exact answer for every question, some variation of: "My opponent changes his positions" or "It's hard work" or "That's sending mixed messages." The president stayed so "on message" that he occasionally veered wildly off-course, seemingly failing to recognize that the discussion had switched topics. Toward the end of the evening he gave an Iraq answer to a North Korea question:

Kerry: "We can have bilateral talks with Kim Jong Il and we can get those weapons at the same time as we get China because China has an interest in the outcome too."

Lehrer: "Thirty seconds, Mr. President."

Bush: "You know my opinion on North Korea. I can't say it any more plainly."

Lehrer: "Right, well, what - he used the word truth again."

Bush: "Pardon me?"

Lehrer: "Talking about the truth of the matter. Used the word truth again. Did that raise any hackles with you? "

Bush: "I'm a pretty calm guy. I mean, I don't take it personally. But, you know, look, we looked at the same intelligence. And came to the same conclusion. That Saddam Hussein was a grave threat."

Foreign policy was supposed to be Bush's position of strength in this campaign; the challenge was Kerry's, and the deck was stacked against him. But Bush folded almost instantly and was reduced to regurgitating vapid soundbites, furrowing his brow and stumbling over "mexed missages."

For my money, the crowning glory of the moment was this exchange:

Kerry: "Jim, the president just said, extraordinarily revealing and, frankly, very important in this debate. In answer to your question about Iraq and sending people into Iraq he just said, the enemy attacked us. Saddam Hussein didn't attack us. Osama bin Laden attacked us. Al Qaeda attacked us. And when we had Osama bin Laden cornered in the mountains of Tora Bora, 1,000 of his cohorts with him in those mountains, with American military forces nearby and in the field, we didn't use the best trained troops in the world to go kill the world's No. 1 criminal and terrorist. They outsourced the job to Afghan warlords who only, a week earlier, had been on the other side fighting against us, neither of whom trusted each other. That's the enemy that attacked us, that's the enemy that was allowed to walk out of those mountains. That's the enemy that is now in 60 countries with stronger recruits.

He also said Saddam Hussein would have been stronger. That is just factually incorrect. Two-thirds of the country was a no-fly zone when we started this war. We would have had sanctions. We would have had the U.N. inspectors. Saddam Hussein would have been continually weakening. 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."

Bush: "First, listen -"

Lehrer: "Thirty seconds."

Bush: "Of course I know Osama bin Laden attacked us. I know that. And secondly, to think that another round of resolutions would have caused Saddam Hussein to disarm, disclose, is ludicrous, in my judgment. It just shows a significant difference of opinion. We tried diplomacy, we did our best. He was hoping to turn a blind eye and, yes, he would have been stronger had we not dealt with him. He had the capability of making weapons and he would have made weapons."

First: Bush did not here -- or elsewhere -- address why the focus was on Iraq and not al Qaeda. He knows bin Laden attacked us, and then goes on to defend the invasion of Iraq. In a way, he's right that it would have been ludicrous to expect Saddam to "disarm" and "disclose" following another round of resolutions: he didn't have any weapons to dismantle or any programs to disclose. Second: Bush admits as much when he talks about "capability" and saying, "he would have made weapons." Those sanctions and inspections were in place to keep him from having them, and by the president's own admission, they were working.

By and large, the press declared Kerry the winner of the debate, and the rest call it a draw. Given the expectations, even a "draw" for Kerry in the foreign policy arena has to be viewed as a success. Currently on's internet poll, out of more than 633,000 votes, 71% give the prize to Kerry.

The campaign is far from over, but that is actually good news. It was do or die for John Kerry last night, and he did.

So last night I had trouble falling asleep because I felt exhilarated and vindicated. Finally someone had the chance to go face to face with President Bush and challenge him on these issues.

More importantly, I finally feel that I can describe myself as a Kerry supporter, rather than merely an "anyone but Bush" guy.


The Third Policeman said...

The debates are vital because I dispute the notion of Kerry running a weak campaign as something that is a creation of perception and narrative rather than an objective fact. TV news and the political press are appallingly lazy, ignorant, shallow, trivial, professionally smug about what they see as their calling, when the mostly practice stenography, feeble psychology and juvenile drama criticism. So Kerry runs a campaign proclaiming his ideas and criticisms, but since none of this is reported as such, and the candidates can't speak to all Americans directly and individually, the voters express their puzzlement over what Kerry stands for. The debates are the medium by which Kerry can continue to run his campaign, but in a format where everything he says goes directly to the viewer, without a 'journalist' 'reporting' such as merely a set of slogans, free of context. The supposed strength of Bush in foreign policy and the notion that Kerry had to prove he belongs in the Oval Office are shown to be phony slogans manufactured by the media.

Andy said...

I wholeheartedly concur with this comment, though I don't think Kerry's ineffective campaign -- thus far -- has been entirely manufactured by the media. Bob Shrum is a numskull. When you have a president as corrupt and mired in scandal as Bush, whose base of support consists entirely of hundreds of millions of hoodwinked Americans, you don't win the election by being Bush Lite or a centrist or being non-confrontational. You win it by going after the illusions, which Kerry finally did, or at least finally did effectively. It's true that the press in this country is lazy and irresponsible, and more interested in entertainment than real news. If they had done their job, I believe we'd never have gone to war.