Saturday, October 02, 2004

90. Mutt and Jeff in Miami

A selection of comments on the First Presidential Debate

After about 45 minutes, I’m looking forward to what Kerry has to say, and am surprised by that, because I’ve not felt that way since, basically, ever. The de Gaulle story is fantastic. JFK’s Secretary of State Dean Rusk is over in France — what did Dean Rusk look like? Probably crewcut gray hair in a dark suit. He’s with the French president during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Rusk reaches down to take out a folder of photographs and says something like, "Mr. French President, I’m going to show you — and your mistresses if you like — that our assessment is accurate. We have photographs." But de Gaulle waves him off and says that the word of the president of the United States is good enough. Kerry asks, "How many leaders in the world today would respond to us as a result of what we've done in that way?" This really hits home for me. Wham.

Yes, it’s annoying that Kerry doesn’t know the Pottery Barn rule. (It’s you break it you "own" it, not you "fix" it — which, by the way, is not their rule.) On the other hand, Kerry has me feeling serious and manly — all these threats that I need to take seriously: about North Korea, which scares the hell out of me, and about Iran, and about loose nukes in Russia, about which Bush has done — what? Anything?

Now Bush seems to be disappearing. Says the same things over and over again. No subjects in his sentences. There’s a quality to him that says, "I don’t need to explain myself because I’m right."

I just know how this world works.

I know how these people think. I deal with them all the time.

I remember that, at the Republican National Convention, my simian brain just loved Bush. No matter what other thoughts kept coursing through me, in some basic way, by the end of that speech, I wanted to be in that room full of good-looking white people, and go get dressed up and drink tall legal cocktails — Cosmos and Manhattans and maybe even dance to "Come On Eileen" by Dexy’s Midnight Runners at the end of the night.

But now I remember those protestors being dragged out of the Madison Square Garden, by their feet it looked like. The emotional effect of that was like embracing a lover, and then seeing her start to squawk into digital bits and bytes — "Shit, I thought you were real." (I’m not saying this happens — just that, if it did happen, it would be freaky.) And I think about how all Bush does is speak and talk in controlled rooms. Doesn’t even read the newspapers. No chance that he’ll hear a heckler, even, as wearing a t-shirt that says "Kerry" will get you arrested at a Bush rally — arrested for "trespassing." Now a president who never sees his critics is being forced to spend 90 minutes with one. He seems to consider it an imposition. He reminds me of Jack Nicholson on the stand in "A Few Good Men." Could he crack? When Kerry insists that "the enemy" that attacked us was not Saddam Hussein, Bush whips around. "Of course I know Osama bin Laden attacked us. I know that." It’s like he’s a 14-year-old who when asked if he’s done his homework insists that he knows how to tie his own shoes.

I think about a play I saw a long time ago. "The Man Who Had All the Luck," by Arthur Miller. There’s a character named Amos, who, throughout the play, is being groomed by his father, Pat, to be a star pitcher. Pat trains him relentlessly, drilling him in their basement, working him out in a place where there will be no distractions. Everyone expects that Amos is going to be a big star, and finally, he goes before a big-league scout. But the scout takes one look at the kid, and says that he doesn’t have what it takes. The father is stunned. Why? This kid has trained relentlessly, with no distractions. That’s just the point, the scout says. The kid is undeniably good, but at crunch time, when he’s in a stadium with a crowd screaming, he gets rattled. He’s spent too much time in the basement.

-- Joshua Wolf Shenk is a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly.

While there were few fireworks, I suspect swing voters did come away with a few perceptions. First, Bush knows what he's trying to accomplish. He believes deeply in the rightness of the war in Iraq and its centrality to the larger War on Terror. His message is the same message voters have heard since 9/11 -- we will go on the offensive to fight terrorists wherever they are found to keep this nation safe.

On the other hand, voters saw Kerry continue to struggle to define his position on the war -- justifying his latest position, which is to call the war a mistake, while promising to bring new allies on board to fight for what he terms a "grand diversion."

He failed totally to make a convincing case for either his strategic vision, what there is of it, or his so-called four-point tactical plan for winning in Iraq which bears a striking resemblance to what the Bush administration is already doing.

Perhaps the most telling moment was the exchange between the two candidates on the issue of North Korea's nuclear program. Here, Kerry, who harshly criticized Bush for rejecting multilateralism in the leadup to the Iraq war, was equally critical of Bush's insistence on maintaining a multilateral approach in dealing with North Korea today. Consistency is clearly not Kerry's strong suit.

For all practical purposes, Kerry's debate performance was little more than a replay of his campaign stump speeches. Even his close -- "I defended this country as a young man and I will defend it as president" -- was almost verbatim from his acceptance speech. It didn't work then, and it won't work now.

Kerry needed to win this debate decisively. Bush not only held his own but, in a plainspoken passion, showed why voters have more confidence in his leadership in the War on Terror.

-- David Winston is a veteran GOP political consultant and columnist for Roll Call.

If Republicans were overconfident going into the debate, Democrats had begun preparing themselves for defeat. Kerry had given up so much ground that he was close to being written out of the race. Voters had absorbed the image of Kerry as a flip-flopper without core convictions. A very different Kerry showed up in the debate hall. He was calm and disciplined while Bush was "slouching and praying for the light to go on so he wouldn’t have to think of anything else to repeat," said a Democratic strategist.

Kerry spoke crisply and clearly, and he looked presidential. He defended his position on Iraq as consistent—agreeing with Bush that Saddam Hussein was a threat, but saying he would have handled the situation differently. When Bush confronted him with that old saw about how he voted for the $87 billion before he voted against it, Kerry scored big, saying, "I made a mistake in how I talk about the war. But the president made a mistake in invading Iraq. Which is worse?"

This was Kerry’s best performance since, perhaps, ever. Like Lazarus, he is back from the dead. He energized his own Democratic base, which had begun to drift away in despair. Democrats now believe he has a chance to win. Standing alongside Bush, he showed himself to be more than up to the task. The contrast could not be greater between Bush, a man who passionately believes in the rightness of his convictions to the point of willfully excluding facts, and Kerry, a man who operates by reason and intellect. Before Thursday night, Bush had made a mockery of Kerry, using ridicule and sarcasm to turn his opponent into a cartoon figure. That will be harder now that voters have gotten a fuller picture.

A single debate probably won’t determine the outcome of the election, but with two more debates ahead, the Bush team has got to be worried. It’s a tactic of Karl Rove’s to create an aura of inevitability about Bush, and he no doubt convinced the president the debate would be a slam dunk. Bush strode onto the stage with his customary swagger, but it was downhill from there. He had that deer-in-the-headlights look for much of the time, and he repeated stock phrases so often, he became a caricature of himself. This was reality TV, and it was not kind to Bush.

-- Eleanor Clift in NEWSWEEK

Bush could not but win the debate. Kerry has taken such awkward and obviously wrong positions that Bush had to emerge as last night's winner.

But Bush seemed disengaged, distracted and, at times, even bored. His performance reminded me of the style -- or lack of it -- that he brought to the pre-primary debates of 2000.

He seemed to convey a message of: Don't bother me, leave me alone, you don't understand and I can't bother to explain what I'm doing and why I'm doing it.

The president's closing statement was so focused and polished, so intent and energetic that the contrast between a speech he has memorized and one which he ad-libs was obvious to all who watched. If the Bush of the last two minutes was on display for the 90 minutes, the election would have been over last night.

By contrast, Kerry looked presidential, collected and, above all, strong and confident. If you'd seen the two men without knowing which was the president and which the candidate, you'd have guessed wrong. Kerry looked like the guy in charge.

The essential message for Bush is that he had better get his head back in the game and pay more attention to his performance if he doesn't want to get massacred in the second debate -- which will focus on domestic policy, Kerry's strong suit.

Bush needs to undergo the same kind of transformation he went through in the 2000 primaries. He started smirking his way through those debates, obviously resting on his lead and feeling put upon to have to debate the pigmies vying for the nomination. But when he understood that he was facing a life-and-death challenge from John McCain, he got it together and showed energy and determination and won the subsequent debates.

He has to realize that he is in the fight of his life and bring passion, discipline, focus and commitment to the next debates or he will lose.

Mr. President, last night you looked like it was the end of the fourth quarter, and you were running out the clock. This is a tough race, and it's going to take your focused energy to win it. Last night you looked like you were just mailing it in.

-- Dick Morris in NEW YORK POST

Immediately after last night's first presidential debate, the chattering class appeared unanimous in saying that Kerry had won the debate. I hold a heretical view: I think it was a tie.

More specifically, I think the debate had two parts. Bush clearly won the first half hour, while Kerry clearly won the remaining hour. But the first half hour is crucial: it is perhaps the only time in the campaign that the two candidates had the nation's undivided attention.

It is true that Bush got repetitious and uninspired in the second part of the debate. But that means that the whole debate got boring. The feeling was that the same points were rehashed over and over.

Unfortunately for Sen. Kerry, debates are not scored like boxing matches. In a debate, the later rounds -- absent a knockout, and the consensus is there were no knockout blows last night -- don't matter as much. That is when viewers start to tune out, channel surf, do the dishes. Kerry's superior performance during the second part of the debate did not have as strong an impact on them as it had on the political junkies M.C.-ing the networks' and websites' post-debate analyses.

-- Uriah Kriegel of TCS

The snap polls taken by networks immediately after the debate found a decisive edge for Kerry. Yet it's doubtful the overall dynamics of the race were altered much. These 90 minutes, in a way, reinforced the fundamentals. Bush is the fellow with the uplifting themes: we're fighting for freedom, democracy, and our own survival in Iraq against killers who want to shake our will; it's tough work; the costs are indeed high; and I will be the strong and resolute leader who leads us to triumph. Kerry is the one with the sobering words: Iraq is a mess; we're not any safer; we must change course; and I have a better plan. It's inspiration (arguably misguided) versus critique (arguably not so inspiring). These are two rather distinct approaches, and they represent more of a psychological than an ideological split. Partisans on each side have already lined up with a candidate, and such voters are not likely to shift their loyalties on the basis of a debate performance (or anything else). The question is whether those legendary undecided voters will be responsive to the stirring tones that Bush aims for or will they be convinced by the pointed, rational arguments that Kerry seeks to present. Polls show that most Americans believe the war in Iraq was a mistake. But does that mean voters will automatically gravitate to the finger-waggerer who says he has a plan instead of the swaggerer responsible for the screw-up? Voters who now consider the war a blunder could still favor the candidate with the more upbeat or rousing message. In his closing remarks, Bush declared, "We've been challenged, and we've risen to those challenges. We've climbed the mighty mountain. I see the valley below, and its a valley of peace." Kerry said, "I believe America's best days are ahead of us because I believe that the future belongs to freedom, not to fear."

-- David Corn in THE NATION

Our President told the debate audience, "You cannot lead if you send mexxed missiges." I certainly hope not.

10/01/04 "ICH" -- But that's exactly what we got. You watch our President, the nervous hand-hiding, the compulsive water-glass-fondling, the panicked I-wish-I-had-a-whiskey look, and you think, "My god, this is the guy who's supposed to save us from al Qaeda."

And how are we going to win the War on Terror, Mr. President? "First of all, of course I know Osama bin Laden attacked us. I know that," he said. Well, that's a start, I suppose.

But it doesn't have to stay this way. This is America, home of the brave and where, I remember from school, we could vote for president and the votes would count. So we looked to the tall man next to him to show us the way out.

In Iraq, "We don't have enough troops there," said the tall one. Really, Senator? We should send MORE? Not exactly: Mr. Tall's got a plan to get our troops out. He'll have a big meeting of "allies," and after he talks with them, they will all jump up and volunteer to send THEIR kids to Fallujah. France and Indonesia and Kuwait can't wait to ship in soldiers and extra body bags. Right. We love you, John, but there’s no band of Hobbits coming to the rescue -- that's just a movie.

Well, he looked kind of "presidential." But given the line-up includes Nixon, Ford and two Bushes, that's not a big trick.

I'm sorry. I know I'm supposed to stand up and cheer that John Kerry didn't get Gored. In fact, if you look at presidential debates the way the media plays it, as something akin to Olympic figure skating, where you score for the competitor’s style, you could say Kerry won.

But I don't feel WE won anything.

I mean, when Jim Lehrer asked how the candidates would make America safe from terrorists, Mr. Tall said he'd hire more firemen. And add more cops. Maybe he thought he was running for mayor.

It was disappointing, but then Mr. Small's answer was downright frightening. We have to "stay on the offensive," and "stay on the offense," and "I repeat, stay on the offense." We have no doubt that Mr. Small can be extraordinarily offensive, but even he can't take his offensiveness to the bad guys if he doesn't know where they are. And on that point, he's clueless.

There were two words I was hoping to hear from Mr. Tall: "Saudi" and "Arabia." Imagine if he laid it on the line, "The terrorists didn't put the hijackings on a credit card, Mr. President. Their Saudi sponsors are fattening on the bloated war-driven price of oil. But you can't touch your buck-buddies in the Gulf, can you, Mr. President?. As Commander-in-Chief, I'd cut'm off at the spigots, beginning with the release of oil from our Strategic Petroleum Reserve. And then I'd seize their fat assets in the USA to compensate the victims of terror attacks."

When Mr. Tall was asked what whoppers the President has told us, surely there was something a bit more memorable than Mr. Small's failing to win over allies for his whacky crusade.

Here's what Mr. Tall said … in my dreams:

* "Beginning in March 2001, your Administration began a series of meetings with oil company executives to map the conquest of Iraq and its oil, a plan Americans would pay for in blood. You originally called this scheme, 'Operation Iraqi Liberation' -- O.I.L. We don't appreciate your little joke, Mr. Small."

* "One month after seizing Baghdad you fired General Jay Garner, the man you put in charge of Iraq, after he called for rapid elections in Najaf; after he refused to impose your plans to sell off Iraq's oil fields. In Najaf, citizens denied ballots, turned to bullets. And then, as General Garner predicted, the seizure of Iraq's assets resulted in the type of war one expects -- when seeking to impose colonial control."

* "Mr. Small, you claim we've given a thousand lives to bring democracy to the Mid-east. But so far, your democracy, Mr. Small, comes down to a puppet prime minister, we've installed in Iraq and a puppet government, the Saudis have installed in Washington."

OK, I can't expect all that in a presidential debate, where the message has to fit through a tube. But still, Mr. Tall could have won my vote with two words. It's the two-word answer John Kerry gave three decades ago when asked the same question -- "How can we get our troops out of a disastrous war?"

Then, the clear-minded, tall young men said, "In ships."

-- Greg Palast on ICH (Information Clearing House)