Before the spin machine gets up to full dizzying speed (or at least before I expose myself to it), a couple of impressions of the debate. I listened to the first half on NPR while driving back from some erannds in Roanoke; the second half I watched mostly on C-SPAN, but I flipped around to some other channels to see if there were differences.
Kerry had some good zingers here and there. It’s hard to say, though, how an undecided voter would respond to the content of the debate as a whole. Very little was said that we didn’t already know, although I was a bit surprised by the emphases. (For instance, although I expected North Korea to come up (as well it should), I didn’t expect the pros and cons of bilateral talks to get so much airtime. You’d almost think that was the number one foreign policy issue on which these two men disagree.)
The absolute most stunning thing to me though, was when I turned on C-SPAN. C-SPAN showed a split screen view of both Kerry and Bush throughout the entire debate (or at least the half that I watched). When I flipped channels, NBC also had a split screen, but CBS, ABC, and PBS did not. The split screen may save our nation. When Kerry was talking, Bush had his head cocked to the side with a smirk on his face. He had this very weird blinking thing going on. Once he did this weird face twitch that looked like he was about to have a seizure. Occasionally, he jotted down a note. When Bush was talking, Kerry looked engaged. He wrote lots of notes. He occasionally grinned in a rather scary fashion, but for the most part, he looked like he respected his opponent and respected the debate.
I’d like to say that thing about the debate that stood out to me was a stark contrast on the issues, but it was not. It was the way the debaters behaved when they weren’t speaking. Bush looked bored. Strangely, that seemed to help him in the debate against Al Gore, but I think it could hurt him severely here: I don’t think Kerry has quite the wooden, policy wonk reputation that Gore had, and Kerry is a much more engaging debater.
On the issues, though… Bush made at least one swipe at Kerry saying that he couldn’t pay for all of the things he planned to do for the sake of homeland security. I thought Kerry’s response, emphasizing how much we had spent in Iraq, was a little weak; he should have also stressed how little many of his proposed measures would cost in comparison. He also could have capitalized on the fact that Bush practically admitted that he was unwilling to pay the dollar cost of keeping our nation safe.
It was pretty amazing the way the Bush completely co-opted Kerry’s message on moving forward in Iraq. Perhaps Kerry’s Iraq speech last week gave away the farm, as Bush is now practically parrotting Kerry’s plan. (It isn’t rocket science, mind you, but it is an order of magnitude more clear than Bush has been on the issue in the past.) Kerry seemed to be left mostly saying that he was going to hold a summit.
Kerry didn’t hit as hard on Bush’s lousy record as he might have. Iraq was a touchy subject on which to do that, though, and he did reasonably well pointing to the lousy record with regards to Iran and North Korea. The line about there being 30-35 nations with more weapons capability than Iraq at the time of the invasion was a good one; I’d like to see where that number came from. (And is he counting friendly nations or only unfriendly ones?) I hope we see more direct attacks on Bush’s record in later debates — it should be easier when talking about domestic issues, frankly.
I didn’t think Bush was able to make as much of his “flip-flop” meme as I expected.
The quote from the George H. W. Bush book was an outstanding play.
Knowing what I know of the way the media in our nation works, though, I think that Bush’s mannerisms are going to be a big story. Especially when those mannerisms caught the eye of an engineer like me. (Engineers are socially inept and unable to read even the most obvious human gestures, don’t ‘cha know?) I actually remember the first half of the debate more clearly than the second, and I think the reason is that I became so distracted by Bush’s mannerisms once I got home to the TV (and then I would watch Kerry to see if he had similarly annoying mannerisms).
Anyway, it is now conventional wisdom that this debate will be won or lost in the post-debate spin. So, let’s see what happens.