I'm leaving this public because I sort of hope my creepy, uber-conservative ex-coworker at my previous place of employment continues to stalk this journal, and read my analysis. Besides, I tend to leave most of the political stuff public anyway.
I was nervous about the debates last night. The format was not conducive to a real debate; even the moderator, Jim Lehrer, allowed that it wouldn't properly be a debate with candidates addressing questions to each other or rebuttals - but rather a duel of stump speeches. President Bush is at his best when he stays on his script, so allowing such a carefully scripted event would only benefit him. My fears were somewhat reduced by the fact that the questions would not be provided to the candidates before-hand - but since they were limited to foreign policy, it should have been a cinch for both men to anticipate likely questions and prepare remarks.
Should have been, but wasn't. There are two elements that I'll refer to here, substance and style.
First - style. This was a clear victory for Mr. Kerry, as he was cool, articulate, and collected during the course of the debate. His demeanor was professional, respectful, and confident - during President Bush's comments he remained alert and took notes. His only reaction to President Bush's words was to occasionally nod. He stood straight, and seemed very confident. On the other hand, President Bush was slumped over his podium for much of the debate. He seemed tired, distracted, and annoyed by the proceedings. While Mr. Kerry spoke, President Bush made cartoonish faces, smirking or sighing. His responses were flustered and confused, particularly when he attempted to go off script. He repeatedly asked Jim Lehrer for time to respond to Mr. Kerry's words, and then was caught out with little to say other than to repeatedly comment about "mixed messages". It seemed as if Mr. Bush was unprepared, and didn't have a good command of the facts about foreign policy. On the other hand, he seemed supremely prepared in regards to Mr. Kerry's words and position - indicating to me that his advisors prepared him for the debate not with the substance of foreign policy, but rather with a finely crafted strategic assault on Mr. Kerry himself. Ultimately, Mr. Kerry was collected and prepared, while President Bush seemed unprepared and angry. In terms of style, I'd call it a clear victory for Kerry - though post-debate spin may change public perception of this.
Substance: This ought to have been a clear victory for Mr. Kerry. This was where I was most disappointed in his performance - given several opportunities for vicious coupe-de-grace comments about missteps in Iraq, dishonesty leading up to the war, and failures to prosecute the war on terror, as well as nuclear proliferation by members of the so-called "Axis of Evil" - Kerry ought to have gone for blood. Unfortunately, he soft-pedalled a number of his responses, and got caught-out with an apparently contradictory answer about the war in Iraq. However, he did manage to clearly articulate his position there: "I've always had one consistent position. Saddam Hussein was a threat, and had to go. I voted to authorize force for the President. But there was a right way and wrong way to remove him, and this President chose the wrong way." He also managed to zing President Bush with the words of his father, George H.W. Bush, who didn't go in to Iraq past Basrah because of no clear exit strategy - a tactic that visibly angered President Bush Jr. On the other hand, President Bush stayed tightly on message - he repeated again and again that Mr. Kerry sent mixed messages. He repeated again and again that Mr. Kerry had said the war in Iraq was "the wrong war, at the wrong time, in the wrong place" - and stated repeatedly that this would be deleterious to morale for the troops. Mr. Bush also repeatedly used Mr. Kerry's own words in the past to strengthen his own position. Ultimately, in terms of substance - I think Mr. Kerry won, but didn't make the telling points he might have, had he gone for blood. It wasn't a decisive victory though.
Major Bush Missteps The single most glaring mistake that President Bush made, and which Mr. Kerry pounced on immediately, was to claim that war on Iraq was necessary because our enemies attacked us on 9/11 - thus demonstrating that either Mr. Bush is unclear on the difference between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, or that the Bush administration has attempted to conflate and confuse the two purposefully. Mr. Bush went on to mis-speak, referring to Saddam Hussein as Osama bin Laden. President Bush also justified his coalition in Iraq with the risible phrase, "Don't forget Poland." Mr. Bush also said he knew how hard the war on terror was because he sees it on the tv screens. I suspect these two phrases will be fodder for late-night comedians for weeks to come.
Major Kerry Missteps As above, I think it was a mistake for Mr. Kerry not to go for blood. It was also a mistake for him to state his intentions in Iraq in any complicated, nuanced way - as it plays to accusations that he is inconsistent. Invoking Colin Powell's "Pottery Barn Rule" was both folksy and smart - but failing to repeat it when clarifying his position was a mistake.
Major Bush Victories I don't know that there were any. I don't think he held his own, and I don't think he played up to his strength - which popular consensus says ought to have been this debate, the foreign policy debate. This was where President Bush ought to have pinned Mr. Kerry to the wall with his apparently contradictory statements - and he failed to do so in any substantive way.
Major Kerry Victories Mr. Kerry successfully created the appearance that President Bush has no plan for success in Iraq. He clearly differentiated himself from his opponent, and articulated a plan for how to achieve victory in the war on terror, and the war in Iraq. He used President Bush's father's own words against him, which was a brilliant stroke because not only was it telling - but it also rattled President Bush, who has often labored in his father's shadow.
The Big Picture I agree with most of the polls - this debate was a win for Kerry. Rather than an absolute rout, though, it was merely a decisive win. I think we see now what the Bush strategy is - which is not to address the substance of policy or fact, but rather to attack the record and character of Mr. Kerry. In the format of this debate, I don't think that's a winning strategy - as it made Mr. Bush to appear ill-informed and contentious - but in the wider scope of the debate, it may be successful. Historically, however, offering a positive alternative to a negative campaign is much more successful than mud-slinging.
My Prediction: Mr Bush will cancel one or both of the upcoming debates. This debate reflected too poorly on Mr. Bush, and may have undone much of the careful and successful work of the Rove Attack Machine over the Summer. If the further debates are not cancelled, expect to see Mr. Kerry called out on the carpet about his contradictory statements - expect to hear the "mixed message" accusation repeated again and again. I suspect the real fire and brimstone will be left for Mr. Edwards in the Vice Presidential debate, while Mr. Kerry will remain much as he did during the debate: attentive and collected.