I think one of the biggest missteps of the entire Bush/Cheney campaign occurred last night, when President Bush said on national tv that "Major media outlets aren't credible". He cut himself off, realizing what exactly he was saying, and laughed a little and said, "Never mind..." I think President Bush is a disastrously bad debater when he goes "off message" and the whole of his success in debates and public discourse in the past has lied with his ability to steer any question, any interview, or any chance to speak to whatever tightly defined message is the talking point du jour. This is not a skill to be sneered at, either. The message discipline of the Bush administration has been formidable indeed. The press has played its part in this, failing to follow up such evasions, and also failing to make any effort to correct the numerous counter-factual claims of the entire Bush team. In part, the press has done this becuase of the monolithic tight message discipline of the Bush administration.
I think, therefore, that telling the very people who have softballed President Bush for the last four years that they are not credible is probably a foolish mistake. As a partisan, I naturally hope it means that the press will get off their collective keisters and start challenging some of wildly untrue claims of the Bush/Cheney ticket. As a lover of spectacle, I hope it's like blood in the water that wakes up some too-long-lazy sharks. Go sharks, go! I imagine in my head a bunch of reports, sipping lattes and thinking about how great it is that they can just report whatever Scott McLellan or Ari Fleischer or Karl Rove says like it's "news" instead of "spin" -- congratulating themselves on how withdrawing from their responsibility to report fact instead of press-releases and selling out the American people leaves them with so much spare time for golf and quality-time with the kids -- and then suddenly President Bush says they're not credible. "Oh no he didn't!" They splutter in Queens accents. "Oh no he didn't! Not credible? All we've been saying for four years is the stuff he tells us to! If we're not credible... why... he must not be either!" And so then maybe they'd think to themselves that they'll start having to do research, get stories on their own, investigate sources... you know, real reporting. And because that makes them mad, they'll take it out on Bush, and maybe the past four years hasn't been the death of truth after all. At least, that's how I see it in my imagination.
On the other hand, I think that Senator Kerry foiled some of the momentum for a win by making claims of his own that aren't true. His biggest mistake was in claiming that Pell Grants have been reduced - not only are more Pell Grants given over the past four years, but the maximum amount has also increased. True, it hasn't increased by the amount that President Bush pledged - but still, in every respect, Pell Grants are up. It's a foolish claim to say otherwise, and a mistake for Senator Kerry.
This was Kerry's chance to go for blood - to whisk aside the curtain concealing the wizard (or the wire, if you believe certain internet stories...) and I don't think he did go for blood. His attacks were more sharp - but at this point, I think we can see that Kerry has had the most success when he presents himself as a competent leader with a real plan for change. Anyone who believes that the war on terror isn't separate from the war on Iraq and who also believes that the war on Iraq isn't a shameful values isn't going to be persuaded of that by the debates. Why waste time trying to make inroads there? Which is not to say that Kerry didn't present himself as a leader with a credible plan to make bad stuff better - I just think he spent too much time pointing at the bad stuff, and not enough time making the distinctions between him and his opponent clearer.
In all, I call it a win for Kerry, though not as decisive as the first debate, but neither was it as close a draw as the "town hall" debate. Observe also that President Bush has spent more time attacking the record of his opponent than presenting his own plan to right wrongs (Probably because his plan consists of "staying the course"). We're out of the phase in the campaigns where either candidate is trying to persuade undecideds. At this point, they're just trying to mobilize their base. Look for some truly vicious attacks in the near future - here's the point where it will get good and dirty. I expect a nasty scandal cooked up by Karl Rove to break, with just enough time before election day to make a big mess, but not enough time to reveal it as lies and calumny. Similarly, I expect Senator Kerry will start to go on full-time attack mode. I'm surprised, actually, at the mildness of both campaigns thus far (with the exception of the disgraceful lies of the Swift Boat Veterans for Bush), and expect to see both sides sharpening their cleavers, heating up their irons, and getting ready to rake each other over the goals.
I for one, look forward to the three-ring-circus atmosphere of this election. If I can just get some bread to go with my spectacle, I'll truly be living in Nova Roma!