I managed to catch the Bush-Kerry debate this evening, and I have to say it felt like Sen. Kerry came out on top.
My expectations for President Bush were high, despite his reputation as a poor public speaker. The thing about Bush is, he’s improved a lot as a speechmaker in the years since the last election, and although the campaign and pundits downplayed expectations, I really thought he would come out swinging on foreign policy since that’s seen as his big advantage, not to mention the area where he’s placed most of his focus during the past four years. Instead, he seemed flustered and stammered for the first hour, whereas Kerry was quite composed, spoke clearly, and was obviously well rehearsed.
Content-wise, the debate was more of a draw. Kerry didn’t blow it, but neither did Bush hit back when the Senator played fast and loose with the truth. For example: early on in the debate, Kerry said the Bush administration had spent $200 billion in Iraq, when in fact nowhere near that much has been spent. Plus, the $200 billion figure is the appropriation number approved by Congress. Of that amount, 40% is earmarked for Afghanistan and 60% for Iraq. Since Kerry does not quibble with the President on Afghanistan, we’re really talking about a much smaller number.
When Kerry rehashed the tired old line about opening fire stations in Iraq while they close in the U.S., I wanted Bush to remind him of the $8 billion earmarked by the administration for first responders. But as with many of Kerry’s attacks, Bush never got around to responding to them.
Kerry was wrong about the subways closing down in New York during the convention — they remained open. A small issue.
He was also wrong about the U.S. going it alone in Iraq. Not such a small issue.
There are about 30 nations involved, compared with something like 34 nations during the first Gulf War. To be sure, the contingent is getting smaller, but that’s to be expected. Major combat is (on paper at least) over with, and control of the country has been handed back to the Iraqi people. As the Iraqis bring more and more of their freshly trained troops online, the allies will draw down their own contingents. But England, Australia, Bulgaria, Poland, New Zealand, Thailand, the Netherlands, Moldova, Singapore, El Salvador, Lithuania, South Korea, Georgia, Italy, Albania, and others still have troops there.
I don’t understand why the President didn’t hit Kerry with these and other facts. Kerry came out with a lot of specific numbers, names, places, and dates. The President seemed to to have a hard time with these things.
The debate felt like a win for Kerry not because the facts were on his side, but because like all debates, the winner is determined more by style and poise than anything else. The televised 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debate is a good example. Were the viewpoints espoused by Kennedy superior to those of Nixon, or did Tricky Dick’s five o’clock shadow and perspiration-soaked upper lip give Kennedy the edge in that very close election?
Swing voters probably got a better impression of Kerry than they did of the President in this debate. For that reason, I’ll put this one in John Kerry’s column.