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Debate summary (in which, for once, I do not pretend to be a Republican)

Well, Wolf, I have to say the surprise of the night was that John Kerry did not endorse Susan Watkins’s recent New Left Review essay, “Vichy on the Tigris,” which, as its title suggests, likens the forces of Al-Sistani and Al-Sadr to the French Resistance (thereby also-- subtly-- likening US troops to the Nazis) and closes with the rousing phrase, “the Iraqi maquis deserves full support in fighting to drive them out.” (I must say, though, that “Iraqi maquis” has a nice ring to it, certainly much nicer than “Iraqi theocrats and thugs.") So I think any viewers tuning in to see Kerry shout, “all power to the Iraqi maquis” may have come away dismayed and disappointed tonight.

That said, I thought the opening half of the debate was basically a tie.  Kerry said his bit on Iraq (do it better!), Bush said his bit on Iraq (freedom is good!), and 43 and 45 percent of the TV audience, respectively, said “what he said.” There’s almost no way for Kerry to get around this.  He can say “I have one consistent position-- Saddam was a threat, he needed to be disarmed, and there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it, and this President took the wrong way,” and that’s fine, but Bush comes back with “you can’t say ‘wrong war, wrong place, wrong time’ and ‘grand diversion’ at the same time you say ‘Saddam was a threat’.” That, together with the fact that Iraq is very likely unfixable, gives you a tie.  Kerry did well to mention bin Laden, and mention his relative un-caught-ness compared to guys we’ve actually caught.  But otherwise, I thought, there weren’t any of those “breakthrough” moments.

But then came the discussion of North Korea, and holy Moloch in a chicken basket, it was like watching a real President debate a B-list actor.  My God, Kerry sounded like he knew more about nuclear policy in and on North Korea than the guy who’s actually running the United States, and that’s largely because . . . guess what?  He does!  Then Jim Lehrer asked what Kerry thought would be the greatest threat a US President would face in 2005.  I expected Kerry to take a deep breath and list a couple of things.  I expected wrong.  Kerry calmly said, “nuclear proliferation.” Short but dramatic pause.  Followed by the best goddamn discussion of nuclear proliferation anyone has ever managed in 120 seconds or less.  Followed, in turn, by a confused and defensive Bush demurring about one of Kerry’s statements about Iran before doubling back and saying that he agreed that the biggest threat was “weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a terrorist enemy” and then saying that he would be against this.

Let’s go over that again, shall we?

Kerry:  nuclear proliferation.
Bush:  weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a terrorist enemy.

Man, nobody told me this Bush guy was so verbose, prolix, and also wordy.

From that point on, folks, it was a rout.  Kerry gathered steam over the last half hour, and Bush was playing defense-- badly-- on just about every question.  But Bush clearly hasné─˘t played defense-- or even backchecked-- for a long, long time.  I was watching the C-SPAN dual screen, and when Kerry sounded good, Bush looked pissed; when Bush’s turn came, more than once he did the blinky deer-in-headlights thing we all remember so well from the morning of September 11. Which suggests something that I hope some of us pick up and toss around the Internet as a possible Talking Point:

Four years of sporadic, softball-laden press conferences and loyalty-oath-screened campaign appearances have made George Bush soft.  There’s no question about it-- the bubble boy hasn’t had any serious give-and-take from a real opponent since the Yankees-Mets World Series.  And tonight he went up against someone who really knew how to make a case, and he wilted.

I’m not just a-spinnin’ here.  Every one of Bush’s utterances on North Korea made him look befuddled and amateurish.  And once that became clear-- to both debate participants-- it changed everything.

For all that, I have no idea whether this debate will affect the election.  I still think 45 percent of the electorate is with Bush even if he promises to sear the flesh of their children with branding irons.  But John Kerry-- and his campaign-- have every reason to be proud tonight.  And Kerry voters should be proud of their guy, too.

Posted by on 09/30 at 04:50 PM
  1. I agree with your last sentiment especially. It helps a lot when you feel like the candidate you support is approaching things the right way.

    For me, the biggest plus for Kerry wasn’t the content of the debate, which often seemed to go in circles around the “You changed your mind"/"No I didn’t” problematic. (Though obviously Kerry is right and Bush is wrong)Rather, it was ‘character’—in the novelistic sense—Kerry showed he has poise, presence of mind, and a quality hairdresser.

    Kerry’s show of baritone gravitas might weaken the Bush character-assasination juggernaut a bit. Bush, on the other hand, came off, as the Atrios/Kos commentors like to say, as a bit of a chimp.

    Posted by Amardeep  on  09/30  at  07:10 PM
  2. Yeah, that baritone gravitas didn’t hurt, either (nice phrase!)-- especially on Kerry’s “nuclear proliferation” thread.  Basically, I think the liberal-left was hoping that this debate would look like the Responsible Adult against the Smirking Kid, and that’s pretty much what it did look like.  Number two is going to be very, very interesting.

    Posted by Michael  on  09/30  at  07:16 PM
  3. Posted by tristero  on  10/01  at  04:28 AM
  4. Before I begin, I’d just like to say clearly and definitively, John Kerry won this debate.  Having said that, however, I still think he made some fundamental mistakes.  Bush came out with several themes in his responses and rebuttles, namely, Sadaam was a threat and John Kerry’s a yellow-bellied flip-flopper.  Kerry, while picking up steam as the night wore on, didn’t have the same kind of strong, rhetorical focus.  One suggestion to the Kerry team would be to pick something simple and understandable.  For example, competence vs. incompetence is a nice straightforward theme to stress.  Now, instead of asking Americans to please vote for him right before he says “God bless America”, he can ask the American people to cast a vote for competence or incompetence and then bless them all.

    Posted by Ben Schacht  on  10/01  at  06:23 AM
  5. Ben, I’m not sure Bush had “themes” or “rhetorical focus” so much as talking points to which he periodically returned.  Hammering those points with some clarity (of body language as much as anything—my wife, who was just listening, was not at all impressed) arguably gave plausible deniability to the folks who have to shill for him (Brooks, etc.).  It would be nice to see a clear, repeatedly emphasized line or two from the KE’04 campaign to add a bit more focus after the fact, and thereby cement the victory.

    Posted by Tom Bozzo  on  10/01  at  07:33 AM
  6. Amusingly, the RNC website is posting an audio-only version of the debate, and a 7 minute video of the mock debate.  You know, the way it should’ve happened.

    Posted by  on  10/01  at  08:12 AM
  7. Hmmm, even audio-only might be too revealing.  I suggest the RNC compose an origami diorama of the debate and put that on the website.  You want to do damage control, you have to do it all the way-- you can’t send people mexed messages.

    Posted by  on  10/01  at  08:36 AM
  8. You nailed it.  When Kerry did the riff on Nuclear Proliferation, followed by Bush’s spectacular gibbering collapse, I threw up a fist shouting Yes! Yes! The forces of darkness have prevailed!

    Unfortunately that highlight didn’t make it into the evening news.

    Posted by  on  10/01  at  09:40 AM
  9. Pet Goat Moment: The moment reflected on a politician’s face when he realizes his country is under attack by terrorists and the only thing he can think to do is continue reading “My Pet Goat” to his intellectual equals or the moment during a crucial debate when all he can think to say is “Don’t forget Poland” and signing the order to send soldiers to Iraq is “hard work.” Also the effect of chemically-induced dementia in middle age due to youthful long-term chronic alcohol and drug abuse. Example usage: “George Bush had a few pet goat moments during last night’s debate.”

    The Flaming Moderate’s Political Dictionary

    Posted by The Flaming Moderate  on  10/01  at  03:12 PM
  10. Um...you might want to consider deleting this post.  Try reading this:

    http://justoneminute.typepad.com/main/2004/10/why_oh_why_cant.html#comments

    Posted by Patrick R. Sullivan  on  10/02  at  02:30 PM
  11. Welcome, Patrick, and thanks for the suggestion.  But no, I don’t think I need to consider the possibility of contemplating the chance that I might want to think about the idea of maybe perhaps deleting this post, because it is not true, as you claim on your blog, that “the left objects to the multilateral approach to the North Korean problem.” Instead, what actually happened on Thursday night was that John Kerry, the Democratic nominee for the Presidency, said the following:

    Now, I’d like to come back for a quick moment, if I can, to that issue about China and the talks. Because that’s one of the most critical issues here: North Korea.

    Just because the president says it can’t be done, that you’d lose China, doesn’t mean it can’t be done. I mean, this is the president who said “There were weapons of mass destruction,” said “Mission accomplished,” said we could fight the war on the cheap—none of which were true.

    We could have bilateral talks with Kim Jong Il. And we can get those weapons at the same time as we get China. Because China has an interest in the outcome, too.

    Posted by Michael  on  10/02  at  08:07 PM
  12. For anyone to believe Kerry is correct and Bush wrong about how to deal with North Korea, you’d have be like this:

    http://flyunderthebridge.blogspot.com/2004/10/chattering-class-prejudice-alert.html

    Posted by Patrick R. Sullivan  on  10/03  at  11:45 AM
  13. Wow, that “Fly Under the Bridge” guy is pretty convincing.  OK, I take it all back.  Bush won the debate hands down.  It’s true, this whole “knowing-what-you’re-talking-about” thing is way overrated, especially by elitist snobs like me.

    Posted by  on  10/03  at  12:06 PM
  14. The Chinese have explicitly asked us to hold bilateral talks with North Korea, as have other participants in the multilateral talks.

    If Bush was aware of that, his criticism of Kerry make no sense. If he wasn’t aware of it, he’s a %$#@ idiot.

    Posted by  on  10/03  at  05:30 PM
  15. I choose B.  And that’s my final answer.

    Posted by Michael  on  10/03  at  05:33 PM
  16. I only would like to point that real maquis were in part Communists (sure, for true Americans it must be far graver sin than being theocrats and thugs, because theocrats and thugs are happily ruling some of best USA allies states, not mentioning USA, god forbid). The fact is, one cannot choose the sort of resistance Iraqis have, but even though I personally would be much delighted if it was a force of left-wing-secularists, Nazis is a good enough likening - just to think about Samarra and of my former hometone (i.e. Stalingrad)…

    But what one could get from a person who is thinking that Kerry would be better for the World then Bush..It is like the preference of Peres to Sharon, and believe me on that, it is not worthy

    Posted by  on  10/03  at  11:30 PM
  17. Well, you could get this:  the real maquis were worthy of every decent person’s support, regardless of whether some of them were Communists or nudists.  As for the Iraqi resistance, yes, it’s true, one cannot choose the sort of resistance Iraqis have.  But surely one is not thereby obliged to line up with Al-Sistani or Al-Sadr. 

    Posted by  on  10/04  at  06:05 AM
  18. I have just translated an article on the same issue by Naomi Klein http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=15&ItemID=6344

    to Russian (my native language). I agree with her on that point. Wolden Bello made some good points too.

    And since Iraiqis have failed to provide you with suitable resistance to support, what are you going to do instead? Support Kerry?

    I am afraid I am rude but I am simple sick from all this tug-of-war between Bush and Kerry champions, because it has nothing to do with anything real, Iraq including. Pay attention, that your sympathetic anti-Bush readers are mocking USA army for not being learned enough in anti-guerilla war. Believe me, they are aces in that. You see, I live in Israel, so I guess I am a bit too sore.

    Posted by  on  10/04  at  07:44 AM
  19. Hmm, I guess I’m not seeing just where on this blog I have voiced any enthusiasm for Kerry on Iraq.  I thought this post was itself pretty clear about that-- I honestly don’t think there’s any hope at all for a secular progressive movement to appear out of nowhere in Iraq.  But I assure you that there are a great number of “real” things in this world with respect to which the difference between Kerry and Bush is, in fact, all the difference in the world.

    Posted by Michael  on  10/04  at  10:00 AM
  20. Great number, really? Such as Iran? Or Afghanistan? Or Palestina? Or Venecuella,Cuba, Haiti? Or, I forgot - it was N.Korea, as if it was not Clinton who cheated them about light-water reactor (I hope you would not think that I am for Kim, though). USA imperialism is not a matter of Bush or Kerry, as Zionim is not of Sharon or Peres. The same about domestic issues - neoliberalism wants its pound of American flesh as well as a ton of African of so on. Sure, Kerry speak English better than Bush, even I sometimes manage better than Bush…

    Posted by  on  10/04  at  10:48 AM
  21. OK, if it is truly a matter of indifference to you whether Christian fundamentalist jihadists run the US government, so be it.  Supporting Islamist jihadists in Iraq and Christian jihadists in Washington does, after all, make a certain kind of sense.

    Posted by Michael  on  10/04  at  01:03 PM
  22. Oh, I see. So I am supporter of Bush. Nice argument. I am affraid that for a lot of people in places that I mentioned (and not mentioned, like Nigeria or SA and so on...) there is really no difference. But at least for some Americans it is. Good for them. Maybe Kerry would invide Iran, but he is unlikely to push for constitutional ban of gay marriage. So some young guys would be drafted AFTER their happy wedding…

    Posted by  on  10/04  at  07:36 PM
  23. I wanted to thank Michael for blogging the debates because I was in a media blackout. With regard to Lidia’s nihilism—Kerry may offer a more “rational” face of American imperialism on the question of foreign affairs, but there is a great difference between this rationality and Bush’s theocratic ambitions (I might say delusions). Although I don’t agree with everything Frank Rich writes here, you should take a look at “The Passion of the Bush">. As Frank Rich writes, “More than any other campaign artifact, it clarifies the hard-knuckles rationale of the president’s vote-for-me-or-face-Armageddon re-election message. It transforms the president that the Democrats deride as a “fortunate son” of privilege into a prodigal son with the “moral clarity of an old-fashioned biblical prophet.” Its Bush is not merely a sincere man of faith but God’s essential and irreplaceable warrior on Earth.” Please don’t dismiss the significance of the difference between Bush and Kerry: it’s not a question of better grasp of the English language. If this and Bush’s economic policies don’t convince you of the significant difference between the two, then I would have to say that you are a crypto-Bush supporter, Lidia.

    Posted by Catherine Liu  on  10/05  at  02:43 AM
  24. Posted by  on  10/05  at  02:56 AM
  25. It’s obvious that Lidia, you are not reading the economic agendas and that you are not interested in arguing a position in a rational way. If you have contempt for both candidates and see no difference at all, you obviously feel that it is the end of American democracy, and I and many Americans don’t believe that is true. All I can say is, I’m glad you’re not voting in the US—or maybe you are.

    Posted by Catherine Liu  on  10/05  at  04:02 AM
  26. As a matter of fact I am not an American, so I am not voting there. But I am not voting in Israel either. It does not mean that I am sitting on my hands though...American democracy is not a religion to believe in. If it means a choise between two memebers of Scull and Bones, it does exist. If something more -Habeas Corpus, for example, I am not so sure (Jose Padilla). And about economic agendas - Clinton promised something about universal health care - where it is? I see difference, but with every elections it shirnks. And by the way, is it worth so much ado anyway? Bush was not elected, but he is a president, why not this time? If my arguments are rational, I would like to see an example of such things (but not words like “crypto-Bush-supporter” - it is calling names, not more

    Posted by  on  10/05  at  04:17 AM

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