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Thursday, September 30, 2004

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 Michael on 09/30 at 04:50 PM
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