John Forbes Kerry won the televised duel with George Bush — both on demeanor and on points. The question is, will it make much of a difference a month from now when the votes are counted?
Jim Lehrer, who has never asked a tough question of anyone in his three decades of national broadcasting, reminded us what an unhappy format this joint press conference — I refuse to call it a debate — really was at the top of the evening, when he intoned that “I was selected to enforce their rules on them.” Indeed.
The truncated time frame for responses scarcely allowed for real thought — they were kept to just 90 seconds, about the length of the American attention span when it comes to the country’s governance. This corporate-controlled event, concocted by the paymasters of the bipartisan duopoly, was designed to shield both candidates from being probed in any depth, not to allow for a genuine educational experience. I lived in Europe for a decade, and can tell you that, by comparison to the real debates that are standard in the larger Western democracies, ours resembled a badminton match. Christine Ockrent, the former national news anchor for French public television, remarked in a post-match Charlie Rose segment that she was struck by how “little aggressiveness” there was in the exchanges. There simply wasn’t enough time allowed by this Jeopardy-style format for sustained argument (“I’ll take Darfur for 200!”).
But, if the bar was set awfully low, little George Bush couldn’t even manage to get his chin over it. Bush, with his limited intellectual capacity, ran out of gas rather quickly: He came to this 90-minute show with only 35 minutes of material, as Howard Fineman cracked afterward on Chris Matthews’ show. He was repetitive, mendacious and annoyed. Very annoyed.
The Shrub lost the battle of the cutaways: During Kerry’s responses, the cameras kept catching King George — unused to having his imperial presidency questioned — scowling in disdain. And, as the evening wore on, Bush seemed to be the incredibly shrinking president, increasingly slouching and draping himself over the lectern for support as Kerry stretched his long frame into a straight and taut, quasi-military erectness. As the media cliché has it, Kerry “looked presidential.”
Kerry’s best moment came when he quoted Bush’s father against him — citing the first President Bush’s memoirs declaring that he didn’t want to invade Baghdad in the first Gulf War because he didn’t have an exit strategy. But, of course, neither does Kerry. JFK’s proposals for what to do in Iraq aren’t terribly different from what Bush is doing now. Stripped of the posturing rhetoric, Kerry’s Iraq position boils down to merely an assertion that he could do the same things Bush is doing in Iraq better. A less docile questioner than Lehrer might have helped the TV audience understand this.
Kerry reiterated his support for the war over and over. When Lehrer asked him (quoting Kerry’s now-famous Vietnam-era testimony before Congress) if America’s sons and daughters are dying in Iraq for a mistake, Kerry’s answer was a resounding “No.” And Kerry’s macho nationalist pandering (evident in his attempt to overcome the Swifties’ TV-ad charges of wimpiness by asserting his policy would be to “kill terrorists”) was palpable when he once again supported the Bush doctrine of first-strike, pre-emptive war. Kerry simply fudged on the question of when he’d bring the troops home.
Bush’s greatest blunder came when he asserted, in response to Kerry’s claim that the Iraq invasion was a “diversion” from the war on terrorism, that “we were attacked.” Kerry pounced on this by reminding the TV audience that the 9/11 Commission had found no evidence linking Saddam Hussein to the attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. But how much will Bush’s mangling of the truth really hurt him? Any number of polls show that, for those Americans who get their news from television, a significant majority still believe that Saddam had something to do with 9/11.
Only 27 percent of the country has a college education — Kerry’s subtleties may have been lost on many of the less educated.
The flash polls immediately after the 90-minute face-off all showed that Kerry had “won” it. But they also showed that, apparently, it hadn’t changed voters’ attitudes toward the two candidates all that much. NBC had a focus group of six undecided Ohio voters — all six said that Kerry had won the debate, and all six were still undecided at the end of it. ABC’s quick post-debate poll said 45 percent thought Kerry won, 36 percent thought Bush won, and 17 percent thought it was a tie. But on candidate preference, in the same poll Bush’s numbers actually went up by a point (from 50 percent to 51 percent), as did Kerry’s (from 46 percent to 47 percent). CNN’s poll showed 62 percent of the voters hadn’t had their opinion of Bush changed by the event. The same poll showed that, when asked who’d best handle the situation in Iraq, 54 percent said before the debate that Bush would (to Kerry’s 40 percent) and 53 percent said Bush after the debate (to Kerry’s 43).In other words, these first indications suggest that the event was a wash.
Scoring points is not as relevant in televised events like these as the feelings about the candidates they evoke. The ultimate lesson on this score comes from the very first televised presidential “debate” in 1960: The polls back then showed that those who saw the debate on the tube thought John Kennedy had won it, but those who only heard it on the radio thought that Richard Nixon had.
Kerry desperately needed a knockout punch to put him solidly back in this presidential race. And he didn’t get it. If you liked Bush and what he stands for going into the debate, it appears you still liked him after it.
If Kerry loses this election, history will record that he lost it on the day he voted for the Constitution-shredding blank check for war in Iraq. That vote hobbled him, on Thursday night as throughout this campaign, from crystallizing public unease about this iniquitous and illegal war. And that vote allowed Bush to brush away Kerry’s criticisms of the war as more position-switching.
Kerry has a chance to do better in the coming “debates” on domestic issues, on which — the polls show — Bush is weakest. But how many voters will be watching those next two exchanges? The first debate is always the most-watched. Moreover, as the Wall Street Journal reported at the beginning of the week, early voting is now so widespread that some 25 to 30 percent of the electorate — particularly in the battleground states — will have already cast its votes two, or three, or four weeks before Election Day. And that means many will have voted before those final “debates” have taken place — some, in places like Ohio, have already voted.
Kerry’s performance may have energized the Democratic base — but that’s hardly enough by itself to win this election.