Post-Debate Analysis

I figured that Kerry would win on oratory, and indeed he wiped the floor with Bush in fluency and speaking style. I honestly don’t think this debate really swayed anyone, although Kerry might get a slight bounce from it in the end. Kerry managed to keep himself in this race tonight. Had he screwed up, it would be over. He didn’t, and so now it’s back to the status quo.

However, despite Bush’s atrocious speaking skills, he managed to hold his own against Kerry, which is something that isn’t necessarily easy. He seemed to have a much better command of the issues than he did four years ago, and he scored some blows against Kerry especially on Kerry’s assertion about “passing a global test” before preemption. Had Bush been a better orator, that could have been a very powerful line.

Bush’s energy seemed a bit down. He looked tired and defensive in this debate, which didn’t help him much.

But what really killed Bush is not tying Iraq into the larger war on terrorism. This was his single biggest mistake. Bush needed to hammer the war on terrorism home. He should have brought in the pinnacle of his term – the way he handled the events after 9/11. Had he tied this in, he could have nailed Kerry. I think that hurt him in a large way. We needed to hear that from the President, and the omission of that line of argumentation was notable.

The issues not related to Iraq and terrorism were all a wash. Kerry’s support of bilateral talks on North Korea is a horrendous position, but people aren’t going to care much. On Darfur and proliferation, the candidates largely agree. Military action against North Korea would be impossible without Kim Jung Il wiping Seoul off the map. On substance, I think Kerry lost this point. As for the opinions of voters, I think it’s a collective yawn.

Bush’s reaction to Lehrer’s tough question on casualties in Iraq was his best moment. That was real emotion we saw once again. We could tell that Bush does care about our troops and really does worry about the ramifications of his decisions, but still firmly believes in the cause he’s pledged this nation to. I think that moment was probably the most resonant with voters.

As much as it pains me to say, I think that Kerry probably won this debate. It wasn’t a decisive win, and I don’t think that Kerry will lead in the polls, but this could close that 4-6% gap between Kerry and Bush. I think the impact of this debate will depend on how cemented the attitudes are about Kerry. If the “flip-flopper” label has stuck, I think Kerry’s momentum will be limited. If Kerry can make himself seem strong on terrorism, his numbers will go up.

The political partisan in me is disappointed. The political scientist in me is interested in seeing how this will all play out. In the end, I think Bush’s support is solid enough that he’ll be reelected in November – but I do think that Kerry probably made this a much tougher fight for the President.

UPDATE: If only President Bush had the oratory of Tony Blair. There’s something to be said about the English system which places a premium on speaking skills and argumentation. Had Bush been a less atrocious speaker, I think this race would be over with a Bush sweep.

6 thoughts on “Post-Debate Analysis

  1. I was astonished by how similar last night’s debate was to the 2000 debates. Kerry/Gore, so polished and forceful. Bush, so fumbling but sincere.

    What is the obvious implication?

  2. Bush kept it presidential, Kerry made it personal in several ways. He also made several errors and exposed himself as a flip-floper, internationalist, and an elitist. (A lot of ME, I focus referances early)

    Kerry’s plans to hi-lite the President’s reaction video takes will prove to be excessively personal and will likely backfire further driving up Kerry’s negs.

    The Bush camp must plan better to use the format against Kerry by saving the kill punches for the last rebuttal denying Kerry a direct response. (Do attack on the first rebuttal but save the real spear/dagger for the final say.)

  3. Just one point…

    “Kerry’s support of bilateral talks on North Korea is a horrendous position, but people aren’t going to care much.”

    Though people aren’t going to care, I’m not so sure it’s a horrendous position. The Chinese aren’t being a tremendous help on the matter, and with good reason- they have a vested interest in keeping North Korea strong, solvent, and well armed, and we don’t have the leverage to change their position on the matter. Bilateral negotiations would probably be a better idea than continuing the six-party nonsense we’re engaged in now. Of course, whether we’d get a clear ulitmatum or a photo-op with a dictator, I’m not sure- and with Kerry in charge, my bet would be on the latter…

  4. My impression of the debate is that Kerry never got as tough on Bush as he could have, and Bush had to stick to speaking points (“Hard Work”, “You can’t say a war effort is misguided or you hurt the troops”, “Kerry’s opinion changes”, etc.). Bush looked like he wasn’t sure of himself and was irritated at Kerry for questioning him at all, and Kerry seemed to be worried about going to far. I mean, when asked if he thought people were dying for a mistake, he could have said “Yes”, or at least “Unless we change our policy, yes.” But he didn’t. It’s frustrating to watch these two potential world leaders hold back so much.

  5. Bush just didn’t look like he was charge. What message does that send the terrorists? John Kerry probably looked more presidential to the terrorists too. (I just can’t take Bush seriously.)

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