First of all, as a debate judge, I’d say this would have been one hell of a round. Last time George W. Bush was abysmal. This time George W. Bush was quite good. He was confident and comfortable. He was combative at times, but still kept a sense of humor and got some nice lines in.
At the same time, Kerry’s still a great orator. He did get some good points in. He was also more pedantic and lawyerly. Still, his reputation of a good debater is a deserved one.
The rumors that there were some stealth partisans in the audience who were going to derail the debate turned out not to be true. Good. Some of the questions were biased towards Kerry, some were biased towards Bush. Some of them were probing, and some of them were less so. Still, I thought they were illuminating overall.
But in the final analysis, Kerry’s strategy just doesn’t work. He’s not running to win the Presidency. He’s running to defeat George W. Bush. That may seem like the same thing, but it’s not. When Clinton attacked Bob Dole in 1996, he did it by establishing a vision. When Bush did it to Al Gore in 2000 he did the same. For Clinton it was “a bridge to the 21st Century”. With Bush it was “compassionate conservatism.”
What is the vision of the Kerry campaign? “Bush is wrong?” That isn’t a strategy for the future, that is a strategy for the past. Was Iraq a mistake? Well, it’s academic now. The question isn’t about what happened two years ago. It’s about what Kerry would do differently. And so far what do we have other than platitudes? He would “involve our allies.” Which allies? What would they contribute? At what price? We still don’t know. He would train Iraqi troops faster? How? At what sacrifice? How can anyone magically decree that a process that takes time can be done in less?
And on domestic issues, Kerry tried to paint himself as a conservative. I don’t think this will fly. First of all, the Bush campaign won’t let him get away with it. Second, the American people know better. Kerry is a liberal. The National Journal rated him as such. He’s trying to run from that, and as Bush said, Kerry can run but he can’t hide.
At the same time, Bush needed to more clearly draw how Iraq plays into the war on terrorism. He should have attacked Kerry more strongly on his record. Some of his answers were as convoluted as Kerry’s.
Who won? Well, obviously I’m going to say Bush did. I’m satisfied overall with Bush’s performance. With the lowered expectations from the last debate, Bush had a slight advantage. He was certainly better than he was tonight, and a lot of Republicans like me are breathing a sigh of relief. At the very least it was a draw.
I think by now the battle lines have been drawn. I don’t see much in this race changing. Bush’s screwup in the first debate had caused him to lose ground, but Kerry’s numbers basically remained flat. As long as Bush doesn’t screw up, he’ll narrowly win reelection. Based on the polls, I’d say it’s a two point race with Bush ahead. The electoral map still favors Bush.
Bush didn’t screw up tonight, and that’s all he needed to do. Anything else is just gravy.
Jonah Goldberg is sanguine on Bush’s performance. I think he’s being a bit pessimistic here. Kerry’s numbers didn’t go up much after the first debate, Bush’s numbers sank. Just holding his own is enough at the very least.
Spoons says that Bush won, and he’s been very tough on Bush as of late. If he thinks Bush won, I think a lot of swing voters will too.
The general consensus in The Corner at NRO is that Bush narrowly won this debate, but it was close. I think that’s a reasonable analysis.
More reactions later…
Instapundit thinks it’s a Bush win as well. He has his excellent roundup of links as well with more reactions. Looks like the Instaconsensus is for a Bush win here.
Hugh Hewitt says that Bush absolutely cratered and will definitely lose now… OK, I’m kidding. He called it a major Bush win. Of course, he did so with the first debate. Still, I think he’s right in this case.
UPDATE: Will Saletan at Slate, no Bush fan, says Kerry bombed in the second debate.