I think that President George W. Bush clearly outperformed Sen. Kerry Wednesday night. I was apparently a bit out of step with others on the first debate, which I thought a draw. The second debate brought an improved Bush but not a commanding Bush. Not much more than a draw. But this debate was different. I think the president accomplished three important goals:
First, he talked effectively to his base. To limited-government types, he several times argued that the federal government shouldn’t grow, that freedom was a fundamental goal and the answer to many problems. He actually made the case for market-based health care reform more effectively Wednesday night than I have ever seen he or any other president or presidential candidate do it. And of course, he nailed Kerry repeatedly on taxes, which for conservatives is a symbolic issue about the size of government.
Meanwhile, to social conservatives, Bush affirmed the culture of life. He talked credibly about his faith (Kerry sounded fake). He affirmed marriage while upholding the freedom of everyone to live their lives as they like, and with whom. Oddly, stem-cell research was barely mentioned. Wasn’t that why Alex Keaton was there?
Second, he put Kerry on the defensive most of the night. Kerry didn’t even try to deny the “liberal senator from Massachusetts” label. Bad idea. The debate felt as though it was on Bush’s terms and territory, despite the fact that Kerry was supposed to be on his home field (domestic affairs).
Third, Bush showed that he knew who, at this late date, remains undecided. That’s why he talked so much about education. The truly undecided are disproportionately female, many with children. In addition to education, Bush’s tax talk was designed to appeal to them as a pocketbook issue (for them it isn’t symbolic, as it is for conservatives). I don’t know who Kerry thinks is undecided at this point, but it is unlikely to be people who will be swayed by yet more nay saying on Iraq.
The president was better prepared, sunnier, and more persuasive Wednesday night. A bounce will likely follow.
–John Hood is a syndicated columnist, radio host, and president of the John Locke Foundation, a public-policy think tank in North Carolina.
(1) Kerry’s turf. Bush’s rules. Bush with more to lose than Kerry. If they tied, Kerry wins, if only because the debate will be about whether Kerry went 3-0 or 2-1.
(2) To my profound surprise, Bush decided to defend his record as well as attacking Kerry’s. This was not a good idea.
(3) Both candidates suffered from Bob Dole Disease (insider references to issues and legislation). This does not help the anti-Washington candidate of the Washington establishment, Mr. Bush.
–Ed Kilgore is the policy director of the Democratic Leadership Council.
Bush won. The mainstream media may not say so, a point to which I’ll return. But Bush won.
To run through the usual three-part analysis:
Animal spirits: For much of the debate, Kerry seemed ponderous and slow, and, toward the end of the debate he looked tired. But throughout Bush remained vigorous, calm, composed, and good-natured. Where Kerry engaged in heavy slogging, Bush relaxed and enjoyed himself.
Substance: As he had in the two previous debates, Bush made clear the central promise of his campaign, but tonight he did so with a new calm and self-assurance: He will take the war to the terrorists.
Points: Kerry performed his accustomed act as a policy wonk, citing data, statistics, and obscure points of policy. But Bush stayed right with him, demonstrating his own command of facts and policy. And where Kerry missed one opportunity after another to drop the wonk act and speak instead from his heart, Bush seized these opportunities. On abortion, on religion, on his relationship with his wife and daughters–Bush rose to genuine eloquence. If this Bush had been on display during the first debate, he’d have put Kerry away. But that’s Bush. He seldom performs until he’s under pressure. But when he performs, he performs.
I suspect the mainstream media will depict the debate as a draw. Let them. Stephanopoulos, Russert, Rather, all of them–they value talk. The voters value strength.
Bush was terrific, even better than the second debate, and Kerry was surprised. He was tough from the start, marshalled his facts, emphasized his strengths, talked about the future. Kerry was on the defensive, and everyone saw that he was a liberal. Everything Kerry said he had said before. He was boring. Bush’s explanation of his tax policy and education was especially good. Bush’s comments about what he learned from his wife was perfect and very amusing. That comment nailed the issue of his character and likeable personality down forever.
Combine that effervescent remark with his calm and serious explanation of his faith, and you have a decent and likeable man who people will like as president for another four years. There is no way Kerry can regroup from this. There is no way Kerry can finish the job he started that questions Bush’s integrity and judgment. The voters have made their decision Wednesday night. Bush will have another four years.
–Peter W. Schramm is the executive director of the John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs and a professor of political science at Ashland University.
T. J. Walker
George W. Bush accomplished his major goals of the evening.
Defending his administration’s domestic policies.
Portraying himself as someone who reflects middle-class social and cultural values.
Painting Sen. Kerry as an out-of-touch “liberal” who has no major accomplishments.
And Bush, following his improved second debate performance, continued to display good body language, comfort, and confidence (though he did seem a tad giddy in the opening 30 minutes). But the president does annoy. Bush says the name “Ted Kennedy” with such a barely contained smirk; it’s like listening to Beavis and Butthead trying to discuss the male anatomy with a straight face in junior-high health class. Plus, Bush still shows extreme signs of inarticulateness. He says “buggy and horse” days instead of the more common “horse and buggy.” Finally, is it too much to ask that the president of the United States know to say “a friend of Laura and mine” instead of the cringe-inducing “of Laura and I,” as Bush did in his closing comments?
John Kerry was smooth, polished, poised, and confident throughout the entire 90 minutes. His delivery, mannerisms, and grammar were impeccable. But Kerry committed major strategic blunders. Namely, he spent too much time on defense. Kerry was constantly explaining that he wouldn’t give away a veto of our security to another country, that he didn’t only pass five bills in Congress, or that he didn’t really want the government to run health care.
Additionally, Kerry allowed himself to be painted clearly as a 1984-style interest group liberal. Every other answer seemed to focus on minimum wage, abortion, or affirmative action. Finally, Kerry got caught saying things that don’t pass even his supporters’ B.S. detector. When asked how he felt about priests who tell Catholics that it is a big sin to vote for Kerry, he responded “I respect that.” When of course the real answer is, “I think those fools should keep their big yaps shut!”
This debate was a small victory for Bush on points, but will sway few undecided voters.