Politics & Policy

The Empire Strikes Back

A night of surprises.

Overall President George W. Bush’s performance was much stronger on a variety of fronts in the second presidential debate on Friday night, while Senator John Kerry seemed a little off his game compared to the first debate.

If President Bush was guilty of repeating the mantra about “hard work” too often last week, tonight Senator Kerry gave the “I Have A Plan” speech so many times I thought he was auditioning for the sequel to the movie Groundhog Day. Compared to the first debate, where Senator Kerry appeared more forceful and resolute, tonight he came across tired and scripted, more interested in repeating a campaign slogan than directly answering questions.

There were other big surprises tonight; the biggest being President Bush’s answers on domestic-policy questions. They were as strong, or stronger, than his foreign policy performance earlier in the evening.

On many of the questions conservatives worried Kerry (and the mainstream media in their post-debate analysis) might bounce and play “gotcha,” and the president might struggle–Medicare, the environment, stem-cell Research, and abortion–Bush clearly did better than expected.

Kerry was supposed to knock these topics out of the park. I’m sure that in privacy of “Shrum/Sasso/Cahill world” and in the minds of other Kerry advisers, they believe their man missed a lot of opportunities tonight. The president’s answers were detailed–ticking off all those environmental initiatives was unexpected–sound and substantive. His answers, for example on drug reimportation and Medicare were clear and compelling. I thought Senator Kerry’s name-dropping on the stem-cell question–talking more about Michael J. Fox and Christopher Reeve–than his position on the issue was instructive. President Bush clearly benefited from getting his advice from ethicists and scientists, not Hollywood actors.

Even on the issue of the economy, the president’s arguments about job creation over the past 13 months went relatively unchallenged by Senator Kerry, particularly based on how ferocious his attacks on the administration’s track record have been. Also, the conventional wisdom in the news cycle earlier today was that today’s jobs report was a little disappointing. That didn’t seem to give Kerry much traction–also a surprise.

The president’s demeanor changed in this debate. He seemed to lighten up without losing his intensity and focus. He, and the audience, actually laughed a few times tonight. Senator Kerry was the one flustered and irritated a couple times during the evening.

I also thought Senator Kerry ducked a lot of the questions and seemed to revert back to slogans and rhetoric instead of direct answers–despite Charlie Gibson’s attempts to get him to answer (“So what specifically will you do to reduce the deficit, Senator Kerry?” Gibson asked at one point after Kerry ignored a direct question. Kerry also totally sidestepped the question the woman asked about not wanting her tax dollars to pay for abortion). I think Gibson could have done more prodding for clarification when the candidates ignored the question and reverted to talking points.

I score this one as a win for the president in tone and in substance. But he prevailed by excelling in some unexpected areas and because John Kerry reverted to his old self–stiff and non-connected with the audience.

Gary Andres is vice chairman of research and policy at the Dutko Group Companies and a frequent NRO contributor.

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