Before the first presidential debate, pundits made much of the negotiation over the debate rules and procedures. But those rules and procedures worked–this debate really was a “debate.” The candidates clashed on the issues, and there was a clear difference between them. The candidates stayed within the time frames and the debate focused on substance to the degree that previous debates focused on style. The nation had the opportunity to hear the differences between the two candidates rather precisely. Neither candidate had a gaffe that overshadowed everything else.
During the days leading up to Thursday night the election appeared to be turning Bush’s way; there was general agreement that the first debate would be Senator Kerry’s last opportunity to narrow the gap between the two candidates. Kerry held his own by appearing confident and competent as he presented his canned and carefully practiced position on the issues. Both men explained their positions and made the differences between them clear.
Bush clearly had the edge on substance because his statements were factual and straightforward, but in the first–very crucial–debate, when Bush could have pulled out solidly ahead, Kerry won on style. Kerry’s background as a debater–his experience debating in the Senate and ability to present arguments effectively–stood him in good stead.
Bush was inexplicably unfocused; he lacked energy and seemed distracted. He didn’t seem prepared. He struggled to talk knowledgeably about his record–his clearly outstanding record. Bush virtually sleepwalked through the debates, only occasionally mustering up the passion to hammer home his points.
The president allowed John Kerry to set the agenda and ended up on the defensive. He simply needed to be presidential and stand on his record; instead he repeatedly answered his opponent and bowed to Kerry’s agenda.
Kerry looked polished and sounded informative, though his positions were stated from rote memory and weren’t always logical, accurate, or consistent. Kerry also got in some zings, but he didn’t make much headway in providing solutions. His major solution was that he would hold “summit conferences”–a laughable strategic plan or plank in a platform.
I was reminded of the critical months before the 1992 election when Bush 41 and his campaign advisors didn’t really think anyone would take Bill Clinton seriously. During his first debate against Kerry, Dubya seemed to be thinking: “Surely no one will take this spin seriously; I can’t believe I’m hearing these absurdities.”
There is a distinct advantage, of course, to not being bound to the truth. Senator Kerry could walk out confidently to state his argument and play his role as a strong, determined candidate, knowing that all he had to do was present his talking points well; he didn’t have to defend actions or decisions; he could blithely say, “I’d have made a better choice.” He could say without blinking an eye, “I’ve never wilted in my life; I’ve never wavered.” He could brag that he would “never take my eye off the ball.”
The net outcome is that Kerry exceeded expectations; he skillfully, if not honestly, addressed all the accusations against him. Bush did not live up to expectations; he did not even seem presidential. The Bush campaign had hoped to seal the election with the first debate; instead, it is going to be a long road to November 2. Bush will have to regain momentum in addition to stopping the renewed vigor of the Kerry campaign.
The best hope for the Republicans is that under the spotlight of the media it will become more and more obvious that Kerry is out of touch with the American people. The big news happened before the debate even began. In the afternoon, Bush visited hurricane victims; Kerry visited a manicurist. With Bush, the nation knows that “what you see is what you get.” With Kerry, image is everything. Nothing else illustrates quite so effectively the differences between the two men.
Long after the debate fades into insignificance, voters will remember the manicure. How can you take seriously a man who spends the afternoon before the most important event in his career at the manicurist?
Long after the candidates’ performances are forgotten, people will still be asking, “Did we do the right thing or the wrong thing to go after Saddam?” “Whom do I trust to handle nuclear proliferation?” “Whom do I trust to keep my family safe?” Those are the key questions of the first debate and they are the most important foreign-policy questions in determining the election.
–Janice Shaw Crouse is spokesperson for the Concerned Women for America Legislative Action Committee.