The presidential debate

09.30.04

In the next few hours, there will be a zillion opinions and analyses offered of tonight’s US Presidential Debate. Most will be partisan – clearly so. So I thought I’d offer my opinion, not as a Democrat or a Republican, but merely as an interested observer.

Overall, both Bush and Kerry came across much better in the debate than any of the Canadian candidates did in our election debates a couple of months ago… but unfortunately, that’s not saying much. Neither of them seemed like buffoons. Both were well-coached, and both were trying very hard to inspire the confidence of the American people. But neither is a true leader. Neither offers the type of inspired, straight, honest, and committed leadership that I believe the American people want and maybe even deserve.

Kerry is the better debater. Hands down. He had the luxury of speaking in generalities, because he doesn’t have to defend his record the way Bush does. Even at that, he sounded stiff, robotic, and hedged on most of the issues. Although he relaxed somewhat as the debate went on, he seemed on more solid ground while attacking Bush’s past decisions rather than laying out future strategies of his own. Bush’s strategy was to paint Kerry as indecisive, waffling, and lacking in true conviction, and Kerry played into his hands. By speaking endlessly about how he wants to bring fresh credibility to the US on the international scene, he was basically saying that his main basis for being elected is that he’s not Bush. Well, that’s not good enough.

Bush, if anything, sounded more relaxed than Kerry and relied heavily on the “aw-shucks” demeanour that he plays like a fine-tuned instrument. That said, many questions – which should have been anticipated by his team – left Bush looking like a deer caught in headlights. Despite throwing in a few 4-syllable words (I wonder if they were spelled out for him fo-ne-ti-cly) in rehearsed statements, Bush stumbled often and didn’t seem really comfortable unless he was repeating one of his talking points… over and over again. If I heard him use the words “mixed messages” one more time, I might have thrown something at the TV.

Kerry spent a lot of time attacking Bush but it’s difficult to ascertain what Kerry’s positions are. I was watching and really hoping that he would put forth some vision. Bush, on the other hand, spent a lot of time defending decisions and positions that were ill-advised or just plain wrong.

Watching Bush was more like watching a second-grader learn to read. He slipped up at one point, saying “Saddam Hussein – er – I mean, Bin Laden”, which of course, proved Kerry’s point – that Bush couldn’t tell the difference. Major wince. Oh, and I still maintain that anyone who can’t pronounce “nuclear” shouldn’t be allowed to have his finger on the button.

Kerry, for his part, scored points on the attack in the manner of a veteran debater. He quoted popular sayings quite often. He gave rehearsed answers to questions that weren’t quite asking for them. He spun a web of words. The problem was finding the substance behind the words. He criticized Bush at every turn but didn’t offer anything concrete in terms of his own plans or strategies, beyond merely stating that he has some. Does he? Beyond wanting to call in more allies and make multilateral decisions, I’ve yet to hear them. He may have wiped the floor with Bush in debate technique, but Bush might still retain the psychological edge.

On a personal note, some of Kerry’s positions – namely his continued faith in the UN to resolve international conflict, and his seeming thought that America can make the terrorists hate it less by being nicer – concern me. It’s hard to tell if these are his positions though, since he hasn’t been too clear. Bush, for his part, has always concerned me and continues to do so. He seems to show an appalling misunderstanding of the distinctions between different groups, preferring to paint them all as the generic “bad guys”.

Overall, I’m glad I’m not American and don’t have to vote in this election.

Update: For more in-depth coverage, see Damian Penny’s liveblogging of the debate.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Neal 10.01.04 at 5:19 AM

And they were really watered down. It was mostly the same old stuff they said at campaign speeches. Bush did avoid any new “Bush-isms”, which is an accomplishment.

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2 segacs 10.01.04 at 5:23 AM

What, you don’t call mixing up Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden a “Bush-ism”?

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3 Neal 10.01.04 at 5:25 AM

True, but he did immediately correct himself if I’m not mistaken.

Other than saying that he wanted a “nuclear free Korean peninchula” I don’t think he fumbled the prononciation of any words.

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4 segacs 10.01.04 at 5:32 AM

“Nu-cu-lar”?

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5 Neal 10.01.04 at 5:37 AM

I didn’t catch him saying that.

The point is, by Bush’s standards, he spoke pretty well tonight.

But I do give Kerry the edge overall.

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6 Jonny 10.04.04 at 3:11 PM

I was sooo bored I fell asleep.

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