Friday, October 01, 2004

debate #1: one clear winner

the most remarkable thing about last night's debate was the degree to which it was a substantive and accurate representation of this campaign to date.

president bush stood up, spoke with powerful emotion and apparent sincerity, and repeated his essential message; first, 'trust me' and second 'he's a flip-flopper'. that was the entirety of his argument. empty statistics about voter registration and trained iraqi police officers quickly fell by the wayside as bush sought to impress upon the voting public that consistency is the most important value of the day, and that he himself was nothing if not consistent. bush's strength was his emotionalism; he connects with voters on a visceral level, seeing events much as they do and sharing their feelings and responses. on the other hand, bush's answers are intellectually shallow, if not entirely hollow. his command of the issues reflects something between incapability or perhaps disdain for complex thought. his reaction to putin's power grab in russia is to have a chat with his good friend vladimir. but bush is the master of staying 'on message' and does so regardless of the content of questions or the point of discussion. bush certainly got his message out last night, but in the process highlighted exactly the detachment from reality that his critics note. his momentary bristling at kerry about knowing bin laden attacked us on 9/11 was revealing in some very powerful ways.

senator kerry's debate style was almost the inverse. he made a tough intellectual case for bush's shortcomings in the war on iraq, and well illustrated bush's insistence on communicating a reality that simply does not exist. kerry found occasional opportunities to connect emotionally, but missed many as well. his response to lehrer's question about the single greatest threat was firm and immediate, but with an air of dukakisism. to respond to such a question without immediately using the word 'terrorist' and more importantly, without even describing the awful potential consequences of nuclear proliferation, was a missed opportunity to illustrate to voters that he too shares their fears. americans aren't afraid of 'nuclear proliferation'. they're afraid of a mushroom cloud over manhattan, st.louis or detroit. kerry needs to verbalize that fear to connect with voters, rather than assume they know he feels it. i wonder if the important substantive weakness of kerry's case, however, was his emphasis on multilateralism as an iraq exit strategy. can he convincingly make the case that by replacing the president we can replace american troops in iraq with european ones ? i'm not sure the american people will buy that argument, and i'm not sure it's what they wanted to hear as an alternative.

but i think this debate should put to rest, at least for this campaign, the notion that debates are joint press conferences or otherwise vacuous exercises. this debate was substantive, it was illustrative, it was, in a word, important. we learned things about the candidates; how they see the world and themselves, and how they choose to see each other. i don't believe either candidate changed the race last night - both candidates essentially cemented their cases, sanded down some of their own rough edges, and unconvincingly highlighted their opponents'. i think both candidates performed 'well' and exceeded expectations. but in a race where 50% of america hardly is aware of the candidates key positions, anything that puts meaningful political dialogue into america's living rooms is a victory for us all.

- LH

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