Friday, October 01, 2004

A high stakes debate

The presidental debate format makes it easy to lose the thread--because it's all loose-ends. In a formal debate, you have prepared statements and direct cross-examination, which makes the presentation much tighter and on-point.

But in this format, where the debater doesn't know the question in advance, there's a lot of padding and meandering and backpedaling throughout the course of 90 minutes. So you have to strain to pick out the one-liners.

Still, we were treated to a fairly stark contrast in terms of temperament and problem-solving strategies.

In terms of demeanor and delivery, I thought that Kerry was rather better. For the most part he managed to be firm without sounding irate. He is also rather more articulate than Bush, although both of them stumbled over their words from time to time.

All-in-all, he compares well with Democrat candidates of the past. He's about as well-spoken and well-versed as Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, and Gore, but stylistically their superior.

In terms of sheer fluency and flexibility, he is not as well-oiled as Clinton or Stevenson, but, of course, the immediate comparison is with Bush.

Kerry is also tall, well-groomed, and dressed in a dark suit. Kerry may have helped himself last night. Whether he helped himself enough to turn the ship around, only the polling data will tell.

The format, which forbad direct cross-examination, prevented Kerry from seizing the initiative the way he did so successfully in his debates with Weld, but that might have sounded less presidential.

As to Bush, well…he's Bush. He was in pretty good form for Bush. He's been much worse, but he's not been much better. Bush has, as usual, a flat monotonous delivery--one pitch, one dynamic. He combines this with a rather monotonous message--although that's both a strength and a weakness. It's a sign of his singled-minded resolve.

Bush seemed somewhat smaller (because he is), dressed in lighter attire, was not as well-coifed, and began to tire towards the end of the debate.

So he was rather less telegenic, although this is, in part, because, he has a day job, and came across as someone who was taking time out of his real job to do the debate. A busy, hurried, harried man. So I don't know if that hurts or helps him.

In general, I think that Bush began on a stronger note and ended on a weaker one, whereas Kerry began on a weaker note and ended on a stronger note. This could help Kerry, although some (many?) viewers may have gotten bored half way through the debate and switched to the football game.

It is always a bit frustrating for a Bush supporter to listen to Bush. So many missed opportunities to make a better case for his own position. There are a hundred conservative commentators and right-wing bloggers who are more skillful spokesmen for the cause.

Kerry landed a number of punches on Bush's foreign policy failures--as well as gaping gaps in homeland security (although the reference to first responders reflects a post-attack mentality--wait until they hit us again, the send in the coroners).

The problem, though, is that even when Kerry has the right message, he's the wrong messenger. He is a better critic than he is a credible alternative.

Last night he once again attempted to run on both sides of the war-- talking like a dove when attacking the Bush record, talking like a hawk when defending his own position.

In a sense, there is a method to his madness. At heart he's a McGovernite. But he can't win as a McGovernite. If he's too hawkish he'll lose his liberal base, but if he's too dovish he'll lose the swing voters. So he plays both ends off against the middle, depending on what audience he is addressing. The problem is not that Kerry has never articulated a clear position on the war; the problem, rather, is that Kerry has clearly articulated two clearly opposing positions on the war. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday, Kerry is a hawk; on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, Kerry is a dove; while on Sunday he gets out on both sides of the bed.

Then there's his obsessive-compulsive fixation with the sanctity of the process--a "global test," Kofi Annan, respect abroad, let's have another "round of resolutions"...

Process as an end in itself, regardless of the end-product, regardless of whether the process yields any tangible results or solves any real-world problems.

Another problem with Kerry is that he has a bad habit of badmouthing our real allies while groveling before our nominal allies.

Bush was at his weakest when he sounded like Kerry, going through the diplomatic motions on Iran and N. Korea. This policy simply allows the enemy to stall for time and play out the clock. The enemy can string out the UN ad infinitum until it has its WMD in place.

Kerry also made the stunning proposal that we should give Iran fissionable material and see what they do with it! Gee, while don't we loan them some ICBMs while we're at it!

There were also things thrown in from leftfield, like the Kyoto protocols. Betcha that's gonna to peel away the NASCAR dads, don't ya think?

It comes down to a choice between a candidate who is consistent to a fault, and a candidate who is consistently inconsistent--whose idea of a solution is a summit in Paris.

Kerry may have done himself some good with viewers tuning into the campaign for the first and last time. How much good, with how many, remains to be seen.

To the extent that Kerry did well, and Bush did less well, that's because Kerry is all about image. And in that respect, Kerry is a true-blue liberal, for liberal ideology is image-conscious. It's not about doing anything, but feeling good about yourself; not about solving any problems, but seeming to solve problems. Keeping up appearances is the main thing: diplomatic busy-work and nonbinding resolutions.

This is a great way to sell soda pop, but a losing strategy in a world war against the forces of global jihad. Kerry is a dangerous man for dangerous times; not a danger to our enemy, but a danger to our nation--at a time when we can least afford it. The choice is between a talker and a doer, a blue-blooded Eurocrat and a red-blooded commander.

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