The Second Presidential Debate

Bush was way better this time around. He faltered less often, he was clearly much more at home in the town hall style format, and he pulled off more slam-dunk responses, including an excellent closing statement. He often came closer to a Cheney-style presentation, that is to say, though he was speaking either total falsehoods or completely dodging a question, he did it with a measure of confidence and authority. But, as in the first debate, he was on the defensive nearly all the time. While he managed to shed some of the facial tics that plagued him then, his voice sounded downright whiny on a number of occasions.

And he got beaten, very soundly, because John Kerry was on fire. He was confident, direct, and managed to leap into each question forcefully and end them on a solid point as well. Both of them had their share of question-dodging and forcing things around to what they wanted to talk about instead of what had been asked—and Kerry seemed guilty of this a little more than Bush—but despite his diversions he managed to get back to the point when it really counted. He was the picture of composure, even more than in the first debate, and so, by contrast, left Bush in the dust. Because Bush improved so much from the last time, his supporters may think they have grounds to call this a better result, but they’d be deluding themselves.

And while I thought Bush improved overall, I couldn’t help but jot down some jaw-dropping gaffes of his. (I’ll freely admit partisan bias in not jotting down gaffes of Kerry’s, but I didn’t note any comparable ones.) On a question about the inevitability of the draft, Bush kicked off with “there’s rumors on the Internets …” Yes, that’s a plural. Not all that significant on substance, but’s fodder for the late night talk shows. On the same question, talking about the armed forces: “we need to be lighter and quicker and more facile …” I suppose it’s possible he was using the word’s second definition in American Heritage, “working, acting, or speaking with effortless ease and fluency,” but that’s certainly not how it struck me at first, and you can color me skeptical that he didn’t mean to say “agile” or something else.[1] Also on the draft question, the moderator tried to move on rather than allowing thirty-second rebuttals, but Bush rather brusquely brushed over him and started talking. That’ll probably impress some people, but it came off to me as a bit rude.

It was painful to see Kerry mess up what could have been a slam dunk, when Bush was asked about Kerry’s choice of a trial lawyer as a running mate. I was watching with my friend Matt, who said “All he has to say is that he has no problem with a lawyer who sues doctors that are genuinely guilty of malpractice.” His actual response was longer and more meandering. All in all, Kerry filled the clock every time when a brevity might have often served him better. No better example of that (and I’m jumping ahead in my notes here) is Bush’s totally incoherent response to a question about who he’d name to the Supreme Court. While he was figuring out what to say he tried to make light, and came up with:

1. “I’m not telling”
2. ”… plus I want them [judges who might be nominated] all voting for me!”

Then he segued into qualities of judges he wouldn’t pick, and in reaching for an example, he comes up with . . . the Dred Scott case. That’s right, in order to identify a specific bad judicial decision to indicate the sort of judges he wouldn’t pick, he had to go back to slavery.

Questions that neither candidate was able to answer directly, in large part because there is no good answer that Americans want to hear (both paraphrased): “If UN sanctions won’t work against Iran, what will you do about it?” “How can the U.S. be competitive in a global market when our quality of life demands such greater pay than other nations?”

Kerry nailed Bush on the reimportation of drugs question and the deficit question. When Kerry was asked if he’d raise taxes on those making under $200k, he took the asker’s bait and looked at the camera and said “no.” Then, as part of his response, he opined that the only three people who made that much in the room were him, the President, and Charlie, the moderator. Whether true or not, it got him a laugh from the audience, which Bush disastrously tried to talk over by whining (and it did sound particularly like a whine this time) “It’s not credible!”

Bush did very well with trotting out specifics when asked about environmental accomplishments, though he had a little gaffe in bragging about the creation of “three million wetlands.” Kerry very nearly botched the response by going back to a previous question and trying to distance himself from the word “liberal,” but eventually came around and hit back as good as he gave. Kerry missed a golden opportunity to absolutely destroy Bush on standing by the Patriot Act wholesale—all he had to do was recite a litany of cases of unjust imprisonment and other violations incited by an overzealous Attorney General. He did come up with one example, and came out on top in the exchange, but it could have been better.

The penultimate question was on using tax dollars for abortion, and while Kerry’s answer—that he couldn’t legislate for everyone on the basis of his personal faith—was good, Bush was at his plainspoken best in his response and got the upper edge. For a second I thought that if he could rally on the last question as well he’d be able to create a much better overall impression. But then he lost it in the 30-second responses. Kerry laid out a scenario for why he opposed the partial-birth abortion bill—a 16-year old raped by her father shouldn’t be required to get her father’s permission to get an abortion—and ended with “It’s never quite as simple as the President wants you to believe.” Bush came back with “He voted no! It’s that simple!” which carried no weight in the face of what Kerry had just said. Then the President said, and I am not making this up, “You can run but you can’t hide! It’s reality!”

Then, for the coup de grace, Bush completely buckled when asked to name three specific choices he made incorrectly during his Administration. He mumbled adrift for a while before coming up with a line about being right with respect to the big choices. He said, “When they ask about the mistakes, that’s what they really mean.”

And the more I think about it, the more I think that this is what will ultimately lose Bush the election. Let’s assume that the people in that audience are more or less what they said they were: undecided voters. (It was clear from the questions that many of them were very much decided on specific issues, like abortion, but they could still have been genuinely on the fence overall.) A woman asks Bush to identify some of his mistakes, and instead of looking her in the eye, he tries to tell her about “they” mean. I don’t remember the exact context of the question—if the “they” meant “when people ask about mistakes they really want to know about the big ones” or if they referred to the people (liberals, the media, etc.) trying to discredit him, but it doesn’t really matter, because either way he was discrediting the individual in front of him, presuming either to tell her what she really wanted to know, or assume she’d been hoodwinked by “them.” He cannot conceive that this woman from Missouri is perfectly self-composed and intelligent and undeceived and yet can’t decide yet whether to vote for him. (Off of substance and back to style briefly, Kerry did a great job of mentioning questioners by name and even referring back to audience members from several questions earlier.)

In response Kerry took the expected road of hammering on the Iraq mistakes again, which worked all right, but I wish he had—even though the question didn’t call for it—simply and briefly stated three mistakes he felt he had made in the last four years. They wouldn’t have to be whoppers, just simple, truthful admissions of small mistakes, without flim-flammery. He could have sewn up the election right then and there.

As it is, I’m more confident than I’ve ever been that he has sewn it up. He clearly scored another win in this debate, and as the last one has shown in the polls, these things do matter. There’s still a long stretch of weeks until November, but Bush has his work cut out for him—he will need to pull Osama out of a hat, or miraculously nail the third and final debate.

Thus ends my spin-insulated thoughts. I’m going to be really pissed now if everybody’s talking on the news about a draw . . .

1 Complete sidenote here: “facile” seemed completely off because to my ears it carries a slightly negative connotation. That’s in the fourth definition, “readily manifested, together with an aura of insincerity and lack of depth,” but in common usage it seems like that one should be bumped up from fourth place a couple notches.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention, but was reminded by reading several others who said it: they were good questions. Yay Missouri, and yay Charlie what’s-his-name for picking them.

Josh Marshall thinks it was a draw, but thinks that a draw favors Kerry overall. It’s only a draw if you grant Bush way-lowered expectations, which is apparently what a fair number of people are doing.

It is without a doubt easier for bloggers than for professional journalists to stick their necks out by writing about and making judgments on the debate before hearing the spin or getting an impression of what other people think. Bloggers, all in all, aren’t risking near as much. But that doesn’t mean that more professional journalists shouldn’t be doing it too.

Sopping up shallow impressions from too many places to name, it seems that both sides have their partisans calling victory and others calling it a draw. But again, the only way I see a draw is if you grant Bush points for improvement and not Kerry. If the first debate had never happened and this was the first debate, the Kerry win would be a no-brainer—“Bush seemed agitated and confrontational, he talked over the moderator, he had no good responses on Iraq, he whined.” It only looks good by comparison to how he did before.

UPDATE: Why are we bothering reading anything else on the debates when we have good ol’ Fafnir?