The Third Presidential Debate

OK, so as it happens, I was able to watch the debate, I got your good ol’ unspinned insta-thoughts right here, baby!

I was surprised to find that my heart was beating quite quickly as the two candidates walked up to their respective podiums. It wasn’t excitement. It was, I realized on reflection, apprehension—the tension came from knowing what was at stake in the election, and the apprehension came because I was worried Kerry was going to screw up.

He didn’t screw up. He did all right. But so did Bush, who overall did a little better than he did in the second debate. I’ll still call it a Kerry win with my biased eyes, and I suspect the CW will evolve into something like a draw. There wasn’t any big moment in there that will shift things to a large extent.

Kerry was kind of lousy in the beginning but found his stride a few questions in. He stammered more often than in the previous two debates, and really nailed his responses less often than before. Of course, as a baseline he still did better than Bush on overall presentation, but as the last debate made clear, you can go a very long way on improving from low expectations. Bush replaced the sneer and slouch from the first debate and the whine from the second with a smarmy smile. It didn’t come off well either, but of the three it was the least egregious. At times during his responses, especially after he had pulled off what he clearly thought of as a zinger against Kerry, the smile reminded me of a seventh-grade bully proud at just having scored a diss on the class nerd.

I was really worried during Bush’s 30-second response to flu question that came second. He said “I want to remind people listening tonight that a plan is not a litany of complaints.” It was a perfectly-timed hit, and this was before Kerry had found his feet anyway, and I thought maybe it was all over. Kerry did fine on the tax question that came next, though—he went for a “pay as you go” line and Bush’s jabs in response didn’t amount to much. All in all, Bush trotted out “liberal” and “Massachusetts” a number of times, but it didn’t really amount of a wholesale attack like lots of people seemed to be predicting.

For Bush, the answer to everything was education. Specifically, the No Child Left Behind Act. At one point he even said “Listen, the No Child Left Behind Act is really a jobs act when you think about it.” He brought it up all over the place, and if Kerry had been just a little more on his feet he could have scored some points on that during the cheesy “women in your life” question that came at the end. Something like: “Before I get to that, Bob, let me congratulate you on posing a question that didn’t allow the President to bring in No Child Left Behind.”

Question #6—do you believe homosexuality is a choice?—was very important. Bush said “I don’t know.” Kerry came down (surprisingly) firmly in saying that it was not. I think it will serve him well, not simply because it’s right, but because the people who feel strongly about it an disagree with him are already voting for Bush, and those who are honestly unsure will respect the clarity, force, and confidence of his response. This question was one example, and there were others, also in the second debate, of Bush speaking to the base while Kerry goes for the middle. If I were a campaign adviser I’d have advised either of them at the outset to make motivating the base a first priority, but the fact that Bush has been the one to shift away from the middle lets Kerry go there much more easily.

It’s not in the transcript that I’m looking at, but after Kerry had referenced data from two news organizations in an answer on tax cuts, Bush started his response this way: -”It’s incredible to quote leading news organizations about . . . oh, never mind.”- “In all due respect, I’m not so sure it’s credible to quote leading news organizations about—oh, nevermind.” I would love to know what he meant to say there. I’m not sure he knew himself. The impression I had—and this was from his facial response as much as his words—is that quoting new organizations for data seemed ridiculous because, y’know, liberal media and all. Who knows if that’s what was going through his mind, but if it was, he had good sense to cut himself short.

I don’t have a url for it, but there was a NYT piece a couple weeks ago by Stanley Fish called “Kerry and Bush, As Seen from the Classroom.” In it, Fish talked about analyzing the rhetorical strategies of both candidates’ stump speeches with his undergrad students to see who they thought did better. And the answer, of course, was Bush—his communications team have always been great at rhetoric and style. Bush’s speeches clearly highlight his main points and use repetition to drive key ideas home. Kerry, by contrast, meanders. While he usually gets around to conveying the key fact or idea, by the time he’s there it’s been buried. Here’s a perfect example from Kerry’s response to Bush’s social security question:

You just heard the president say that young people ought to be able to take money out of Social Security and put it in their own accounts.

Now, my fellow Americans, that’s an invitation to disaster.

The CBO said very clearly that if you were to adopt the president’s plan, there would be a $2 trillion hole in Social Security, because today’s workers pay in to the system for today’s retirees. And the CBO said—that’s the Congressional Budget Office; it’s bipartisan—they said that there would have to be a cut in benefits of 25 percent to 40 percent.

The key piece of information here is “today’s workers pay into the system for today’s retirees.” That’s the heart of the matter and the hole in Bush’s plan. It is buried in a subordinate clause in the third sentence of his response. And it comes after a reference to a “hole” that only makes sense once you understand how the system works in the first place. So the “today’s workers” quote should have come first, followed by a description of the hole, and ending by calling it a disaster, once he’s actually communicated what he’s talking about. As it is, he creates steep expectations by putting “disaster” first, and then hides the key point that makes it all make sense.

Kerry does this sort of thing all the time. Bush sometimes does too when he’s speaking extempore, but never when he’s doing rehearsed speeches, because he has a killer speechwriting team. And the clarity of his speech rhetoric rubs off on him even in the debates—he’s used to making clear, forceful statements, and so they’re what he repeats on the spur of the moment as well.

Every time I thought Kerry was down for the count, he managed to pull himself up again, though. He got creamed with a lousy response to Bush’s succinct immigration answer, but lucked out with a minimum wage question to him right after that, which he nailed, followed by Bush’s grasping “NCLB is a jobs act” line.

My jaw dropped when Bush whipped out the “global test” line in his response to Kerry’s answer to a draft question. It wasn’t that he brought it up—that’s to be expected—but that he didn’t even bother to pretend to address what Kerry actually meant by it. He could have just dropped the phrase and let its associations squirm into people’s minds as they may, but he flat-out clarified the statement this way: “In order to defend ourselves, we’d have to get international approval,” and in doing so turned a perfectly weaselly insinuation into an easily refutable claim. But, again, he seems to be playing to his base now, so maybe in the long run it won’t matter.

Kerry’s closing statement was an all-too-familiar collage of the same old talking points. Bush’s started with “In the Oval Office there’s a painting,” at which point he had already won the closing statement exchange. See “killer speechwriting team,” above.

Looking back over it, I’ll be relieved if if the conventional wisdom ends up in a draw. Kerry was obviously up on substance, but only up on presentation if you factor out lowered expectations, which it seems you can’t really get away with. And Bush had his number on rhetorical style (I’d just go ahead and say “elocutio” if more of you had taken me for English 101).

Barring a big October Surprise, it looks like a dead heat straight on ‘till election day.

UPDATE: The insta-poll consensus (for what it’s worth, which ain’t much) gives Kerry a fairly solid win. Hey, I’ll take it.

Interesting contrast on Slate between Saletan (Kerry knocked it out of the park) and Suellentrop (it was close).

All in all, I’m warming up to the notion that Kerry won the debate (which I’m finding easy to do, go figure), but I still think it was Bush’s best performance of the three. It’s clear that his Osama bin Laden gaffe is going to haunt him big time, though. (UPDATE: The actual text of the OBL gaffe is in the comments.)

UPDATE: Kerry mentioned Cheney’s daughter during the “is homosexuality a choice?” question, and many conservatives, as well as Cheney’s wife, have been taking umbrage. Andrew Sullivan has some (UPDATE: many) words for them.