Thursday, October 14, 2004
I've been AWOL on the debates because (a) I don't own a television; (b) I missed half of them because of Jewish holidays. But, based on the combination of radio and transcripts, my opinion was that Kerry clearly won the first one, Cheney won the VP debate, Bush won the second Presidential debate, and Kerry won the most recent debate. But since I couldn't see anyone scowling or smirking or what-have-you, I could have this all totally wrong.
Everybody seems to agree Bush lost the first debate badly. I think Cheney won the VP debate, but I may be biased because Edwards' voice makes me want to scratch his face. (I have a *much* more negative view of Edwards that just about anyone else I know; I also seem to have a much *less* negative view of Kerry than most Republicans, or even many Democrats. I think Kerry's frequently wrong, but I don't think he's an abomination. Then again, I don't think Joschka Fischer is so terrible either.) I thought Bush won the second debate because his attacks on Kerry were sharp and effective and Kerry was neither. But it's been pointed out to me that Bush said very little in defense of his own policies, particularly in Iraq, and I have to concede that's true.
I thought the third debate was pretty lame. Bush could be running much stronger with respect to his domestic record. He is not tying his domestic record into a convincing package that explains why you should vote for him and not for Kerry. Most of what he brags about is spending money. Then he brags about tax cuts. Then he attacks Kerry for being fiscally irresponsible. It doesn't add up. Kerry came off as a guy who promises too much and probably won't deliver, but Bush came off as a guy who's right hand doesn't know what his left hand is spending. I think Bush came out more where the country is on cultural issues, but I don't think the debate matters much in that regard; evangelicals are already energized for Bush, and their opponents are energized for Kerry. If you are voting on abortion, or same-sex marriage, you already know who you are voting for.
In the end, I thought Kerry won the debate for three reasons. He sounded more Presidential than the President: calm, forceful, clear, organized. Bush sounded tentative and rarely had comebacks when specific claims were challenged. Second, I thought Bush's attacks on Kerry's Senate record fell flat. He kept asserting that Kerry was very left-wing, but Kerry had substantive comebacks and Bush didn't have follow-ups. Kerry's actual positions *are* those of a very conventional liberal - with the caveat that he does seem genuinely concerned about not busting the budget, and therefore probably just won't do a lot of what he says he'll do. But he succeeded, I think, in portaying himself as more of a centrist than he is, and that's a loss for the President. Third, I thought Kerry had a very appealing-sounding health-care plan, and that Bush's attacks on that plan, and defenses of his own record, were unconvincing. This is one of the two best Democrat domestic issues, along with job loss, and I thought Kerry did a good job, and Bush a very poor job, on both. Bush has a very appealing education spiel, but he never explained why we need to vote for him to achieve his education objectives given that Kerry's only response was that he'd throw even more money at the same approach as Bush. That may be false, but Bush never said that Kerry wants to *gut* his education reforms; he never made the case for *electing a Republican* on this issue. So why vote for him? Why not vote for the more "generous" guy who says he has the same reform ideas?
At this point, I think Bush is at least even odds to lose, if not worse. At the end of last month, I made some predictions about the Electoral College and which states Bush and Kerry would win, respectively. I think Kerry's 224 Electoral Votes are still solid, and I think he's more likely than he was to win all his "whisker" states (though it's possible he'd lose Minnesota). Bush, on the other hand, is vulnerable in Ohio, Wisconsin and all of his "whisker" states (Iowa, Nevada and New Mexico). I still expect him to win Colorado, Florida and West Virginia, just as I expect Kerry to win Pennsylvania, Michigan, Maine and New Hampshire (all of these states are polling close). Right now, the national polls are close to tied, with a small Bush lead on average. But undecideds will probably break for Kerry, and if turnout is high then Democrats probably pick up a point or so. And turnout will probably be high. So if trends don't change, Kerry probably wins the popular vote, in which case he probably wins all the vulnerable Bush states (with the possible exception of Wisconsin) and hence the election.
Bush needs the dynamic to change. It could, of course. Kerry has absolutely not closed the sale. No one has closed the sale.
This election, I have always thought, comes down to one thing. Who do you trust to fight the war for the next four years? Are you buoyed by Bush's clear vision and determination, or alarmed by his refusal to take responsibility and inability to process negative empirical data? Are you reassured by Kerry's calmness and thoughtfulness, or are you unnerved by his lack of appreciation of the threat, tendency to procrastination and his habit of trying to have the Iraq war every which way?
I think the country views Iraq as a mistake. Maybe the mistake was how the war was fought and maybe it was that we fought it at all, but no one thinks it has worked out well. Bush could have put this election away by reassuring people about his judgement and ability to adjust to setbacks and learn from mistakes, and *then* emphasizing his steely determination, his appreciation of the threat, the manifold ways we're fighting the war on terror *apart* from Iraq, and the need to leave Iraq as victors and not as the vanquished. He didn't do that. Instead, he's taken the tack that if he knew then what he knows now *he would have done everything the same.* That only reinforces legitimate concerns people have about his judgement; it's alarming, not reassuring. As a consequence, Kerry has been able to thrash him on Iraq, and all Bush can say in response is, effectively, you'd have done even worse. We can debate whether Bush made sensible decisions on Iraq given the information available at the time. But regardless of our views on that question, Bush's never-admit-error communications strategy has undermined public confidence in his leadership ability, and made this election closer than it needed to be. Bush is a war President presiding over a basically decent economy, with a substantial record of legislative accomplishment and on the right side (from the country's perspective) of a litany of cultural issues, facing a candidate with a thin and dogmatically liberal Senate record and an off-putting demeanor. If he loses, it will be because of *character*, his supposed strong-suit, and he'll have nobody but himself to blame.