Bush vs. Kerry: Round One

Immediately following Bush and Kerry's initial faceoff in Miami, James Fallows, The Atlantic's national correspondent, penned some thoughts on their respective performances

That was George Bush's worst performance in a debate, by far, ever. My mantra had been that neither Bush nor Kerry had ever lost a debate. That is no longer true.

From the archives:

"When George Meets John" (July/August 2004)
A viewer's guide to this fall's version of "asymmetric warfare"—the presidential debates. By James Fallows.

What made it a bad performance for Bush was not what he said but how he looked and the way he comported himself. Inexplicably, he spent the debate hunched down behind his lectern, looking small. In no previous debate had he permitted himself the grimaces that he wore each time he was criticized or challenged. Although the "rules" told him those expressions would not be televised, he had to have known (and have learned from the Gore debates four years ago) that he would be on stage and potentially on camera the entire time. So either he could not help himself or he had not prepared. When Bush has been "skillfully on message," as he has been in every one of his previous debates over the last ten years, he has been able to dress up his two or three main points with a variety of supporting details. When he has been "clumsily on message," as in most press conferences this year, he just says the same two or three things over and over again and seems unable to respond to or even hear questions. His performance in this debate was in the latter category.

This was near the top of Kerry's past performances, even though he missed a few opportunities and looked unusually (for him) nervous at the start. What made it a good performance for him was less what he said, though that mattered, than the way he looked and carried himself. With no sound on, if you had to choose "The President" from watching the two men on the screen, it would be the big one with the square shoulders and the relaxed air you'd pick. As the evening wore on Kerry relaxed and Bush tired. Previously Kerry had been strongest when taking a prosecutor's role—calm in bearing, but continually moving in on the adversary. He maintained that tone in much of the debate. As for what he said, Kerry came closer than he has previously in the campaign to a concise indictment of the Bush stewardship of foreign affairs. His line that Bush's policy boiled down to four words—"more of the same"—is one he could keep using.

This reminded me of the first Carter-Reagan debate, not because there were any "there you go again" lines—though the gotcha about not being attacked by Saddam Hussein was useful—but because it put the challenger on equal footing with the incumbent. It does not mean that Kerry will win, but it gives him a much better chance to make his case and be considered.

My favorite line from Bush: "He forgot Poland!"

Friday, October 1, 2:00 p.m update:

What does it mean to say that Kerry "missed some opportunities?" Presidential debates aren't really about catching every missed point or logical lapse. But there were a few more places where Kerry could have struck—as he did with "Saddam Hussein didn't attack us."

"You say we're training 100,000 Iraqi security forces and they'll take care of the situation? What happened to the 100,000 that Secretary Rumsfeld said were trained and ready last March?"

"You say that training those 100,000 Iraqis is our highest priority. Then why is the American unit charged with this duty, under General Petraeus, at 30 percent of its authorized strength? Is that incompetence? Or is it a wrong choice?"

"You say we can't seek other nations' permission in dealing with Iraq. Yet you've told us over and over that we have to worry about China's permission before dealing with the ongoing nuclear problem in North Korea. Which is it, Mr. President? How can you lead with this mixed message."

"You say that all Senators had the same information you did before going into Iraq. In all previous administrations, the President himself was uniquely entrusted with the most sensitive intelligence reports. Are you saying that you've reversed the policy of all your predecessors and shared our nation's secrets with 100 members of the Senate—some of whom are bound to leak?"

Or, if John Kerry had given up all realistic hopes of winning the Presidency: "You say that Iraq used to be a place where Iraqis had their hands cut off. Now it's a place where Americans have their heads cut off. Is this an improvement, Mr. President?"