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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

First Debate: Advantage Kerry

The debate was on Bush’s strongest turf. The rules of engagement were tailored to favor him. He had far less to lose than the challenger, and was operating under far fewer restraints and risks. He had the famous likability factor working for him.
Yet by almost any standard, the first debate was a Kerry win, and perhaps more importantly, showed Bush flustered and defensive in dealing with the topic everybody knew would be central, Iraq.
In terms of style points, everybody knows Bush gets cut a lot of slack by Americans, but this was probably the least effective debate performance of his career. He, not Kerry, rambled on with long sentences and kept going when the red light went on (until towards the end, when he seemed to run out of gas with time left over). He, not Kerry, displayed condescending body language towards his opponent. (Even the infamous Bush smirk, repressed for so very long, made a surprise appearance.) He, not Kerry, lapsed into insider references and tried to show off his knowledge of foreign people and places. And most of all, he, not Kerry, was hostile, partisan, and defensive in demeanor. I don’t know who has advised Bush to refer to Kerry as “my opponent” rather than “Senator Kerry,” but it really stood out after a while.
On substance, Kerry laid out a credible overall strategy for the war on terror, a credible defense of his positions on Iraq, and a tough critique of administration foreign policy. It was notable how often he contrasted Bush’s positions with those of his Secretary of State, Colin Powell, and at one juncture, with the president’s own father. And it was clear his aim, which he largely accomplished, was to focus on widespread unhappiness with how things have gone in Iraq, where Bush once again could not recall a single mistake or offer a single change in policy.
There were a couple of moments when I thought Kerry could have turned a win into a rout: offered a chance to list the administration’s miscalculations on Iraq, he dwelled too much on the original decision to go to war and didn’t get around to Bush’s more recent mistakes, including the reliance on exile politicians, the overerstimation of Shia support for a long occupation, and the endless “mixed messages” sent to insurgents. And speaking of “mixed messages,” I wish Kerry had mentioned Bush’s flip-flops on the Department of Homeland Security and intelligence reform.
But all in all, Kerry won on substance as well as style. I was particularly impressed with his focus on nuclear proliferation (though again, the discussion of Putin gave him a chance to point out that loose nukes in Russia never seems to be a topic of discussion between W. and his buddy Vladimir), an issue where Bush and Cheney’s record directly contradicts their claim of understanding this as the most important threat to our security. And I was also impressed by his commitment to send, if necessary, U.S. troops to stop the genocide in Sudan, after pointing out that Bush’s over-commitment of U.S. troops elsehwere has made this very difficult.
The President’s sole aim in this debate appeared to be to endlessly contrast his sense of certainty and resolution with the “mixed messages” Kerry has sent on Iraq. Kerry scored especially well in pointing out that it was possible to be “certain but wrong.” And I have no idea why Bush has chosen “mixed messages” as the latest term of abuse for Kerry, when that term can so easily be turned on him, as Kerry did several times tonight.
However you score it, this debate was just what John Kerry needed, and if nothing else, should wipe the smirk off the faces of a lot of Republicans who were already beginning their post-election victory dance.

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