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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Battle For Big MO

Last night’s “town-hall” presidential debate in Missouri was about what I expected. The two things Bush most wanted to do–to get over the defensive stammering and fidgeting and incoherent repetitions of his first debate peformance, and to aggressively Dukakisize Kerry as a tax-and-spend-weak-on-defense-big-government-liberal–led him to an unusually combative manner. And indeed, Bush was most effective rhetorically when he was distorting Kerry’s record and reinforcing every old Democratic stereotype, and least effective when he had to defend his own record. Kerry won most of the debating points, and generally repeated his strong first-debate performance, though he got tripped up a bit on two cultural issues towards the end.
Much of the buzz about the debate seems to revolve around Bush’s manner. I suspect voter reactions to his banty rooster routine last night–strutting around the stage and shouting and crowing–will break down on partisan lines. Republicans will see it as a projection of strength and likeability; Democrats as grating and exaggerated.
On foreign policy and security issues, including Iraq, the second debate changed nothing, which is bad news for the incumbent.
As in the veep debate, the discussion of domestic issues was a little thin, but very interesting. Kerry cleaned Bush’s clock on the drug-reimportation issue, the one moment when the incumbent fell back into the defensive incoherence of the first debate.
Bush had two other very weird moments. Asked about his record on the environment, the president barked: “Off-road diesel engines,” a good example of a talking point headline leaping directly to the tongue of an overbriefed debater. And in the discussion of his judicial philosophy, Bush made it clear he had one absolute litmus test for Supreme Court candidates: he wouldn’t appoint a justice who supported the 1857 Dred Scott decision upholding the Fugitive Slave Act.
This reassuring statement should boost Bush’s support levels among African-Americans all the way up into the high single digits.
On the inter-related issues of taxes, the budget, and “big government,” Bush again tried to keep the focus on Kerry, not himself–a revealing tactic, since his tax cuts are the sum and substance of his whole economic and fiscal record. Most interestingly, Bush didn’t put much effort into the claim that Kerry’s tax proposals would boost taxes for the middle class; instead, he simply asserted that Kerry’s the kind of guy–you know, a tax-and-spend liberal–who’ll raise everybody’s taxes first chance he gets.
Even though I knew it was coming, I nearly attacked the screen when Bush trotted out the bogus National Journal “most liberal senator” rating of Kerry in 2003. I guess I’m going to have to personally hand-deliver the DLC’s analysis of that rating–and especially its bizarre description of deficit-reduction measures as “liberal”–to every journalist in Christendom.
I was delighted to see Kerry mention that the president’s party controls Congress. He should do a lot more of that down the stretch. And on the tax issue, he would be well advised to remind voters that small businesses–and for that matter, millionaires–did a whole lot better under the tax rates of the Clinton years than they are doing today.
Surprisingly, there were no questions about gay marriage. And the abortion question posed to Kerry was a real curve-ball, asking him to specifically address himself to people who think abortion is “murder” (not exactly the formulation you’d expect from an undecided voter), and to the question of government funding for abortions, an issue that hasn’t been the focus of abortion politics for about fifteen years.
Similarly, the question about stem-cell research was worded in the way best suited to Bush’s purposes–distinguishing between adult and embryonic stem cells. This got the discussion immediately down into the technical weeds, and enabled Bush to cut through the details and claim he’s just trying to balance ethics and science. I suspect Kerry will find a way to nail him on this one in the third debate.
Neither candidate committed any obvious gaffes, but Bush’s answer to the very last question was one of those things that post-debate analysis could turn into real problem for the incumbent, because it reinforces a basic aspect of the candidate’s character that voters find troublesome. Asked directly to name three mistakes he’s made as president, Bush couldn’t do it, though he vaguely talked about appointments he now regrets. As Josh Marshall acutely observed in his take on the debate, you just know Bush was thinking about administration officials like Paul O’Neill, Richard Clarke, George Tenet, and John DiIulio–people who had the temerity to suggest the president had made mistakes.
Bush’s chronic refusal to admit mistakes when even his strongest supporters acknowledge them is beginning to look downright pathological, and if it continues, it could undermine all of his positive “character” and “likeability” ratings.
So: who if anyone got the Big Mo–in MO and in other battleground states–from this debate? I suspect the answer depends strictly on how you think the race was developing prior to last night.
Many Bush partisans think the president was cruising towards an easy and inevitable win prior to the first debate; they will naturally now claim his performance last night will put him back on the glide pattern to victory.
I think the first debate simply helped bring the contest back to its natural dead-even state, and that a whole host of factors–Kerry’s steadiness, bad news at home and abroad, Democratic advantages in the ground game, and most of all, the natural tendency of late-breaking voters to focus on, and turn against, the incumbent’s record–favor the challenger down the stretch.

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