2nd Presidential Debate, 1st Impressions

What a weird event. The only thing clear is that the citizen questioners won. They are much better than the moderators.

As between the candidates, Bush did not self-destruct like in the first debate, but at the price of some strange behavior, notably a very blank expression when he was sitting down and a very odd speaking style for the first hour — shouting, almost ranting. His demeanor in the last half-hour was much better than in the first hour.

The Big Lie made its appearance early and often, as Bush claimed that yesterday’s report by the chief United States weapons inspector for Iraq (the Duelfer Report) somehow vindicated the decision to attack. There basically isn’t a shred of truth to that description of a thousand-page report most voters will never read. If anything, the report showed that the UN sanctions were working better than anyone suspected. And, if there is any justice, Bush's claim that he isn't blocking drug re-importation will come back to haunt him. He did much better in the last 30 minutes, even told what counts as a good joke about timber under the circumstances. [Although fact checking reveals that Kerry was right and Bush wrong on the facts as to Bush's $84 in timber income making him a “small business”.] But Bush flubbed the Patriot Act question badly by patronizing the questioner. And he cratered again when asked if he could identify three mistakes he's made in the last 3.5 years. He couldn't bring himself to come up with even one specific example.

Kerry was forceful, although I find some of his canned speeches a bit robotic, and if I were drinking every time he said he had a Plan I would be blotto if not hospitalized. He started strong (“The military's job is to win the war; the president's job is to win the peace”; slamming Bush on the deficit) but as the night wore on he stumbled a few times, albeit more in style than substance, notably on the stem cell question where he seemed to be fumbling for words. Other than on the abortion issue, Kerry smashed Bush both on Iraq and domestic issues. Even on the abortion issue, Kerry did well in his rebuttal on explaining why parental notification and 'partial birth' abortion were more complex questions than Bush lets on, the only time on that subject when Kerry didn't look uncomfortable.

In general, Kerry looked tired by the end, Bush looked better at the end than the start (when he looked awful). Kerry had better get more rest the day before the third debate. Even so, he won significantly on points — but not by a knockout until and unless the fact checkers hit the Big Lie issue squarely.

But within the four corners of the TV screen (or, in my case, Real Video feed) Bush did better than the first time. Bush looked substantially less stupid, albeit every bit as pig-headed. Some people see that as resolve. Others see it as denial of reality. Kerry's domination on substance was perhaps insufficient to shake the faith of Bush supporters not already scared away from him.

And a lot depends on the factcheckers: if they do as good a job as they did for the first two debates, that should help Kerry substantially.

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20 Responses to 2nd Presidential Debate, 1st Impressions

  1. Mojo says:

    Once again I could only get to the second question before I turned it off. I had to wait for the transcripts for the rest. When Bush said, “And the unique threat was that he could give weapons of mass destruction to an organization like al Qaeda”, I just lost it. How could Saddam give WMDs to terrorists when he didn’t have any? If he had them, what makes Bush think he’d give them to terrorists considering the fact that he didn’t have operational ties with them (and the fact that terrorists and Saddam hated each other)? Even if he’d had WMDs and ties to terrorists, he still wouldn’t be a “unique threat” as a large number of countries (Iran, Pakistan, North Korea, etc.) meet the same criteria. How many of them is Bush going to invade? Oddly, the CNN fact checkers have ignored this while FOX News (web site) included it as a Bush error. Kudos to them.

  2. Chris says:

    I think you got it right when you said that the questioning was so much better, and that Bush did a much better job. But Bush particularly sucked like a hull breach on the question of the three mistakes–a deadly question if I ever heard one. If one isn’t making mistakes, why change? So I can only hope that all those Americans who are unhappy with the direction of their country will have the wit to realize that Bush’s answer means he has no intention of being responsive to them in the least. Health care going up? No mistakes here. The deficit? No mistakes here. No prescription drugs. No mistakes here. The war in Iraq? No mistakes here. Underfunding No Child Left Behind? No mistakes here. Ad nauseam.

    By the way, do you suppose that Bybee’s judicial appointment is one of those he considers a mistake? Nah. I’d bet a dollar he was talking about Bremer, O’Neill, and the others who embarrassed him after leaving his administration. Those are the only mistakes that matter.

  3. Having spent so much time in debate, my natural first inclination is always to look at style and perception before content…and yet somehow this doesn’t seem to result in a Bush victory either…most telling to me? When Kerry accused Bush of going in alone and Bush freaked out, wouldn’t even let Charles Gibson ask the extension question, and barrelled ahead like a 5 year old at recess who thought the dodgeball shouldn’t have hit him…did this not seem to everyone like Bush losing his cool, losing his composure, hell, just losing it?

    Then, as a lawyer, I was saddened deeply by the fact that the most recent example of activist constitutional interpretation Bush could remember was the Dredd Scott case…were I Bush, there were a thousand better examples. He had a look in his eyes like an 8th grader failing a US History exam at that point and trying to remember the name of any case, ever…

    But the saddest things of all, to me, were the high degree of repetition of pat phrases and the absolute refusal of Kerry to nail Bush on the real issues at hand. When Bush claims to support a judiciary that reads the law as is, how can no one mention his attempt to see the constitution rewritten into a document of bigotry and inequality? When Bush claims, in response to a question about 700 billion in extra NONMILITARY spending that he never once considered veto’ing, and Bush’s response was limited solely to military funding, dropping the ball entirely, why did no one nail him on it? And when Bush quite frankly lies, or at least pre-spins, the result of the Duelfer report, why is it Kerry didn’t even mention it? When Bush accused Kerry of lying outright about his plans to tax the top 2 brackets and not anyone making less than 200K, Kerry was clearly committed to a clear statement against such increases for the low and middle classes, but continued to fail to be clear, and raise the challenge, to that effect. Where was the strong Kerry to say “Sure, Bush tells you all my ideas are too good to be true. That they’re all too expensive. But at least I’ve got some plans, some hopes, some ideas. All he wants is more of the same, with no promise it’ll ever improve.”

    The sad thing is, as much as I wouldn’t admit it to a conservative, Kerry was wishy-washy. he was afraid to take the difficult position on virtually any issue, preferring to stick with the “Doing it Bush’s Way, only Better” plan…not good enough. Case in point. What the hell is his position on stem cells?

  4. Jade says:

    Did anyone else notice that Bush started to quote the Declaration of Independence, stumbled, then changed directions because he obviously couldn’t remember that: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”? I’m scared…

    And I agree with Mojo! Why the heck didn’t Kerry jump on those facts regarding Saddam giving WMD that he didn’t have to terrorists that he didn’t know? What a missed opportunity that was!

  5. whatever says:

    Jade, I think you mean this piece of quiet eloquence from our commander-in-chief:

    “Another example would be the Dred Scott case, which is where judges years ago said that the constitution allowed slavery because of personal property rights. That’s a personal opinion. That’s not what the constitution says. The constitution of the United States says we’re all — you know, it doesn’t say that. It doesn’t speak to the equality of America.”

    What a brilliant, brilliant speaker. We’re so lucky to have him.

  6. Yeah, that raises something else. What the hell did Dred Scott have to do with property rights? Wasn’t the opinion (And yes, we’re going back a few years) that because (A) no slave had migrated to the United States voluntarily and (B) no state had the power to, by allowing inclusion in a state, add a party to the constitutionally protected citizen class therefore (C) no slave allowed to live in freedom could be granted access to the Courts by virtue thereof?

    How the hell do you get to property rights in a case that never addresses merits but only creates a blanket bar against standing for the total class of possible plaintiffs?

    The one case the guy could come up with to object to in 200+ years, and he can’t even read the brief right?

  7. Altoid says:

    I actually thought the stem-cell answer was a good one, stumbling and all. The woman who asked about it clearly had very strong feelings on the matter, and the way Kerry handled it showed respect for those feelings even though he disagreed and would be in a position to make his view official policy.

    Where I thought he dropped the ball, though in a small way, was in not replying to the question about bush’s mistakes by taking it as a question about his own. He sort of did that by using his line about the 87 billion, which is an okay answer. But if he’d said “I know you were asking about bush’s mistakes, but let me tell you what I’ve learned from a couple of mine,” he’d have crushed bush completely with the audience.

    And audience is the key. Most of us really can’t stand bush, but we’re a minority. A pretty small one, at that. Kerry’s already got our votes, and he’s got our energies and contributions too. He doesn’t need to do more than feed us a few good lines during the evening. The people he needs to reach are the ones who only know him through the caricatures supplied by Rovian manipulation.

    Maybe the middle third of the electorate doesn’t particularly like what bush has done, thinks we’re on a wrong track, but doesn’t particularly despise bush and thinks that another four years wouldn’t be so good but it wouldn’t be so bad either. (At some level they mostly buy the Dennis Miller line that bush gets up every morning thinking about how he’s going to kill him some terrorists, and that’s a reason for saying he wouldn’t be all that bad.)

    These are the people Kerry needs to reach and needs to convince. He’s lucky that bush is playing into his hands, but then he’s also been very good at getting under bush’s skin so he loses control and lets out that inner child.

    My own sense is that seeing this (real) side of bush has been a profound shock to that middle group. They’ve never seen him like that, and they’ve never even thought of him like that. It’s no surprise to people who watch him closely or have had students like him, but the ordinary person has never seen that in him.

    Kerry, by contrast, is positioning himself to come across as knowledgeable, reasonable, maybe a little dry, but as a man with real personal dignity. This is his strongest card with the people he needs to reach. Coming down really hard on bush at every opportunity would ruin that. W bush has not shown a shred of dignity in these long appearances. His handlers were right to want to avoid these debates; they’ve killed him.

    I do think the middle third wants some dignity in a president (something projected by Kennedy, Ford fitfully, Reagan, and Clinton, but not by Nixon, Carter, or GHW Bush). If they see a clip from one of bush’s shouting and nasty stump speeches, that goes right over their heads because it’s campaigning. But he’s supposed to be presidential at these appearances, and he’s not.

    I think he lost all hope of winning a legitimate election in the first 45 minutes last night.

  8. Amanda says:

    I think Altoid has it right. As part of Kerry’s core support, I’d love to see Kerry nail Bush for every inconsistency, every stupid choice. But I think there’s a pretty significant part of the undecided audience who would see that as crossing the line into meanness, and then what do we win? Nah, let all the fact checkers after the debate nail Bush–anyone who was watching the debate last night realized that Bush didn’t answer that mistake question. That ought to be in an ad today, IMO.

  9. de jade says:

    The most disturbing characteristic that first popped into my head this morning from last night’s town hall Q & A was W’s angry roughshod retort interrupting Charles Gibson. It appeared to have been noticed by most everyone present. Impulsive, rude, angry, loud. Surely these are extremely poor characteristics for any leader to exhibit. And for the President of the United States? Jeez. The leader of the world’s most powerful nation should be an evolved being with an inquiring mind.

    When we observe the “substance” of each candidate’s responses we must view not only their facts, their own historical context with the issue, and breadth of knowledge, but also their pronuciation of the words, volume of delivery, passion of gestures, and logic train. What a contrast between the two. “You can run but you cannot hide” applies to W as well.

  10. paperwight says:

    Just so people are clear on that Dred Scott reference, it was a promise to appoint Justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade. Google this: [+abortion +”dred scott”] to see what I mean.

  11. Sorry, not buying it. Lincoln, as much as he knew Dred Scott to be so much malarkey, had a hell of a lot more guts than W. He out and out made clear a year after the decision that if a vote came up in Congress, and he were sitting as a member, as to whether a new territory would prohibit slavery, he would ignore Scott and say that it should. In fact, he made it a policy to whenever possible ignore Taney, I’m pretty sure, and probably had no choice given the fact that Taney was so dead set against Lincoln’s actions he went so far as to issue private memos striking down the emancipation proclamation and the conscription and legal tender acts, and only by some miracle never got the representative cases in front of him. Lincoln went ahead and ignored him. Openly. Actively. Ignored the opinion declaring suspension of habeus corpus unconstitutional, in one good example.

    Bush, on the other hand, has only backdoor politics as his interest. He’ll propose a constitutional amendment, sure, he’ll stack the Court, or try to, but openly defying a law he knows to be wrong, and daring the public to damn him for it? Not likely. Bit too frit, W is.

    Besides, its a heck of a lot tougher to tell the Court to take a long walk off a short pier when they elected you…

  12. TomR says:

    There are a couple of things that I wish could have been said:

    on stem cells: a large number of fertilized eggs are wasted (‘killed’ if you are an extreme favor-microscopic-over-macroscopic lifer) in fertility clinics. Everyone can see the value of fertility clinics (helping create life). Why should not those excess fertilized eggs be used to help medical research save lives Instead of having to be destroyed (which is what happens now). Are we really interested in human life, or not?

    on jobs: the 1.9 million jobs in 13 months that President Bush is so proud of is not enough to help us recover from the Bush Jobs Depression: it is only about enough to help us stay even with population increase while we are bottomed out. We need to have 150,000 more jobs each month just to keep from losing ground. In the Clinton presidency we went way beyond that, and actually increased the percentage of the population that had jobs, but under the Bush Administration the best we can do is keep from falling farther into the pit.

  13. DesireeF says:

    I was lucky enough to be able to attend the debate as a spectator in the balcony section. I was not visible on television. However, I could see everything down on the floor–there were no camera angles. I have to say that people in the audience reacted viscerally to Bush’s behavior. When he said stupid things, hunched and waddled around, people shook their heads–even the Bush supporters. When he got really aggressive and jumped out of his seat, everyone leaned back away from him. His behavior was not only unprofessional, it was unstable. As one friend said to me, it was as if he was a bad preacher. You just can’t wait until the sermon’s over so you can vote against having him work for you.

  14. winatallcost says:

    Kerry is running out of luck. On October 4, CNSnews.com reported an exclusive story revealing that Iraqi intelligence documents, confiscated by US forces, “show numerous efforts by Saddam Hussein’s regime to work with some of the world’s most notorious terror organizations, including al Qaeda, to target Americans. They demonstrate that Saddam’s government possessed mustard gas and anthrax, both considered weapons of mass destruction, in the summer of 2000, during the period in which United Nations weapons inspectors were not present in Iraq. And the papers show that Iraq trained dozens of terrorists inside its borders.”

  15. RWC says:



  16. Michael says:

    The “household survey” has been a favorite Republican talking point. Oops.

    No, make that double oops.

  17. kenyon says:

    Hello, my name is Kenyon. I happened to stumble upon this forum while searching for a quote from the second presidential debate. I was wondering if anyone else noticed that the Constitution does not, in-fact, state that “All men are created equal”. It is the first sentance of the second paragraph of Declaration of Independance that reads “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that….”.
    Not only did bush forget the second half of the statement, he could not properly site it. This is our president, PRESIDENT, has he even read the simple documents OUR country, you know, that thing that he is supposedly RUNNING, is based on?!?!

  18. winatallcost says:

    Sending Jobs Overseas Standard Operating Procedure For H.J. Heinz, The Kerry Cash Cow
    “My economic policy is not to export American jobs, but to reward companies for creating and keeping good jobs in America. Unlike the Bush Administration, I want to repeal every tax break and loophole that rewards any Benedict Arnold CEO or corporation for shipping American jobs overseas. “ – Senator John Forbes Kerry, February 10, 2004

    The truth of the matter is that H.J. Heinz is an extremely diversified multinational corporation. It has 70 manufacturing facilities worldwide. Of these the company only has 10 plants within the United States. The remaining 60 are located outside the United States, many in Third World countries who pay their workers pennies and whose labor standards are poor to non-existent.

    H.J. Heinz also has a history of being less than rigorous in making sure that its raw materials are not the product of underage, child labor.

    “H.J. Heinz…sold food that the AP found had been the work products of…under-age children that the AP followed in the fields.” – 1997 Special Investigation by AP

    As with just about every aspect of the Kerry campaign, his rhetoric is contradicted by the facts. In short John Forbes Kerry is a consumate liar.

  19. kenyon says:

    facts facts facts, why is my life looking more and more like 1984?

  20. winatallcost says:

    368 Economists Against Kerrynomics
    The challenger’s policies would bring “a lower standard of living for the American people.”

    By J. Edward Carter & Cesar V. Conda

    Leading economists have a message for America: “John Kerry favors economic policies that, if implemented, would lead to bigger and more intrusive government and a lower standard of living for the American people.”

    That was the conclusion released in a statement Wednesday by 368 economists, including six Nobel laureates: Gary Becker, James Buchanan, Milton Friedman, Robert Lucas, Robert Mundell, and — the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in Economics — Edward C. Prescott. The economists warned that Sen. Kerry’s policies “would, over time, inhibit capital formation, depress productivity growth, and make the United States less competitive internationally. The end result would be lower U.S. employment and real wage growth.”

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