With Kerry’s camp relentlessly dampening expectations for the Democrat’s debating skills, the senator from Massachusetts cleared the low bar he needed to in order to improve his standing in the public’s mind.
But what Kerry failed to do was accomplish his most important goal: offer a clear, alternative vision.
To his credit, Kerry was well coifed, poised, and surprisingly succinct. He managed to make his wildly divergent positions seem slightly more consistent, and he even scored on a few rhetorical digs.
Missing from the 90-minute event, however, was any coherent Kerry plan for what to do in Iraq if Americans do choose to change horses midstream. The Democrat hammered home that he would secure former Soviet nukes in 4 years instead of 13—this is the issue gripping Americans, after all—but how exactly does he propose building this grand, sweeping international coalition to handle Iraq and the rest of the war on terror?
While Kerry reiterated that he thought Saddam was a bad guy—who aside from Michael Moore can argue otherwise?—he didn’t specify what he would have done to take out Saddam. Unfortunately, Bush did not use this opportunity to remind his challenger that this summer, the Democrat said the war in Iraq was justified—regardless of whether or not WMDs are ever found.
Where Bush had his best moments were tearing into Kerry’s own words -- a smorgasbord from which the President could feast.
Kerry, lest we forget, voted for the $87 billion before he voted against it. And after labeling Saddam a grave threat, his latest line is that the war in Iraq was the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The obvious question that Bush didn’t even have to pose is: if Kerry keeps dwelling on how it was the “wrong” war, how can he be the guy to lead us to eventual victory?
Though it was not a grade-A night for Kerry, the Democrat clearly gained ground on the evening. How much is not likely to be known for a few days, but the early—stress early—“flash polls” indicate that people who watched the debate gave Kerry the nod by a roughly 10-point margin.
Before anyone reads too much into the ultra-early poll results, though, some history: Walter Mondale was declared the winner over Ronald Reagan in their first debate.
What Reagan did in the follow-up debate that had a much greater impact, however, was perhaps the most classic one-liner in recent memory: “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Reaction shots showed a Walter Mondale beside himself, laughing harder than he probably had in months.
If there is one principal demerit for Bush last night, it would be that he never found his normally reliable sense of humor. His passion was at times palpable, and at some moments, he showed a Clinton-esque softer side. That was not enough. To really put away the challenger, President Bush will need to turn on the charm in the next two debates in a way it just wasn’t on last night.
Luckily for Bush, the American people already know him. Kerry had a tougher task, given that nearly half of respondents in most polls say they still don’t know enough about him.
After this debate, the general feeling most will probably have is that Kerry is critical of Bush—quelle surprise!—but they still will not have any idea what John Kerry would do as president. And if he can’t accomplish that in the next two debates, he probably won’t be given the chance to show them.