Like most observers of the debate on either side of the aisle, I thought that Kerry was the clear winner. But "Kerry whomped ass" isn't the end of the analysis; the dynamics of the debate were remarkable. Kerry got better and better as the debate went on, while Bush got worse and worse.
Early on, Kerry seemed (as usual) dull, cerebral, unlikeable -- the generally haughty and aloof patrician image that some Democrats dislike even more than their populist Republican counterparts. His Senatorial habit of dropping names and statistics seemed both overly rehearsed and ineffective when compared to Bush's more imagination-appealing evocations of sacrifice, safety, and the transformative power of freedom.
When Kerry did try to tap into some of that language, it was mostly by feeding off of Bush's own lines: "I also believe the President should be strong and resolute..." etc. Early on, Bush was able to re-create the most effective image of himself as a strong, visionary, likeable commander-in-chief, last best seen in his first-rate convention speech. Kerry's message seemed to be: "If there's anything you like about George Bush, I am those things, and if there's anything you dislike about him, I'm the exact opposite."
But as the questions and responses followed on one another, Bush began to falter. His repetitive, "on message" replies and counterattacks seemed to be his only resort. What's worse, his disdain and discomfort during the debate were clearly obvious. Bush hasn't had to speak publicly in even a semi-hostile room for any length of time more than once or twice since he's been President. (Remember the similarly painful press conference he had on the White House lawn a year or so back? Ouch.)
At one point, I told my friends at the bar, "Bush is about two minutes away from turning into his Dad and looking at his watch." But really, watching him grimace and smirk, I expected him to shake his wrist at Kerry in the universal motion signaling "jerk-off." By the time that the questions turned to North Korea, Bush sounded so incredulous that anyone would disagree with his plan for multilateral negotiations and was so incapable of offering any other justification for his position than "that's just what Kim Jong Il wants!" that he seemed a bit raving himself. He came dangerously close to suggesting that resolve counts for more than results -- a sentiment the practically-minded middle doesn't really believe.
Meanwhile, Kerry was like a beautiful middle-distance runner -- sprinting into the stretch. His Senate experience of lengthy, factual, on-your-feet debate, a turn-off in the beginning, paid off in the end.
The turning point was when Bush, in a classic non sequitur -- probably the classic non sequitur of his three and a half years as President -- argued:
I never wanted to commit troops.
But then we were attacked.
[Therefore, I had to invade Iraq.]
Which let Kerry slap him (rhetorically) like a bitch: "Osama bin Laden attacked us -- [not Saddam Hussein]."
And then Bush replied -- "I know Osama bin Laden attacked us! [Don't get smart with me!]"
This is when Bush started to let Kerry define the debate, putting Bush on the defensive, rather than the other way around.
Kerry's scholastic style turned in his favor, as he turned into a bullet-point alternative CNN:
* The details of how the Bush administration screwed up North Korea;
* The still-scary state of security at ports, borders, and airports;
* The threat of nuclear proliferation and fissile material going across every border except Iraq's;
* The irresponsibility of increasing nonconventional weapons spending and tax cuts in a time when the greatest deficit in our Armed Services budget is personnel.
Did anyone know before the debates that Kerry had written a book about fighting post-cold war nuclear proliferation -- years before he became a national candidate? For me, it was the crowning moment in a string of similarly beautiful surprises.
A caveat: One question I have coming out of the debate -- my perennial question with the Kerry campaign -- is why Kerry lets an enormous lacuna into his biography between his Presidential campaign and his experience in Vietnam, especially when he wants to counter the contention that he's soft. The only reason Kerry won the caucuses and primaries over his somewhat half-baked opponents was his image as "a serious man." (For the record -- I always thought that Howard Dean and John Edwards were for real, although I completely underestimated Dean's ability to raise money.)
Why wouldn't Kerry say, especially in the context in a debate on foreign policy, something like this:
I left college. I fought as a combat officer in Vietnam. I was wounded and was sent home. I became an activist against what I thought was a mistaken war. Then -- I became a prosecutor in Boston, tackling organized crime, putting criminals behind bars and securing victims' rights. I was elected lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, followed by being elected four times to represent Massachusetts in the U.S. Senate, where I served on the Foreign Affairs committee. I've spent my entire adult life in public service, fighting injustice, hunting down and publishing those responsible, and trying to secure peaceful relationships between nations across the world. No one will do a better job than I will in accomplishing these goals as President of the United States.