No big surprises and no knockout punches or major gaffes on either side. Kerry and Bush both have the reputation as strong debaters with different styles. Kerry is known to take on the air of a courtroom prosecutor, which was the case in this debate. His persona was dignified and knowledgeable, if rather chilly. Bush has always done well in debates because he stays relentlessly on message and this first debate was no exception; Bush repeated his basic themes ad nauseum. It doesn't make him look particularly glib or original, but by the end of the evening people get his point.
It was good to see a debate actually based on substantive policy disagreements. This is what we should have been talking about all year, and in some detail, instead of Viet Nam and the Texas Air National Guard. Kerry managed to come off sounding like he had a reasonably coherent set of positions, and also sounded resolute. A viewer just tuning into this debate and seeing him for the first time would wonder what all the "flip-flop" charges are about. By contrast, Bush seemed a little more ill-at-ease. He looked like a man who would rather be almost anywhere else. He repeated his talking points, mostly sound bites from his stump speeches, with maddening frequency. However, Bush did make effective use of turning Kerry's own quotes against him.
Best moments: Kerry's statement that pre-emptive war decisions needed to pass "the global test" and Bush's smackdown: "I'm not exactly sure what you mean, "passes the global test," you take preemptive action if you pass a global test. My attitude is you take preemptive action in order to protect the American people, that you act in order to make this country secure"; Bush's jibe about Kerry voting for and then against the $87 billion funding for troops in Iraq, and Kerry's rejoinder, "Well, you know, when I talked about the $87 billion, I made a mistake in how I talk about the war. But the president made a mistake in invading Iraq.”; and that touching moment where Bush responded to a question about Kerry's character with what seemed genuine appreciation for the kindness Kerry's daughters had shown for his own daughters.
On the whole, Kerry came off somewhat better. He had more to prove, given his long string of shifting positions on Iraq. In this debate, he seemed to have found a line he could stick with and defend, and he accomplished his main goal, which was to put Bush on the defensive over his administration's record on Iraq and the War on Terror. Style-wise, he was cold and aloof, but came across as more intelligent than the occasionally flustered Bush.
Substance-wise, he drew distinctions between his positions and those of the president, but I'm not sure the majority of the American people agrees with those positions. My sense is that the public likes the idea of working with the UN, but doesn't want the president to cede sovereignty and decision-making authority to any foreign country or international organization. They don't like the Iraq war, and may even agree with Kerry that Bush made a mistake in going to Iraq, but they agree with Bush that it sends the wrong message to deride the mission as a "mistake" and a "diversion", and that Kerry was not helpful in snubbing interim Iraqi prime minister Iyad Allawi, while touting his ability to build alliances. They are at best equivocal on the matter of whether it is better to pursue bilateral vs. multilateral negotiations with North Korea (isn't "multilateral" supposed to be better, according to Kerry?). And they appreciate Bush's leadership following the Sept. 11 attacks, and are inclined to see him as strong in fighting terrorism, even if they have misgivings about some of his actions; conversely, they hear Kerry say he will be as strong but to date have seen superficial evidence at best.
The post-debate polls seem to be bearing this out, giving Kerry the edge over Bush, but indicating that people still have more confidence in Bush on Iraq and other foreign policy issues, and that Bush was generally more believable. Still, after losing ground following the GOP convention, Kerry has now made some headway and his campaign is - for the moment - off the ropes and back in the game.
UPDATE: Lileks on the World According to John Kerry:
Here’s the thing. I’d really like to live in John Kerry’s world. It seems like such a rational, sensible place, where handshakes and signatures have the power to change the face of the planet. If only the terrorists lived there as well.
Who does Zarkowi fear the most - France, summiteers, or Marines? If the rightness of a cause is measured by the number of one’s allies, would Britain have been right if the US had stayed neutral in World War Two?
ANOTHER UPDATE: David Corn writing in The Nation, resists the spin that the debate was a huge victory for Kerry:
In the spin room, as reporters pressed representatives of each campaign for comments that were mostly predictable, the journalists also questioned one another about the debate. The overwhelming consensus was that Kerry had "won." But the word spread that I thought Bush had done better than Kerry. Joe Klein came up to me and said, "So I hear you think Bush won." No, I did not. But I did think that each candidate had done fine and that few new votes would be won by either side as a result of this debate. It's apples and oranges. Kerry and Bush think differently, talk differently, and appeal to different crowds. As I've noted in previous articles, Bush pushes buttons; Kerry attempts to score points. That's what each did at this debate. But most importantly for Kerry, the debate did look like a fight between equals--in that Kerry seemed as presidential as any challenger to an incumbent can seem. This does not mean Kerry is on the road to victory. But this debate probably keeps him in the hunt, and for Kerry and blue-staters everywhere, that certainly beats the alternative.
YET ANOTHER UPDATE: This reader comment on NRO's KerrySpot sums up the "substance" portion of Kerry's debate performance:
While John Kerry showed poise and looked presidential, I think he is still flip-flopping on Iraq and the war on terror. To summarize his comments: It's the wrong war at the wrong time, but I'm committed to winning it; We're spending too much on Iraq ($200 billion), but I'd send more troops and equipment; I'll bring in more nations to help Iraq, but the other nations currently in Iraq were coerced and do not provide much assistance; Saddam and Iraq were a grave threat, but Osama is the only terrorist worth pursuing; Terrorists are pourng into Iraq, but Iraq is a distraction to the war on terror. I still have no idea what he would do as President to fight this war on terrorism.