It's clear to me that Kerry's experience as a trial attorney put him in good stead this evening. He was clearly better prepared than Bush for tonight's debate. At times, Bush was actually painful to listen to, even when he was describing policies I strongly agree with. Kerry, on the other hand, was consistently smooth and convincing, even when he was saying things I believe to be outright lies.
Kerry needed to make a lot of ground tonight, and I think with people who did not already have firm opinions about our foreign policy, he did cover that ground. Unfortunately for Bush, that's most of the swing voters that he needs. If those people were watching the debate tonight, this election probably just got a lot closer.
My impressions as I watch:
Jim Lehrer: Begins by explaining all the rules. He has formulated all the questions himself - isn't that a lot of power to grant to one person?
Bush came out first, went more than halfway over to Kerry's side of the stage.
First question: Will Kerry do a better job of protecting America from terrorist attack?
Kerry: Before answering, he sucks up to Florida. Then he says that alliances are crucial to this plan, left in "shatters by Pres. Bush. No other nation would have a veto, but Kerry claims to know how to lead alliances. His plan in Iraq: summit of all the allies. [To do what?]
Bush: Prayers are with people of Florida. Defends "anticipating" action, claims credit for capturing Saddam Hussein.
My take: This should have been a softball question for Kerry to really explain how he would make America safer. His talk about "alliances," without more, just didn't take him where he needed to go.
...ack. I've given up on trying to transcribe the whole thing, but more of the first part follows. More of my take will be in my next post.
Second question: Would Kerry election make America more vulnerable to attack?
Bush: I don't believe it [a Kerry election] will happen because America recognizes who's better to lead. Not everyone agress with Bush decisions, but he's made tough decisions and everyone knows where he stands. That's the best way to protect America. We have a duty to defeat this enemy, by never wavering and to constantly stay on the offensive while at the same time spreading liberty. Iraq is hard work because the enemy recognizes the stakes. If we succeed in Iraq
Kerry: I will hunt down and kill terrorists wherever they are. But we have to be smart, not diverting our attention to Iraq. Iraq is a colossal error of judgment. Kerry lists many high-level brass endosing him. (Tapping forcefully on the podium all the while). Bush "outsourced that job [defeating terrorism]
My take: Bush dodged the question, and got defensive early on Iraq. It would have been ok but Kerry laid a pretty heavy rhetorical glove on him. Bush will likely have a chance to respond later.
Third question: What "colossal errors" in judgment do you think Bush made?
Kerry: By failing to go to war with a real alliance, even after conservative advisors urged him to do so. Also, we went to Iraq as a "last resort" although we didn't exhaust our other remedies. We've shoved our allies aside - we're 90% of the casualties and 90% of the costs. We could have spent that money at home. We've got 10 times the troops in Iraq as Afghanistan - does that make Saddam 10 times as important as Osama Bin Laden? Kerry thinks not.
Bush: Kerry looked at the same intelligence Bush had and declared Saddam a "grave threat" in 2002. Kerry said in December of 2003 that anyone who doubts the world is safer without Saddam Hussein does not have the judgment to be president. Bush agrees. Bush describes numerous efforts of diplomacy that failed before we went to war.
My take: At one point, Kerry said we should spend "as much as it takes" to fight the war in Iraq. His point about 10 times the troops is just rhetorical BS, and Kerry knows it. Numbers of troops and money don't necessarily translate into priority - they come from estimating the resources needed to do a particular job. Bush was ready with Kerry's December 2003 quote. Kerry should have known that was coming, and he may respond later.
Next question: What about the point about priorites?
Bush: We have the capability to do both. It's essential to have strong alliances and we do. We have to keep weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of the enemy, and we are. To say theres only one focus of the war on terror misunderstands the nature of the war on terror. Ooops... mixed up Saddam with Osama briefly, but correctly pronounced the names of various Islamic terrorists.
Kerry: President described Iraq as a center of the war on terror. Iraq wasn't even close to a center of the war on terror until "the President" invaded it. He rushed into war on Iraq without a plan to win the peace. You don't send troops into war without the body armor they need. We don't have enough troops there.
Bush extended respose: Kerry voted for this war and now says wrong war, wrong place.
Kerry: I think we needd a President who can bring the allies back to the table.
My take: Bush made a very good response on the priorities question, but failed to nail Kerry on the "body armor" point (the famous "I voted for teh $87 billionbefore I voted against it.") Mixing up the names didn't help but Bush recovered well. Kerry has won this point, not because he has bnetter points, but because Bush has failed to make the killing responses that he should have.
Next question: As President, what would you do to increase Homeland Security?
Kerry: A long list of things. We're spending money on police and firehouses in Iraq but we're shutting down police stations and firehouses here at home. Most containers are not inspected coming into this country. This President thought it was nore important to give the wealthiest people in American a tax cut rather than spend it on homeland security. Long before "he and I get a tax cut", Kerry would spend that money on efforts here. At current pace, President won't secure loose nuclear material in Russia for 13 years - Kerry promises to do it in four.
Bush: How is Kerry going to pay for his promises? That's a huge tax gap, and that's for another debate. Spending $30 billion per year on homeland security, tripled from before. Formed DHS. More border patrols. We spent $3.1 billion on fire and police. We have changed the culture in FBI. The best way to protect ourselves is to stay on the offense.
Extended Kerry: FBI hasn't listened to hours and hours of tapes. The test is not whether you're spending more money, it's whether you're doing everything you can to protect America.
Bush: I wake up every day thinking about how best to protect America. You need a President who will chase these terrorists down and bring tehm to justice before they hurt us again.
My take: Bush has, in my opinion, the better plan - I agree that there is no way to make a free country inpregnable. Kerry however seems to be winning the points on style.
Next question: What criteria should we use to determine when to bring US troops home from Iraq?
Bush: The best way for Iraq to be safe in secure is for Iraqis to do the job. We need to train them. the best indication of when to bring troops home is when the Iraqis can step up and take over for themselves. Artificial deadlines - like Kerry proposes - won't work. This is a vital mission. A free Iraq will be an essential ally in the war on terror, will serve as a powerful example of freedom, will hep secure Israel, is essential for the security of this country.
Kerry: To the troops: help is on the way. The President's father didn't go into Baghdad because there was no way to have a viable exit strategy. The only building guarded when the troops went in was the Oil Ministry - not the nuclear facilities, not the borders. We'd get the job done right. Kerry will hold a summit.
Bush extension: Help is on the way? What kind of message is "wrong war wrong way wrong time?" It's hard to tell help is on the way when he voted against the $87 billion for supplemental funding.
Kerry extension: "I made a mistake in how I talk about the war." The President made a mistake in invading Iraq. Which is worse? When you know something is going wrong, you make it right.
My take: The troops apparently don't think a Kerry administration will be helpful. Finally, a mention of the vote-before-the-vote by Bush. Kerry makes a stylish rebuttal, but fails to address the substance of his vote.
Next question: Are Americans now dying in Iraq for a mistake?
Kerry: No, and they don't have to if we provide leadership. Kerry did think Saddam was a threat and did accept the intelligence. President promised to plan carefully and proceed cautiously, and go with our allies. But the President did none of those things. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended 100,000 troops. Kofi Anan offered the United Nations but this President pushed us away.
Bush: Totally absurd. Of course the U.N. was invited in. They pulled out after Sergio DeMello was killed, but now they're back in helping with elections. We didn't have allies in this war? What's he say to Tony Blair? What's he say to Poland? He wants to call ourt allies in, but how will he do that? Ask them to join us for a war that's the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time? World leaders won't follow somone whose policies change with politics? Also, he wants to hold a summit - we're already having summits.
Kerry: United Nations offered to help but we refused it, and we went into Iraq with only three allies.
Bush: He forgot Poland. And now there are 30 nations involved. How can Kerry lead the world by not honoring their contributions? He called them the coerced and the bribed.
New question: There was a miscalculation of what the conditions would be in post-war Iraq - what and how was that miscalculation?
Bush: We moved much more rapidly than we expected, so many more loyalists disappeared and have now re-appeared to fight today. We cannot achieve our objective if we send mixed signals to our troops, our allies, our citizens. NATO, Jordan, and UAE have all joined in to help train police in Iraq. Our alliances are strong and we're making progress. It's hard work to go from tyranny to democracy. A free Iraq means a more peaceful world.
Kerry: Even knowing there were no weapons of mass destruction, he would have gone in anyway. I would not. Truth is what good policy and leadership are based on. We have borned most of the costs. Now N. Korea has nukes - that's a mixed signal that we're sending.
My take: Bush is clearly going for the sound bit here by repeating the words "mixed signals" as often as possible. He must be counting on the people who are not watching the debates.
Next question: Sen. Kerry, you've accused the President of lying to the American people about Iraq. What are some examples of that?
Kerry: I have never used the word "lie" but he has not been candid. He told Congress about nuclear materials that did not exist. He said he would build an alliance and would involve the United Nations. He misled American people when he said we would plan carefully and when he said war would be a last resort. Osama bin Laden uses Iraq as a propagande point to rally his supporters.
Bush: Osama bin Laden does not decide how we defend ourselves. Kerry wasn't misdleading when he called Iraq a grave threat in 2002. He wasn't misleading when he said it was right to disarm Iraq in spring of 2003, or when he said that anyone not in favor of removing Saddam from power didn't have the judgment to be president. I don't think you can succeed in Iraq if you keep changing your positions, and as the politics change, he changes. We looked at the very same intelligence.
Kerry: He made a mistake in not building strong alliances. One consistent position: Saddam was a threat
Bush: Only thing consistent about opponent's position is that it is inconsistent. You can't win this war on terror if you keep changing positions.
Hey, it's the last day of September. That means we've got just about thirty-something days left until the presidential elections. In years past, this weblog would have been chock full of political commentary during the primary, the conventions, and the lead-up to the first presidential debates.
So why the silence? In part, I've had my mind on other things. My work, my family, virtually anything else but politics. I know where I stand, and I have a pretty good idea of where the candidates stand - or fail to stand. Not much has happened in the last three months to change that.
The other part is that, frankly, there are many others who are doing it better this cycle. In 2000, there were just a handful of us blogging the elections, and just a finger or two weren't from the left hand. This year, huge volumes of commentary, from just about every possible political viewpoint, saturate the internet in general and the blogosphere in particular. I feel I have little to add that's not been said elsewhere, at least about politics.
Of course, that won't stop me tonight. The debates, and tonight's debate in particular, are the best chance of the two major party candidates to fully lay out how their positions differ on the issues that matter most to Americans. After tonight, if the process works, we'll have a better idea of what each candidate hopes to do with the next four years (and not just their opinions of how the last four years have gone). Americans can decide which vision they want implemented between now and 2008. If the process fails, we'll have no better idea tomorrow than we did this morning.
Because tonight is such an important part of the process, I intend to follow it closely. The best way for me to do that is to share it with you, my reader(s) (can I still use the plural?) as I follow along.
I have a pretty good idea of which party (including the two major parties and various alternative parties) most closely matches my position on foreign policy and national security. But no party matches it exactly, so we'll see how far off Bush and Kerry are from my perspective this evening.