As the time for the big debate grew near, Democratic partisans acknowledged that it would be an “all or nothing” event for John Kerry. He was behind in most polls and his followers needed a victory to boost their sagging spirits. The angular Senator from Illinois did not disappoint his supporters. With his back against the wall, Kerry did what he had to do—clearly won the debate.
Many recent polls indicated that the majority of Americans weren’t happy with Bush, but remained unsure about Kerry as a replacement. Based upon this information it was clear that going into the first debate—the only one where the primary focus would be on foreign policy and homeland security—John Kerry had two challenges: The first was to come across as someone who is presidential and credible as an alternative to Bush. The second was to convince viewers that under Bush’s leadership we are not winning the war on terror and therefore a change of leadership is required. Kerry succeeded on both counts.
In the initial Presidential debate in 2000, viewers were surprised that Al Gore looked uncomfortable while George W. Bush appeared relaxed. In this first 2004 debate the opposite was true; this time it was Bush who appeared agitated and Kerry who came across as composed. The President relentlessly pushed his basic “talking points”; for example, that Kerry is a “flip-flopper,” while Bush is resolute. The problem was that George W. didn’t appear resolute. The candid shots taken of each candidate listening while the other responded to questions, caught Bush in several unflattering poses including exasperation and bewilderment—the infamous “deer caught in the headlights” look.
For those viewers who questioned Kerry’s experience in foreign affairs, the candidate subtly reminded them that he has served for 20 years on the Senate foreign relations committee and during that time has met with many foreign leaders and written a book on nuclear proliferation.
Before the event, pundits criticized the format, noting that it was not actually a debate, but rather, a joint press conference. However, moderator Jim Lehrer manage to overcome the limitations of the format and the result was, in fact, one of the best of all the presidential debates.
Kerry scored early with his assertion that President Bush made “a colossal error of judgment” in abandoning the hunt for Al Qaeda and invading Iraq. President Bush responded with his basic talking points—“Iraq is a central part of the war on terror” and resolute leadership is needed—and got off his best line of the evening when he accused Kerry of “a “pre-Sept. 10 mentality.” But Kerry parried effectively, criticizing Bush for not following wise advise about Iraq, including that of his father.
Commentators always search for a fatal mistake in these debates. There were two gaffes. The first came during an exchange on homeland security. Kerry listed a number of specific actions that he would take including additional funding for “first responders,” and inspection of chemical plants; he accused the President of favoring a tax cut for the wealthy over an investment in homeland security. In response, Bush snapped, “I don’t think that we want to get to how he’s going to pay for all these promises,” thereby implying that he did indeed favor tax cuts for the wealthy over additional homeland security measures.
The second gaffe came during a discussion on preemptive military action. Bush seemed to imply that he invaded Iraq because Saddam Hussein had been behind the attacks of 9/11. Kerry pounced on this; “The president just said [something] extraordinarily revealing … in answer to your question about …sending people into Iraq he just said, the enemy attacked us. Saddam Hussein didn’t attack us. Osama bin Laden attacked us.”
Ninety minutes is a long time to participate in a debate and Bush’s energy seemed to diminish towards the end. As a result he wilted, becoming defensive and continually retreating to his talking points, regardless of their relevance. Kerry grew stronger and scored with several memorable comments. Asked about whether the war in Iraq was worth the cost in American lives, Kerry harkened back to his Vietnam experience and remarked, “It is vital for us not to confuse the war – ever – with the warriors.” By the time the conversation turned to North Korea and nuclear proliferation, Kerry was clearly in command, while time and again Bush scrambled to defend his positions.
Kerry closed the debate with “I believe the future belongs to freedom, not to fear.” Bush responded with fear, “If America shows uncertainly or weakness in this decade, the world will drift toward tragedy.” The President went on, “We’ve climbed the mighty mountain. I see the valley below, and it’s a valley of peace.” For many viewers this was painfully reminiscent of President Nixon’s words about the war in Vietnam, “I see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Most Democratic partisans will conclude that Kerry exceeded their expectations and clearly won the debate. The challenger has more work to do but has turned an important corner.