The Second 2004 Presidential Debate

I must say, last night’s second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis was much better than the first. President George W. Bush (R) was definitely much more well-prepared and well-spoken, while Senator John Kerry (D-MA) cut back on his repetition and made a lot of good (although, in my humble opinion, wrong) points.

I am hard-pressed to choose a winner because both candidates did such a great job. I’m not sure that Bush won, but he certainly wasn’t steamrolled like in the previous debate. I think I have to call this one a draw.

The only really uncomfortable moment for me was when Bush talked over moderator Charlie Gibson and came down hard on Kerry for accusing Bush of “going it alone” in Iraq. Bush’s point—that there is a coalition in Iraq, its relative size notwithstanding—was a valid one that needed to be made, but Bush should not have interrupted Gibson. To paraphrase something I said (about Senator John Edwards [D-NC]) in my analysis of the VP debate: statesmen should not interrupt.

Bush only appeared really angry once in the entire debate. When the issue of stem cell research came up, Kerry accused Bush of being inconsistent on the matter (“Well, you talk about walking a waffle line—he says he’s allowed it, which means he’s going to allow the destruction of life up to a certain amount and then he isn’t going to allow it”). Watching the C-SPAN split screen, you could tell that got under Bush’s skin; he stood up and made it clear he had something to say about that. Unlike Edwards, who interrupted Vice President Cheney (R) twice (with less justification) in the VP debate, the president politely allowed Senator Kerry to finish what he was saying.

Bush’s response was measured and clear (though not necessarily grammatical)—”Let me make sure you understand my decision. Those stem-cells (sic) lines already existed. The embryo (sic) had already been destroyed prior to my decision.”

It was a dangerous gamble for Bush to stand up and look pissed, but it was a more dangerous gamble for Kerry to so distort the President’s stance on an ethical issue that he clearly cares very much about. Bush came out looking like the better man in that particular exchange.

As much as I tend to like President Bush, I am the first to admit that he is not a great communicator. His gaffes are sometimes almost unbearable—in one notable example, he referred to Senator Kerry as “Senator Kennedy,” a mistake which he apparently did not notice and definitely never corrected. But overall, the president managed to appear intelligent and friendly. (In fact, the gaffes have an unnerving way of humanizing him—making him seem real, like he’s one of us regular people).

I noticed that Kerry tended to address Bush personally—facing him, talking directly to him, etc. Bush, on the other hand, rarely addressed the Senator directly except with a sweeping gesture in his general direction. While the difference was not especially clear to those of us watching of television, I have no doubt that this hurt Senator Kerry among the in-person audience. The accusatory mannerisms probably work wonders among those who hate President Bush, but it is likely a turn-off for people who are undecided. Senator Kerry should be more careful to appear statesmanlike and courteous, and refrain from directly addressing his opponent.

Senator Kerry used the term “fuzzy math” to describe Bush’s accusation that the Senator’s policies would increase federal spending by $2.2 trillion, but “fuzzy math” could easily be the battle cry of this campaign for both Bush and Kerry. The trend of using shaky, inaccurate numbers continues unabated on both sides.

Kerry continues to claim that 1.2 million jobs have been lost during the Bush presidency, while Bush claims that 1.9 million have been added just in the last 13 months. Those are both BS numbers. What nobody seems to want to talk about is the net change in the job numbers and their trends over these years—a reality which likely falls somewhere between the two candidates’ claims. Also, Kerry continually talks about any loss of jobs as if it’s the president’s fault, and he will not concede that the pre-Bush recession, dot-com bust, or 9/11 had anything to do with it. That fallacious rhetoric, sadly, works on a lot of people.

Bush likes to talk about the 90-something times that Kerry voted for tax increases, but this is a greatly inflated number that includes multiple voting cycles on single bills. Kerry’s record in the Senate is fair game, but the Bush campaign has a responsibility to use accurate numbers. After all, saying that Kerry voted to increase taxes 20 times (for example) still sounds bad.

Anyway, aside from these things, the debate was very enjoyable and informative. You can read transcripts from this and the previous debates (including debates from previous election years, if you’re interested) at the Commission on Presidential Debates website. I’ll be linking you to the free iTunes download as soon as it’s available.

Feel free to leave your debate commentary in the comments :-).

Scott Bradford is a writer and technologist who has been putting his opinions online since 1995. He believes in three inviolable human rights: life, liberty, and property. He is a Catholic Christian who worships the trinitarian God described in the Nicene Creed. Scott is a husband, nerd, pet lover, and AMC/Jeep enthusiast with a B.S. degree in public administration from George Mason University.