The First 2004 Presidential Debate

Well, I think the debate was somewhat disappointing. Neither Bush nor Kerry strayed from the party line, and none of them offered anything new or particularly interesting. This was all just a rehashing of previously stated opinions.

As my endorsement of President Bush explains, I think Bush won on the policy arguments themselves—ie., I think he was right and Kerry was wrong about most of what they said—but this analysis is not about the policy stances, this is about critiquing both candidates’ performance. From the position of the disinterested apolitical observer, I think it’s pretty clear that John Kerry won this debate.

At least up ’til the last question and the closing arguments.

President Bush did not seem to be on top of his game last night. Occasionally he got a deer-in-the-headlights type of blank stare and would stand silent for some uncomfortable seconds. More relevantly, he was too apt to regurgitate his basic policy opinions without expanding on them or fleshing them out. The constant repetition really hurt him—half the time I was tuning the president out because I’d just heard whatever he was saying in his answer to the previous question.

Senator Kerry did a pretty good job of filling his time and sounding lucid and intelligent, but he also was too apt to repeat his already-stated opinions instead of expanding on them. When his apparent flip-flopping on Iraq came up, Kerry did not explain it sufficiently—come on, John, just admit you changed your mind and tell us why. Most of us aren’t dumb enough to think you’ve actually been consistent about Iraq, and most of us want a logical explanation (and would be willing to accept one, if offered).

Both candidates missed plenty of opportunities. When John Kerry explained that he did believe Saddam Hussein was a threat, but thought we needed more international support before going to war with him, Bush could easily have said something like, “My opponent says that we need to get permission from France and Germany before we defend our interests against threats abroad. I disagree, I believe that the United States has a right and an obligation to eliminate threats even in the face of international opposition.” Agree or disagree, that’s a strong argument—and Bush failed to make it.

Bush wasn’t the only one missing opportunities. This was Kerry’s chance to explain himself—his contradictory opinions on Iraq, what he would’ve done differently than President Bush, and so on. He didn’t do much of that. He just trotted out his same-old rhetoric about how the war in Iraq was a bad idea. Give us more to work with, here!

What probably surprised me most was how the whole debate fell apart at the end. The final question was a question about Russia and the direction that Putin is headed (rolling back some of that country’s Democratic reforms), and in Kerry’s rebuttal he suddenly said, “Now, I’d like to come back . . . to China and the talks [about North Korea].” No, Senator Kerry, the question was about Russia! Then, in President Bush’s response to that, he was talking about Iraq again. THE QUESTION WAS ABOUT RUSSIA. Stay on-topic, people.

Anyway, the only thing that saved President Bush from a relative trouncing (again as far as presentation, not policy) was a powerful, clear closing statement. Kerry’s was comparatively weak.

So that’s my 2¢. Feel free to leave your 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.