Friday, October 01, 2004

Debate impressions

My take on the debate.

General: Was this the Foreign Policy debate or the War in Iraq Debate and the Rest of Foreign Policy Debate is next week?

Appearances: Kerry presented himself well, spoke forcefully, made many good points which, I could argue, were both true and, on its face, showed that Bush has made some decisions which, in common parlance, would be termed mistakes. Kerry statements were dotted with points to substantiate his assertions, most of which were that Bush had done everything wrong. Bush did okay, but did not win on very many of the questions, in most part because he left his assertions, whether needed or not, without supporting reasons. To win and win convincingly, if only on appearances, debate format must be rigidly adhered to. For policy wonks and blogoshpere types, who have above average understanding of the details, appearances do not generally sway, but what percentage of the viewing voters (not to mention the 'newspaper headline readers only' voters) do these folks constitute.

Substance: First off, I should say there are times I wish Bush wasn't such a born-again Christian. He was too gracious to Kerry, particularly on his Senate record. The best example? The talk about the merit and need in going into Iraq. For example, Bush didn't even make Kerry work for it, allowing that Kerry saw the same intelligence information Bush saw. Who says Kerry saw the same information - he rarely attended Intelligence meetings. In fact, there was the little brouhaha maybe two months ago where Kerry didn't have time for a critical intelligence briefing but began criticizing Bush for warning of heightened security risk. I would have pushed this into the open, probably with a remark more snide than Bush would have ever have let pass his lips, but he didn't even use that. As president, would Kerry attend only 24% of all his vaunted summits? Would he be at work only 10% of time? Would he propose any legislation?

The contrast between the two could also have had better light shone on it, if Bush had emphatically directed the viewers attention to Kerry's ability to prognosticate about the past. Kerry has no detailed plan for Iraq except based on what has been tried there and hasn't shown any ability to foresee what should be done. Kerry would be stripped of this convenient ability the moment he had to make a decision on how direct, or even react to future events. He is a backbench carper (he would be shown for the poser he is within a month of being a British MP), the backseat driver who 'knows' the right way to go after you make the wrong turn. Bush was visibly frustrated at some of Kerry's remarks and I sat there hoping he would start at least one of his responses with "Coulda, woulda, shoulda ... " in his Texan drawl and then lay into Kerry on his penchant for giving advice on how the past should be and end with the suggestion that Kerry should at least dabble more in the stock market.

I mentioned before in appearances that Bush did not support his assertions well. To some extent this is the box his governing style has put him in and which, I think, is one of his biggest mistakes. It is the behind-the-scenes, and, sometimes extending to the secrecy governing style. Not that this is all bad but that the administration relies on it too much (maybe with the exception of Rumsfeld who could possibly be a tad too far in the other direction.) Because of this, backing up his assertions in the debate might have left him with being accused of sounding like Kerry. It is compounded by twin qualities, learned from business studies, of trying to convince associates that they came up with your idea and, possibly, relying too much on letting others learn from mistakes of their own making. A easy case in point. Bush had trouble defending his decision to go into Iraq based, today, on the surge in fighting, much of it emanating from the Sunni triangle. The mistake learned is less by those in the administration than by those in Iraq wanting to decide approaches and methods. Bush should have laid out, publicly, the options and consequences of, say, not finishing the pacification of Fallujah or Najaf (the first Najaf), and, if he still wanted to allow giving the Iraqi's a chance to try their approach, at least the result we have seen could have been defended satisfactorily by Bush. And Najaf would have then been prominent in this debate. Because the administration did not clearly lay out the probable consequences of many choices beforehand, he was less able to defend the reasons for going into Iraq, the 'mission accomplished' accusation, and the reasons for the difficulties now. Bush had to rely on the implicit force of his assertion that it was the right thing to do, it was essential to do it and we must persevere in completing it.

Conclusion: Kerry won decisively on appearance, Bush won, with great effort, on substance. Fortunately, appearances don't win in the long run and since the debate is now being debated and will be until the next debate, Bush will be able to put this one in his column.

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