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The Tally Ho

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

The Debate

Obviously I have a bias as I long ago decided that I was voting for the junior Senator from Massachusetts. But my bias runs deeper as I am still not a registered Democrat. Perhaps I like being an “independent”, but the truth is that I think Mr. Kerry was hands down the best candidate to defeat Mr. Bush next month, as I thought Mr. Kerry would have been the best candidate to beat Mr. Bush in 2000. Many years ago in my undergraduate days I had to research Mr. Kerry for a political science course and I liked what I saw. He will never be the charismatic leader that makes people feel he understands their lives like President Clinton did, and he will never have the dedicated following and energy that Gov. Dean has. But what we have in Mr. Kerry is sharp intellect, is always well prepared, and is tough (while looking presidential). This is important for any piece of legislation as compromises have to be made with republicans or there will be no progress. I think Mr. Kerry is best equipped to handle this role. So my bias is that I have liked the good Senator for quite some time. I am not in the ABB corner, I don’t need to be inspired, and I do not think that Democrats settled.

After the good Senator’s performance against Bush Thursday night many of us are still glowing a bit. Mr. Kerry was concise, articulate, thoughtful, and most of all – he looked as if he was the POTUS. Mr. Bush, however, looked agitated, fatigued, arrogant, and befuddled as he searched for a response that seemed coherent. James Fallows and others have written about the two great debaters in some length, but Fallows’s article in the Atlantic wondered why Bush's debate and press conference skills seemed to have declined since his debates against Mr. Mauro in 1998 and Mr. Gore in 2000.
Obviously, Bush doesn't sound this way as President, and there is no one conclusive explanation for the change. I have read and listened to speculations that there must be some organic basis for the President's peculiar mode of speech—a learning disability, a reading problem, dyslexia or some other disorder that makes him so uncomfortable when speaking off the cuff. The main problem with these theories is that through his forties Bush was perfectly articulate. George Lakoff tried to convince me that the change was intentional. As a way of showing deep-down NASCAR-type manliness, according to Lakoff, Bush has deliberately made himself sound as clipped and tough as John Wayne. Moreover, in Lakoff's view, the authenticity of this stance depends on Bush's consistency in presenting it. So even if he is still capable of speaking with easy eloquence, he can't afford to let the mask slip.

I say: Maybe. Clearly Bush has been content to let his opponents, including the press, think him a numbskull. Even his unfortunate puzzled-chimp expression when trying to answer questions may be useful: his friends don't mind, and his enemies continue to underestimate him. But to me the more plausible overall explanation is the sheer change in scale from being governor of Texas to being President of the United States.

Saturday morning one roommate mentioned how years later President Reagan staffers acknowledged that Mr. Reagan showed symptoms of an early onset of Alzheimer’s. The idea that Bush is somehow dumbing himself down to play the folksy Connecticut Yankee turned Texan is really far fetched considering the importance of last Thursday night. Even Mr. Bush must have known from the beginning that things were not going well. Out of the three debates this should have been the President’s strongest. I can’t imagine him being as bad again, but the damage has been done. If he pops back Friday will the media treat him like they treated Gore in 2000 for being different in each debate? I doubt it, but I would not underestimate Mr. Bush.

The real election season started Thursday night and I think we saw why Mr. Kerry was the best nominee the Democrats possibly could have this time around. Despite the sound bites of “flip-flopper” and “miserable failure” this was the first of three times voters get to see the candidates on stage together. True, major partisans will not be persuaded, but Mr. Kerry is not trying to win the die hard Republican or bust voters. He is trying to hit the voters on the fence while making himself acceptable to Americans who before Thursday viewed this election as Mr. Bush vs. some Democrat they knew nothing about - and the 'Democrats are weak on defense and foreign affairs' attitude exists. Even my ex liberal now neo-con relative told me on Friday that Kerry was good – then she asked why she still doesn’t like him. The previous week she told me that Mr. Kerry is better than Mr. Gore. What she was saying in her usual subtle manner is she is still for Mr. Bush, but we won’t be in bad hands with a President John F. Kerry. At least one blog linked an article saying pretty much the same thing. I am not going to say that Kerry will win all three, but if he was the clear winner on foreign policy, wait until the discussion focuses on health care, renewable alternative energies, and environmental issues. Bottom line, the real campaign just started and we have the best candidate in place. 66.5 million Americans watched at least part of the debate Kerry clearly won – and as the new Newsweek Poll shows, Thursday really made a difference. I think Mr. Kerry now has an advantage because Americans know who President Bush is. They still don’t know enough about Mr. Kerry, and after Thursday they want to know more.

Any Predictions for the Edwards-Cheney Debate?

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