Friday, October 01, 2004

First Round to Bush

My first Presidential debate was certainly eventful. Before I go to any blogs or watch the TV commentary, I will try to give as unfiltered an evaluation as I can before my mind gets polluted by any spin.

TV has an effect that's overwhelmingly emotional, which is one reason I prefer to get my news from the print media and the web where one's perception can be sharper. However, completely contrary to my expectations, I think that President Bush came through this debate well. Had I not known, I would have tagged him and not Senator Kerry as the one-time captain of the Yale debate team and former prosecutor.

It was all very civilised, like any modern form of male dominance fighting. For my part, I wouldn’t tolerate having to stand up and stay in one spot for that long.

I've never hear either man speak at such length for long. Bush stumpled over his words now and again, and sometimes froze for a second or two before beginning speaking. Most of the time, however, he was like a boxer in command of the ring, jabbing from different angles and dancing away from any comeback. Looking tanned and relaxed, he showed much creater affability and an open demeanor. Sometimes slurring his words slightly, he seemed pithy and open, and didn't show any of his famous ticks, such as the shrug he gave after each rhetorical question in his address to the UN General Assembly in late 2002(?). He only said "folks" once two, again referring to al-Qaeda. Foreign names came out perfectly, although President Putin was "Vladimir" and Iran's rulers referred to with exageratted vowels as "moolaahs".

While Kerry focused intensely on the moderator, Bush mostly scanned the audience, sometimes gazing evenly into the camera to address the television audience directly. Kerry barely smiled only when in complete agreement with Bush, as when they exchanged compliments about their families. Kerry's body language was tight, almost hand-clasping while Bush was more open and expansive.

Bush seemed to have prepared well, repeating constantly that mixed messages would be a problem were Kerry to be elected. Kerry's points on Iraq in particular struck me as convoluted and left me unclear as to his position, apart from the fact that he fastened on "allies", mentioned three times in the first question alone, as the key component of the solution, along with a summit of those Arab and European countries with an interest in the country. There's a four point plan somewhere in the middle of everything he said, but I'm damned if I can figure out what it might be.

As a counterfactual, Kerry offered that if he had shown the patience to have another round of resolutions to get people to support the US, they would have dealt with him.

On Iraq, Bush repeated his mantra of hold fast, not sending "mixed message to our troops, our allies and the Iraqi people". He emphasised a number of times that Kerry had seen the same intelligence he had and had voted his approval for the war. While I am hardly an unbiased observer, I'm doubtful that Kerry's simplified plan - bring in the allies, hold a summit - would help. Bush pointed out that Britain, Australia and - with a little flourish - Poland - were faithful friends making a large contribution.

Parrying the alleged slighting to Iraqi interim PM Allawi and his suggestion of a six-month deadline for troops to withdraw seemed beyond Kerry.

The second major area of disagreement was North Korea. While mentioning that Kim Jong-Il had gone nuclear on Bush's watch, Kerry committed himself to direct bilateral talks. Bush strongly contesting this, laying out his strong preference for keeping the neighbouring countries, and China in particular, to work with America through the multilateral six-power talks process.

Kerry might have scored with his detailed points on preventing nuclear proliferation by buyback programs for loose materials from the former Soviet Union, promising a complete purchase within a four-year term. Kerry also seemed to hit a homer with the specific plans he offered on homeland security, shortages of resources for bridges, tunnels and subways and customs inspections.

One interesting phrase Kerry used, mixing foreign policy with what he seems to think of as an obvious bogeyman, was "outsourcing" the job of getting Bin Laden, specifically at Tora Bora, Afghanistan, in late 2001.

The Senator's responses often seemed to be grammatical wheels within wheels of nested clauses; he gave an impression of awkwardness in answering some questions, especially on Iraq.

In framing his anecdotes, Bush plainly employed the Clinton trick, telling of the soldier's widow in NC who said, "after we prayed and hugged and laughed some", that her husband understood what he was fighting for.

Kerry's were more impersonal, involving his foreign travels. He saw the files held in the KGB's Lubyanka headquarters at the collapse of the Soviet Union, which underscored the difficulty of Russia's transition to democracy and they didn't reinforce his argument in the same direct and simple way Bush's did.

Senator Kerry closed by reiterating, "I believe we are strongest when we reach out and build strong alliances", but the whole section seemed a less than whole-hearted pitch.

In his conclusion, Bush also seemed less direct than necessary, although offered that "I believe in the transformational power of liberty". Surpisingly, he also said that the US would keep an "all-volunteer army".