Debate Thoughts

September 30, 2004

I just finished watching the debate and wanted to jot down a couple of thoughts.

I was watching the C-Span version - split screen closeups of the two men throughout the entire debate.

What struck me was the differing moments when both candidates spoke fluidly and fervently: Kerry on nuclear proliferation, Bush on the importance of remaining steadfast in Iraq.

I prefer Kerry on the policies, so add salt to this observation, but at the start of the debate Kerry was looking a little gaunt and horse-faced while Bush was looking good - it was the little things like the Presidential tailoring, but they looked like challenger and president. By the end of the debate, perhaps my eye had adjusted to the contours of Kerry's long face, but the two images had reversed. Kerry's closing half hour looked presidential - he projected a lot of gravitas in his conclusion, passion in his discussions of nuclear proliferation, and humor in his passing comments. It was an impressive package. By the end Bush was looking less presidential, especially during his closing remarks when his eyes were blinking like a hazard warning light. Bush shrank during the course of the debate.

Both candidates hit their packaged talking points hard, coming back to them again and again. Bush focused on steadfast policy in Iraq, the difficulties of leading soldiers through a war that you have previously labeled a mistake, and on Kerry's back and forthing. Kerry defended his record and several times accused Bush of being willfully misleading; he went out of his way never to say the word "lie," but Jim Lehrer used it for him.

I kept waiting for Lehrer to to ask the two why it was that Kerry was calling for a broader coalition in Iraq, bilateral talks with North Korea, while Bush was arguing that the coalition in Iraq was broad enough --- he never said it, but he said as much -- while we needed to maintain the six-way talks with North Korea, talks that Bush claimed would be destroyed by any bilateral discussion.

Both candidates ducked some questions, turned others to pre-packaged talking points, and otherwise played the sound bite game. I was a little more disappointed in Kerry for this, probably because I had higher expectations for him.

These debates are bizarre and heavily scripted performances. In addition, both Bush and Kerry have been avoiding open news conferences and other positions where they would have to take multiple questions or deal with complex followups to their answers. Both have been giving speeches or participated in partisan rallies, and both have eschewed formal press conferences. I am not sure if an American equivalent of the British Question Time would be a useful way to pick a President, or even to vet a President, but it would tilt the political system to emphasize people who can either be a little more clear about their plans and policies or who can be more effective obfuscators.

I keep coming back to those closing statements. Bush blinked a lot; I forget if he is a fast blinker or a slow blinker, but he was blinking a lot more at the end of the debate, and even more during his closing speech. A blink is a sign of nervousness or of being unsure -- it is why some people use a change in blink patterns as a low-tech form of lie detector -- and Bush had a lot less gravitas at the end of the exchange.

Posted by Red Ted at September 30, 2004 10:32 PM | TrackBack