Debate Thoughts III

October 14, 2004

I did not take notes this time. In addition, the kids woke up screaming around 9:30 and remained up for a while. So my attention was divided between the two men differing with one another on the TV screen and the little man screaming into my left ear.

I did have a couple of quick impressions.

When Bush is challenged about jobs, he talks about education. He talks well about education -- it does appear to be something he has pushed both as governor and as president. He centers his education program on No Child Left Behind, a program that I am not so sure about. On the plus side, it is designed to keep kids from slipping through the cracks of the public education system. This is good. On the bad side it focuses on teaching to the test, to the detriment of other subjects. (I am a historian -- this gores my ox.) More importantly, the basic studies and programs that the program is based on were in Houston, and it now turns out that they got those fine scores the old fashioned way - they cooked the data. So we are engaged on a national educational experiment based on cooked data.

My other worry about NCLB is that while the stated purpose of the law is to improve education, many of the implementation requirements, including the way that it chops the student body into lots of little groups and fails a school if any group has a bad year, seems designed to give lots and lots of public school systems the public stigma of being a failed school. This division might make good sense in multi-ethnic districts where about a third of the students identify hispanic, a third black, and two thirds white - the pattern in a Houston suburb. It does not make sense in New Jersey districts where there are not a lot of hispanic students, and where a normal statistical variation in class size and test performance can blast a school's image. The whole thing seems to have the secondary purpose of steering parents away from public school and towards a public-private partnership like vouchers.

Back to the debate.

I thought Kerry did a good job of elucidating the differences between the two on abortion. I also was struck by the extent to which he brought his faith forward, and the extent to which he accused Bush of being a bad Christian. Kerry says that faith without deeds is worthless, that the measure of deeds is what we do for the least fortunate among us, and that Bush has taken care of the rich while leaving the poor to flounder. Which Bush has - economic inequality has been rising sharply since 1980, even more sharply since 2000. The irony, of course, is that according to what I saw on some of the right wing web sites, Bush gives a larger percentage of his income in charity than Kerry does. Still, what sort of a person does a good deed in their own name while helping their friends take advantage of others for profit or pleasure?

Bush's faith, by contrast, is a personal touchstone. He prays for strength and clarity; he associates some of his core values with his faith, especially liberty; he did a good job of presenting himself as a closet christian rather than a practitioner of any social gospel or collective faith.

I wanted Kerry to talk more about class and inequality. He did not. He should have. Instead Kerry talked about the middle class, the middle class, the middle class.

After seeing the video of Bush's gubernatorial debate I was struck by the changes in his diction and word choice. He must have been having a bad day, because it appeared to me that he was putting pauses between his sentences in an attempt to add gravitas - the Paul Harvey effect. He uses short simple sentances, not the compound diction of the Texas debate, but this could well be a conscious decision to speak to the voters and not to the reporters.

More importantly for Bush, he did not lose his temper. I only saw him going into frantic eye-blink mode once, and forgot to note which point Kerry was making at the time, but overall he looked less pressured and more comfortable than he had during the first debate. This is bad for Kerry.

I agree with Kerry's message, so it is hard for me to judge the debate. I want to give it to the man who said the things that I agree with. I do think they did a good job of clarifying the differences between the two.

At times it was unclear if Kerry was running against Tom DeLay or George Bush. Then again, the two do go together. I was appalled to see Bush moan and groan about partisanship in national government. He and his administration appear to have made a conscious policy decision to emphasize partisan differences, perhaps as a response to the Nader 2000 charge that the parties were interchangable. But, that decision did not have to extend to systematic abuse of Congressional rules and procedures, which it has.

Reading back it appears that most of this commentary is about Bush. That makes sense - the election is both a referendum on Bush's performance in the last four years and also a choice of direction and priorities for the next four years.

I like Kerry's direction and style. I think Bush needs to go back to business school and re-take his courses on corporate leadership. He has run his administration like a corporation, but like a failed corporation, insisting on being told what he wants to hear and not what is really going on, firing people for challenging his positions but not for lying about their actions or bungling the execution of those policies. It is an administration of yes-men and sycophants. And that is no way to run a railroad.

Posted by Red Ted at October 14, 2004 07:53 AM | TrackBack