The first presidential debate of 2004 is over. Let the pundit class debates begin!
Conservatives are disappointed that Bush was no Reagan and Kerry was no Gore. Upon brief reflection, our expectations about the former were unrealistic and our hopes about the latter appear simplistic. We will know before November 2nd if Senator Kerry can sustain the buzz his campaign is trying to generate about his performance, which was remarkable due primarily to its restraint.
President Bush, normally the soul of discipline and self-control, was visibly rattled from the start, as though he just received terrible news. With only a few deviations, Kerry stuck to his game plan with atypical consistency. Theirs was the most unexpected role reversal since Dr. Evil stole Austin Powers' mojo.
The debate was a grim affair, although my family and I laughed long and hard when Kerry claimed that he never wavered. We also took turns shouting suggestions to Bush through the TV. I think the biggest negative for Bush was that he lost the light, humorous touch that was on display as recently as his interview with Bill O’Reilly, which Fox News televised earlier this week. Bush’s mistakes, if they deserve to be classified as such, were more of omission than commission. For every time he capitalized on a weakness, he let pass a golden opportunity to frame an issue and define Kerry’s position.
On the positive side, the President’s growth as a debater since 2000 is obvious and commendable. He has become a more confident public speaker with an easier grasp of facts. Kerry exhibited his infamous tendency to overreach for supporting information that sounds impressive but crumbles under examination, like his visit to Treblinka. For someone who describes the war in Iraq as the “wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Kerry has a quirky habit of inserting himself in the right historical places at just the right moment with a dramatic flair reminiscent of Zelig, the Woody Allen character with whom Kerry shares other less-than-desirable qualities.
Viewers with a critical ear might find repetition and plain speaking dull or even grating, but the voting public long ago accepted the President’s stylistic shortcomings. Robotic wonkiness might be worth a few points in a CBS poll, but honesty and consistency are priceless.