Friday, October 01, 2004


I've never really been able to figure out why everyone thinks debates are so important. As a positive matter, their influence on eventual election outcomes seems negligible. Normatively, why should we base our electoral decisions on how candidates deliver 90 second answers to a reporter's questions? Nothing a president does, outside press conferences, involves "thinking on their feet." The role of the president is much more to do with setting priorities, assembling and listening to a group of expert advisors, deciding between often unpleasant alternatives, and then, sometimes, selling the chosen course to the public and the world. Thus, it seems to me, the conventions, unbearable as they may be, are a better place to look for good clues about a candidate's ability to serve as president than the debates.

Of course, the press scoffs at the conventions and plays up the importance of debates (and press conferences), but this is because the press gets to play a larger role in debates and press conferences and get led around by the candidates during the conventions.

That's by way of explaining why I only watched part of the debate, switching back from the Air Force - Navy football game. I've also been reading the usual suspects and watching some of the post debate spin. This probably means I'm in a state rather the opposite of Kaus's "laboratory-like purity". But it probably also means I'm more representative of your typical voter. So, here's my take.

It's quite obvious, as almost everyone's pointed out, that Kerry won in any traditional forensic sense. He was smoother, looked better, had more facts at his command (even if some were made up), and slammed Bush pretty well on important points. Meanwhile, Bush was, in fact, "repetitive and reactive." He also missed plenty of opportunities to go after Kerry on anything other than the flip flop mantra, and he particularly played into Kerry's plan by failing to mention Kerry's record in the Senate. (The Bushies may have learned the lesson of Reagan's first debate with Mondale, where he got lost in a forest of facts, a bit too well. A handful of well-placed attacks on things such as Kerry's vote to decrease intelligence spending after the first WTC bombing would have not only helped get him off the defensive, but would have blunted the dummy criticism.)

That said, the post-debate spin suggests that if the debate is going to have any effect on the election, it will be in Bush's favor. First, because Bush was so repetitive, he didn't make any big goofs that will haunt him. You can tell because the only attack the Dems are pushing is that Bush looked angry. If he'd said something really stupid, we'd be hearing about it.

On the other hand, the Bush team is nailing Kerry on a few specifics that will last more than a day or so. Most notably is the "global test" line. They'll also use the incredible assertion that the way to deal with Iran is to give them nuclear fuel, and probably the business about eliminating the nuclear bunker buster. I also think that his screw ups on the coalition (saying it's not what he'd call a "grand coalition" and especially forgetting Poland completely) are going to hurt. Kerry also, as many others (Including David Frum here) have pointed out, has boxed himself in so anything he says about Iraq conflicts with something he's said before, and so the Republicans are adding his statements from last night to the flip flopper ads (and perception) they'd already created.

The people have already told the pollsters that they agree with me that debates don't make much difference in how they'll vote. Even if Kerry gets a couple points in the short term in other polls, I predict that within a few days we'll see Bush's numbers creep back up as the images fade and the actual meaning of what Kerry said seeps in.