2004 Presidential Debates, #1

Last Thursday, I watched John Kerry do exactly what he needed to in order to make Bush look bad. He didn’t trounce him, or have a movie moment of utter victory, but he played it exactly like he should’ve. I am a liberal, with strong Democratic leanings, but I realize that the debates determine the tone for the rest of the campaign and I am less interested in declaring the winner and more interested in seeing who looks like a winner. John Kerry looked like a winner.

Kerry played Bush like a skilled chess player works a poor one. He set Bush up to get flustered and defensive, and kept him there. Every Bush response was reflexive, not responsive. Kerry lobbed issues at Bush, and Bush smashed them back with all of the bluster and gracelessness of an angry child on the tennis court. Kerry played the shots without rushing them, being sure to set up the next play, which is why Bush couldn’t keep up (aside from the lack of positives to point to in the first place).

The President ended up coming off like an under-performing employee, giving the two-tiered excuse approach: “It’s hard work” and “we’re making progress” in response to any assertion on Iraq and the War on Terror. Kerry could’ve been standing in a room with a photocopier spitting out sheets with “Mixed messages are bad” written on them. In fact, Bush used the phrase so much, he actually stumbled on it and said “mexed missages”. I think that’s a sign to back off of your one-column platform and change up.

Did this debate provide any policy surprises? Not really. Nuclear proliferation was pushed to the forefront by Kerry (along with a mention of his book), which I didn’t foresee. But, largely, it was a fashion show, a chance to see how the candidates performed under fire, not to comb over the specifics of their plans. Bush was exposed for the stubborn, flustered fool he is, and Kerry came out with few significant scratches (unless you count the rumblings about the “global test”).

From what I’ve seen thus far, Kerry’s performance is the start of some home-stretch momentum. Let’s see if he and Edwards can keep it up (Yes, I’m posting this after the VP debate, so I already see that they can. What can I say? I’m indirectly topical.).

One last note: funniest word of the debate: mullah (pronounced ‘moo-lah’).

Here’s a transcript on NPR.org, and some fact-checking on