Friday, October 01, 2004

Cautious Celebration, Managing Expectations*

[*this post has been updated. Also, if you read the whole thing, you'll note that while I was writing it, I became less cautious. It's still important to manage expectations, of course, but regardless of what the future holds, last night, Senator Kerry did good.]

Howard Kurtz's collection of clips indicates across the board positives for Kerry. Great - since I'd have hated waking to an alternate reality in which what I saw wasn't really what I saw.

Of course, it's all about managing expectations - otherwise, so long as last night's flustered, frustrated, stammering President merely shows up and doesn't blink in debate 3, he wins it (because where's the conflict otherwise? You know, like, outside Iraq - but why cover that at all . . . .)

Peter Canellos in the Boston Globe helped illustrate the President's reax shot troubles: "But for most of the first hour, during which Iraq was the prime focus, Bush's repetition seemed insistent rather than firm, and his body language -- sighing, clenching his teeth, rolling his eyes -- suggested a man on the defensive."

Two things, however, about the coverage may give rise to later Dem problems. First, many, including Kurtz, argue that Kerry didn't "fundamentally change the campaign conversation," implying that Kerry's only success was superficial: he looked commander-in-chiefy. Second, the M.O.U between the candidates called for no reax shots - and though all networks laughed at that requirement - Bush may well argue that rules were broken and shout about media unfairness until media carries the story (because they love covering nothing so much as themselves. And Fox controlled the camera - so a tiny skirmish on that might actually help the fair-and-balanced cred, ironically).

Back to the first point - Kerry hit just the right substantive argument by highlighting the Bush Administration's failure to go after the real 9/11 perps. It's a point that Bush glosses over again and again. And he tried last night. Each time he did, however, Kerry would come back to his point and just let Bush cling more tightly to his talking points, winding himself up in a wild-goose shaped noose. Kerry came out swinging, his body language wasn't the story, but it did back it up nicely.

By the way, Drudge reports: "Bush inner circle suggests Bush visit with Hurricane victimes earlier in day was emotionally draining, contributing to "tired" appearance in debate . . . " Awww. Well, like you said Mr. Bush, "Presidentin' is HARD!" (Or was that Will Ferrell).

This face, however, is Bush's default expression: pained at being forced to deal with dissenters or reality:

Another feeble attempt from the RNC to salvage something from last night - they are saying Kerry lied about using the word "lied." He said he never said it, RNC has a December 2003 quotation in which Kerry "relunctant[ly]" used the word lied. They file this under "shifting positions." As with last night's debate, everytime the Dems offer an argument, apple, apple, apple, apple, the Reeps are replying with monkey. Not even with orange. If they want to play with word choice, let's ask them about "vociferous," or, reaching back farther, any number of statements linking Iraq and 9/11, arguing for the presence of WMD, or the role of America as occupiers ("they're not happy they're occupied. I wouldn't be happy if I were occupied either.") Get real. For every legitimate, reasonable question posed to Reeps, their response is half-hearted, illogical, and weak.

Don't you think it a bit odd that the Reeps repeat all of Kerry's allegations and their point is that he used the word "lied," not that he was wrong about the lies? How effective is the counter argument: "See, I've been called a liar before!"

Read the rest of the clips, but the bottom line is (even if the press tries to "balance out" it's reactions today), Kerry was strong, Bush was frustrated, and each man's performance gave American a better feeling of just how high the stakes really are.

If you missed the festivities - get thee to C-SPAN, or read a complete transcript.

Update: Reader Fred commented below that Bush used "hard work" something like 11 times. He was right on the money. Through the power of Ctrl+F (nod to Ctrl+F Pioneer Jack Pitney), we find only Bush refered to his job as "hard work" - 11 times. He used the word "hard" in some form (usually implying "hard work" or "hard decisions") a total of 23 times. Kerry, on the other hand, seems to favor the word "important," using it 12 times to stress better choices, higher priorities, and more substantive qualifications. Bush uses the word 3 times - to empahsize a good personal relationship with Preemptive Pal Putin.

By the way, while I haven't had a chance to summarize my own debate reactions (which are only marginally important - and only in my own mind, at that), I did want to highlight the point at which, after a somewhat shaky start, Kerry may have sealed the deal:

And they [a collection of trusted military minds] believe it because they know I would not take my eye off of the goal, Osama bin Laden. Unfortunately, he escaped in the mountains of Tora Bora. We had him surrounded. But we didn't use American forces, the best trained in the world, to go kill him. The president relied on Afghan warlords that he outsourced that job to. That's wrong.

Also worth noting, Kerry's brief, but very effective use of humor to squish the flip-flop term early on (that he got to it first, would later help Bush look more baffoonish the more he railed about "mixed messages:

Lehrer: New question, two minutes, Senator Kerry. Colossal misjudgments, what colossal misjudgments, in your opinion, has President Bush made in these areas?

Kerry: Well, where do you want me to begin? First of all, he made the misjudgment of saying to America that he was going to build a true alliance, that he would exhaust the remedies of the United Nations and go through the inspections. In fact, he first didn't even want to do that. And it wasn't until former Secretary of State Jim Baker and General Scowcroft and others pushed publicly and said, you've got to go to the U.N., that the president finally changed his mind - his campaign has a word for that - and went to the United Nations. Now once there, we could have continued those inspections. We had Saddam Hussein trapped.
The first time Bush says "mixed" is during his rebuttal to the above Kerry answer. By the way, Bush only said "mixed messages" or "mixed signals" 8 times - fewer than "hard work." It likely resonated more with the audience because "flip-flop" has been such a pervasive and effective anti-Kerry slur. Overall, however, "mixed messages" or "signals" appears 12 times in the debate - the remaining 4 coming from Kerry - who used it well against his foe. He pitched himself the perfect set up in that opening joke. Kerry and Comedy 1, Bush and Inflexibe Repitition, 0.

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