The Debate

Having a blog and not covering some aspect of the debates is like having a 60 inch flat screen TV and not watching the Super Bowl. So I'm going to give my impressions, observations, and thoughts on the second presidential debate below. Hopefully some people will find them interesting.

As in the first debate, I thought the debate did a good job of highlighting the differences between the two candidates position-wise. This is more important for Kerry than for Bush I think because people already know where Bush stands, but aren't so sure about where Kerry stands. Any contrast with the incumbent will help to define his positions better. I thought that the "town-hall" forum was a much better one for Bush, but Kerry also managed to be personable for him and not stiff.

I was not entirely surprised that in the foreign policy section of the debate, Bush was clearly repeating all of his stuff from the first debate. It was especially annoying when he started with "you can't be the commander in chief if you waver" and "I know how the world works; these foreign leaders aren't going to listen to a president who shows indecisiveness...wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time..." Whatever validity there may be in the criticism of Kerry's incoherence on the Iraq issue seems to be nullified by the fact that Bush repeated it so many times. A point that stood out to me as particularly interesting was when Bush answered the question about the draft, which was probably the only time in the debate that caused me to think. After promising that there would be no need to reinstate a draft, he made an interesting statement that a smaller all-volunteer army is better suited to fighting the new kind of war on terror. I assume that's because the new kind of war doesn't require sheer manpower in order to overwhelm an enemy in the battlefield by numbers but rather relies heavily on intelligence and small-scale operations.

As before, Kerry was better at citing specific facts to argue his points, which on a pure debating basis has to gain him some merit. I was also happy to see that he finally seems to have come up with a politically functionable "stance"(I put it in quotes because it's not so much a stance in that it's something he has adhered to with conviction, but rather a successful formulation that is both consistent with his previous positions, and is politically viable) on the Iraq issue. Basically he acknowledges that Saddam was a threat, he needed to be dealt with, he gave George Bush the power to deal with him which he used unwisely thus causing the current troubles there, and that a less hasty, more carefully thought out, and more multilateral (at least in terms of support) effort would have been more successful. He can assert that the war was a mistake because 1) the president didn't go about it in the "right" way that he would have and 2) ex post facto we know there aren't any weapons of mass destruction, which undermines the primary rationale for the war, and thus making it a mistake. At the same time, he can commit to winning the war because a loss would create an even bigger mess. It's an ideal position for Senator Kerry because he can be both the anti-war and pro-war candidate and have some justification for it; he's anti-war in principle, but pro-war as a realist. Note that I don't know if Kerry actually believes in his stance, let alone "has always held it consistently," but politically, it's a smart formulation that utilizes the current troubles there now to his advantage. Kerry's point about the importance of having strong alliances for securing the intelligence which is vital to winning war we're currently fighting also struck me as a very good point.

On domestic policy Kerry did worse I thought. He said something about the Patriot Act, which got me listening, but then it wasn't clear what his position was. Although he has said he supports the Patriot Act in the past, he spent the full minute talking about not eroding civil liberties and I wasn't sure what that meant in terms of actual policy change. Also when asked about embryonic stem cells I felt he was pandering and hedging as he acknowledged the feeling of the issue, or something to that effect, but refused to answer what he believes and whether he would ban it or not. In contrast, Bush's answer was much more definite, and he was much better at conveying what he believes about the issue. In answering this question, I think that stating personal belief is quite important because of the moral and religious dimensions to it.

In the beginning, Bush was still trying to attack Kerry's character which I find off-putting, but I was impressed that at one point Kerry countered it by directly calling him on it, after which I don't think Bush did it anymore. Actually I'm surprised that so far, both debates have been remarkably good-spirited, and honest, in the sense that each candidate is honestly portraying his stances - not necessarily in terms of factuality and accuracy.

In terms of the closing statements, I thought Kerry's was better. Bush of course emphasized the importance of having a resolute president to lead during a war like the one we're involved in now. This got me thinking: why is that necessarily true any more for an intelligence-based war than for a more conventional old-fashioned war, which seems to have been the implication? I wished he would give more specifics on that, but like in most of the debate he seems unable or unwilling to provide them. Maybe in the future I'll do a post on what I think of that.

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