Short Takes on the Debate

Editor's Note The first presidential debate lasted 90 minutes, and while it covered a range of topics, it also revealed some central points about the two candidates. Below are short takes from AlterNet's editors and invited commentators summing up their take on the debate.

Steve Cobble, Political Consultant A clear win for Kerry. Since I did debate prep for Dennis Kucinich during the Democratic primaries, I got to watch Kerry in dozens of debates. This was one of his better efforts. He kept it concise; separated Iraq from Bush's "war on terror" cover story; and even criticized W's "colossal error in judgment" in Iraq – not exactly "Bush lied, people died," but not "ditto" either.

Bush never hit his stride until his closing. It took him all of ten seconds to first mention 9/11. Mostly he repeated stock phrases over and over, never looked in command, and often seemed irritated. Bush ended with some of his usual religious rhetoric. One line was: "I believe in the transformational power of liberty." Well, so do I. Our right to vote, won with the blood of marchers and freedom fighters, can change America's direction. If we use it.

Safir Ahmed, Editor, AlterNet In a debate that was so much about Iraq, there was far too little talk about death and dying. Earlier Thursday and half a world away, a string of bombs killed 35 Iraqi children, the largest death toll of children since the war began. Here's what an AP reporter filed from the scene: "Grief-stricken mothers wailed over their children's bloodied corpses, as relatives collected body parts from the street for burial and a boy picked up the damaged bicycle of his dead mother."

Over at the debate in Florida, there was absolutely no mention of the more than 12,000 Iraqis who have died so far. Even regarding the American casualties, it was left up to Jim Lehrer to mention the loss of life when he asked the only pointed question of President Bush: "Has the war in Iraq been worth the cost of American lives, 1,052 as of today?"

Clearly uncomfortable answering the question, Bush rambled on about "tough decisions," about how "every life matters," and then mentioned meeting Missy Johnson, a war widow, adding, rather goofily, "You know, it's hard work to try to love her as best as I can, knowing full well that the decision I made caused her loved one to be in harm's way."

For his part, Kerry at least stated boldly that he wouldn't rush to war as Bush did, adding: "You've got to be able to look in the eyes of families and say to those parents, 'I tried to do everything in my power to prevent the loss of your son and daughter.'"


Don Hazen, Executive Editor, AlterNet A crowd of 150 liberals and progressives hooted and cheered at predictable moments during the first presidential debate at a Jazz Club in the SOMA section of San Francisco. Those attending were encouraged to throw $25 into the kitty for MoveOn's ad campaign when they arrived. So the chances of finding a Bush fan in the house were rather slim. Nevertheless there were more than a few Kerry skeptics as I went around the room, and to a person, they all were impressed with the challenger's performance on this night, significantly increasing their enthusiasm for the candidate they were unsure about.

It was difficult to see many pluses for Bush, even as I asked the viewers, an eclectic bunch of PR pros, real estate brokers, lawyers, and activists, to put themselves in the shoes of the Republicans and assess the debate. The best that could be said, suggested one person, was that there wasn't really a break out for either candidate. But it was hard to escape the presence of a "presidential" Kerry. Bush seemed the rookie, leaning on the same messages over and over, and suggesting that four years on the job had not added any gravitas.

One event organizer, environmentalist David Hochschild, pointed out that the split screen effect really hurt Bush, because he made so many goofy faces. That seemed a persistent theme that ran through Jon Stewart's post debate show as well: Bush looked dumb and confused, while Kerry seemed sharper and more pointed. Bush's repetitions of the "It takes hard work to fight the terrorists" line, at least a dozen times, probably was more than even the stay-on-message professionals wanted. It suggested that Bush didn't have much to say.

An activist who had just returned from working with swing voters in Ohio suggested that many Ohio voters, even Bush supporters, were going to experience some shock. These voters haven't had much exposure to Kerry, and the honest viewers were going to have to face the music that Kerry was much more informed and coherent on every level. "The Bush campaign treats people like they can't be intelligent beings, suggesting all they care about is Kerry's 'flip-flops,' without putting something positive on the table," the activist said. "Kerry empowered people with his performance tonight."

Lakshmi Chaudhry, Senior Editor, AlterNet When a presidential candidate is reduced to repeating two phrases over and over again – "hard work" and "mixed messages" – even the most loyal viewer must know he is in trouble. When Joe Scarborough, one of the most die-hard conservative hosts on television, immediately concedes the debate to the opposition, even George Bush knows he is in trouble.

John Kerry won the first debate in Miami. No amount of Republican spin is going to undo that fact. He was strong, confident, and yes, even presidential, to use that much-favored media word. Kerry also finally laid rest to the Swift Boat Vet smears. There was no doubt that the man who faced the nation is indeed the same man who both went to Vietnam and then had the courage to question a pointless war.

And the most important fact to remember – which may well be buried in the pursuit of the trivial and faux objectivity that may color media spin – in a debate about foreign policy and the war on terror, even a modest victory for John Kerry is a body blow for the "war president."

Farai Chideya, journalist and host, "It's Your Call":
I got to see the debates from Miami. No, not from inside the hall, but at least from within Miami. Actually, a few minutes before the debate started, I was walking across a soggy sports field with Paula Zahn. Instead of trying to go to the debates, we were breakin' out. See, the media credentials didn't come with actual seats. Most of the journos who made it through the security perimeter were there to watch on televisions while logging on their computer or filing for TV or radio. Only a handful of reporters made it in. I wasn't one of them... so I ended up watching the debates in a crowd of Kerry supporters at the Miami arena. It was like pundit karaoke, with one gent (who looked oddly like an-gah-ree Republican movie star Ron Silver) yelling one-liners at the screen. The mood of many Democrats before the debate was, um, desperation. As in: hey, Boston Boy, if you eff this one up, it's over. But the mood as I left the hall – before John F. Kerry was due to arrive, and John Cougar due to play – ranged from elated to merely optimistic. I got in my car just in time to hear a radio host declare that, yes, Bush had lost the debate – but only because it was unfair and unbalanced.

Nick Penniman, Executive Editor, A few minutes after the debate ended, I was stunned to hear Tim Russert say that no one won, that both men "secured their base" and that both "presented in a powerful way." From the scrawl on my pad of paper:

"9:18 (EST) - Bush still on defensive"

"9:25 - Bush still on defensive"

"9:35 - Where's Bush The Great Debater? Still on defensive. Continues to reference Kerry's negative framing of him - like coalition of the willing were 'coalition of the bribed' and 'wrong war, wrong place, wrong time.'"

The breakthrough moment, though, that even Russert should have noted, came at about 10:12 when Kerry, in response to another lame Bush attempt to label him a "flip flopper" retorted: "You can be certain and be wrong." That one moment reinforced what people had been watching for more than an hour on Bush's puckered face during the cut-away shots. Here was a man who was clearly annoyed that he had to be subjected to such public scrutiny, and clearly stung by Kerry's assertion that Bush made a tragic error when he chose to fight Hussein and not bin Laden.

Bush has been, as the White House press corps laments every week, the most secretive and private of recent presidents. But democracy, curse it as the president's staff probably does when the chips are down, demands more of the leader of the free world. And that's the one point Bush repeatedly made that even we progressives can agree with: The world's a better – and safer – place when freedom and democracy thrive. All the more reason to send him back to his private life in Crawford.

Laura Flanders, host of the Laura Flanders Show on Air America Radio:

At Alice Cook House, a new dorm at Cornell University in Ithaca, the student crowd was huge, packed into a cafeteria, chomping on popcorn. The place suited the mood: hungry. Students wanted red meat from their candidate. Under a professor's guidance to keep their responses quiet, it was hard to tell from the murmurs during the proceedings if the smart, diverse crowd of 20-somethings got from the debate what they wanted. But afterwards, the reactions were divided. "Kerry trounced Bush" said one. "There was no clear winner" said several others. More striking, the student energy was lower, more tired. Maybe it was the hour, maybe the rhetoric.

Do you feel more mobilized or less? Students were unanimous in their answer: nothing in last night's debate would change anything in their on-the-ground activities. John Kerry's best moments in the first presidential debate came when he challenged his opponent's grasp on reality. "I don't know if the President really sees what's going on out there," said the Senator, referring to the dying and killing in Iraq. He talked powerfully about soldiers' families saving up to send protective gear bought on the internet. George W Bush's grimaces and rushed "they're in my prayers," did nothing to shake his "Smirking Chimp" expression. But the degree to which Americans will be vote for change over "more of the same" will depend entirely on their own understanding of reality. And it's not a presidential candidate who's going to bring that reality home. That job depends on the rest of us.

Adrienne Marie Brown, organizer for Indyvoter:

Ok, so I watched the debates last night with a 40 in my hand, heart in my chest, hand over my eyes peeking through my fingers. Not because its that hard for me to watch our President speak... well no, it is that hard. But the reason I was on pins and needles is because we are mobilizing young people in blocs across the nation to get out the progressive youth vote. All Kerry needs to do is hold it down.

I intended to play that drinking game where everytime anyone says liberty, freedom, saddam, vietnam, osama, my opponent sucks, etc you drink, but after a minute into the debates I realized half my 40 was already gone and I needed to conserve like a Green, even if I wasn't voting like one this year.

For the first part of the debate, my heart was sinking. I watched Kerry and I thought, 'Where are your cojones? Why are you speaking in complete sentences? Charm me!" I watched Bush and I thought, as I usually do, "Where's Rove – is he inside you? Under the podium? Wired into your ear? Down front with placards? Up above singing hosannas?"

Kerry politely smiled, Bush pumped his shoulders and made that little face where he'd snap his eyes wide and blink a few times like he'd been backhanded with a glove and then repeat himself. The moderator and post-debate commentators looked sorry for Bush. Kerry channeled Gore a few times by using actual Facts and Figures to make his case, and in response I chugged. It's not enough to be right, you have to be a thug about it! Bush channeled himself in every other speech he's given by repeating the words liberty and prayer and freedom as if they still mean anything coming from him. One of my friends watching commented that Bush is like the smartest kind of stupid person, because he understands that saying something with absolute down-home conviction can mask, to a certain extent, how untrue the statement is.

But in the end Kerry stepped up and – still politely – started going for the knees in true Scarface fashion. I liked that he was able to play the I served my time unlike this snivelling brat over here AND Vietnam was messed up and wrong AND Saddam is evil and so are other folk AND Iraq was done wrong AND Kyoto treaty mofo, AND let's respect the rest of the world. Bush relied on smoke and mirrors – 'Hey I'm diplomatic! Forget that whole U.N. thang... Hey, valleys of peace!" I wonder if he thinks bomb craters are valleys of peace.

Kerry won this one hands down with his furious note taking and his ability to attack the president without making it seem like a mud wrestling match. Bush lost by not having any specific figures – all the numbers he gave were the kind of rounded up figures all liars use as a rhetorical tool – and by making the case that even if Iraq is all messed up, which he wouldn't even concede, that its better to stay wrong and make the troops feel good while they die than to admit the wrong and pull out. And I am pretty sure Bush did the white guy version of sucking his teeth and rolling his neck, which is just tacky in a presidential debate.

Can't wait till episode 2 of the Gentleman and the Gangsta.

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