Election 2004

Short Takes on the Debate

AlterNet’s writers offer quick reactions and instant analysis of Friday night’s presidential debate.
Editor's Note The second presidential debate took place Friday night in St. Louis, MO., and was done in a "town hall" style, with questions from the host, Charles Gibson, and members of an audience of about 150 Americans. Below are short takes from some of AlterNet's writers who watched the debate across the country.

Nina Burleigh: The President's bullying body language and pugnacious schoolyard lingo – "You kin run, but you cain't hide" – didn't win the debate for him, but certainly made for a flashier performance than last week's. Leaping off his stool and shouting, interrupting the moderator, Charles Gibson, glaring at John Kerry, actually squaring off at him like a boxer, he looked like he might swing at the challenger. That physicality works especially well with the sound turned down, which might well be how the ideal Bush voter watches these debates. As with the first debate, Kerry won in terms of ideas, expressing complexity clearly and pointing out that "labels don't mean anything."

Kerry wins, but not as decisively as last week. Who could pay full attention to all that smart verbiage, though, distracted by the plump lady with the flag blouse, the gorgeous blonde who revealed herself to be an anti-abortion zealot and other oddities in the audience. Kerry did miss one big chance, in responding to a question about his Supreme Court picks, to remind voters and Bush, to his face, that the President still owes his title to that body.

Rachel Neumann and Tai Moses: On a balmy Friday evening, it was hard to find a better place to watch the debate than Baggy's By the Lake, a neighborhood bar in a working-class section of Oakland, California. Was the outcome of the election riding on this debate? It certainly felt like it with the crowd unusually quiet, except for the clatter of oldsters playing dice as the candidates began. For the first 20 minutes, no one shouted, sneered, booed or cheered; too much was at stake. As the candidates moved from the question of "wishy-washiness" to the Patriot Act and, as always, back to Iraq, the crowd bided its time.

"You've got to be consistent when you're the president," said George W. Bush, taking a page straight from the Bush Leadership Tips manual that brought us such pearls as "Being the president is hard work," and "The presidency is a decision-making job." At this the crowd of 25 or so responded with appropriately blank stares.

The patrons were so hushed during the foreign policy questions that it was difficult to tell which candidate they sided with, if either. It wasn't until the discussion turned to domestic issues that people perked up. When asked why he'd blocked the importation of cheaper drugs from Canada, this crowd was visibly annoyed by Bush's answer that he'd wanted to make sure they "were safe."

"Fuck you!" snapped a woman of a certain age seated at the bar, inviting an equally spirited "Fuck off!" from an elderly gentleman in a tucked-in paisley shirt.

The ice was broken and the truth was out: kitchen table issues are what gets these folks' blood boiling. John Kerry warmed up too. And the President? After nearly body-slamming moderator Charlie Gibson (apparently, a potential terrorist), Bush screamed, whined, and pouted in a way reminiscent of one listener's one-and-a-half-year-old — when she was younger.

Kerry seemed, well, presidential in both the good and the not-so-good sense. His declaration to Bush — "We did something you don't know how to do: we balanced the budget" – brought appreciative cheers. Certainly he wasn't the progressive ideal; unequivocally supporting the Patriot Act, appearing to dismiss the idea of signing the Kyoto Protocol, and repeating, twice, that he would find and kill the terrorists wherever they were. Since when did we start condoning this talk of killing people instead of the whole trial/life-in-prison thing? Sure, "bringing them to justice" lacks a testosterone punch, but it's certainly more legally and ethically responsible. Ah well, nitpicking, say our fellow bar patrons; just wait until after the election.

There were no surprises in this debate — indeed, the era of surprise in public political discourse is over. These events are too carefully staged — the townhall style notwithstanding — to let anything too out of the ordinary happen. Still, we leave full of free chicken wings and meatballs, and more hopeful than we've been in a while that there might be, at least, a real "after the election.”

Matt Taibbi: John Kerry missed numerous opportunities in this debate to not only expose the record of President Bush and his administration, but to reveal the nature of his opponent. At one point he allowed Bush to escape unscathed after the latter appeared to argue that one of the best things he had done to protect the enviornment was harvest trees. Twice he missed opportunities to talk in a broader way about Bush's use of "labels"; though it may have sounded like Kerry was condemning the practice in general, in fact mostly what he tried to argue, when he took issue with "labels," was that he really wasn't a liberal. In other words, he didn't object to the use of labels in general, he just said that the particular label Bush chose was not applicable.

As for Bush, he appeared deranged, incoherent, and furious for most of the debate, but according to CNN's John King he did very well, so apparently his performance was solid. The sole comment a friend of mine had after the debate was that whatever laxative Bush was using was not the gentle kind. Bush's desperate and halting invocation of the Dred Scott case should give solace to every elementary child who has ever struggled to read a book report in front of the class.

Silja J.A. Talvi: I'm still trying to figure out what the "battling green eye shades" are, but I've been assured by some of my journalistic colleagues here in San Francisco that it's a Texan expression. But I'm still scratching my head.

There's no question that this is a presidential debate that will go down in history. George W. Bush put on his cowboy outfit in public, and John Kerry finally found his spine.

Kerry handled quick retorts and demonstrated his intellectual acuity. And I actually found myself, in my peculiarly empathetic way, feeling sorry for President Bush. He floundered, he flailed, and he embarrassed himself in a way that I couldn't even applaud. I just want to say it now, once and for all. George W. Bush truly is an embarrassment to us all.

"The president, I don't think, is living in a world of reality," Kerry said into the camera. And this is the kind of thing that I've been waiting to hear all along.

Liz Langley: After the debates I had the TV on mute, but out of the corner of my eye caught a quick weather picture of what looked like another potential hurricane, this one thankfully not looking like it's headed straight for us in FL. But even a glimpse of a hurricane chart can make any Floridian shiver at the thought of being in for more of the same.

I get a similar feeling whenever I listen to W, that exhasted feeling of hoping not to be in for more of the same. Tonight's debate made me more confident that we may not be. Kerry handled himself admirably, was commanding and, I thought, connected well in the more intimate setting with the audience's direct and thoughtful questions, even while hitting a lot harder than I thought he would. Bush, while perhaps being more confident than people anticipated, still came off defensively, even falling back on the use of the "liberal" label, whereas Kerry caught my wandering ear with the phrase "energy independence," and his details on health care.

To be fair, I'm not an undecided voter. I was pretty sure I'd vote for anyone but Bush long ago. But as one friend phrased it, it's good to feel like you're not voting against George Bush, but for John Kerry.

Steve Cobble: We could make fun of George W's firm grasp of the "internets," his stated opposition to the Dred Scott case of 1857, his insult to Canada, his near-shouting at times, and his inability to sit on his stool.

(He was so hopped up, I thought John Kerry should have said, "George, you're really wired tonight. Or was that last week?" Ba-da-boom!)

Kerry won, though not as handily as before. I thought his best line was when he told people to look into their hearts: "Was this really going to war as a last resort?"

Bush still cannot admit a single mistake. His most outrageous spin (aka "lie") was attempting to argue that the new Duelfer Report, showing that Iraq was disarmed, that the Iraqis were not a grave and gathering threat, and that they had nothing to do with Osama bin Laden or 9/11, proved he did right going to war. No shame.

Laura Flanders: From where I sat at Crobar, in New York, surrounded by folks attending a "don't watch the debate alone" event put on by Air America Radio and the Nation Institute, Friday's debate looked like a slam dunk for the Senator. John Kerry came out of the gate fast and furious and got straight to the point: "The President's plan is not working.... We were safer before George Bush came to office." The Democratic contender successfully shifted the debate from "with-or-without Saddam," to "with-or-without George."

George Bush, by contrast, showed that he should not be left to roam alone. On the environment, what the heck are "inner city sore spots?" And the Dred Scott decision? Bush clearly had no idea the verdict had to do with fugitive slaves. But Bush's lowest moments came when he blamed mliitary commanders for lack of military preparedness. Blame the commanders while you cut veterans' benefits and promise a long, long war? In this fight-for the centre race, those positions are unlikely to win over any uncommitted Bush supporters. By the time Bush defended an abortion ban that makes no exception for a woman's health, the crowd at Crobar was hootering and hollering. They may well have got the adrenalin shot they needed to carry them through the next three weeks.
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