In real life, I sometimes judge high school debates. After five rounds of judging “Lincoln-Douglas” competition, my mind is usually mush and I lose all confidence in my ability to determine the winner unless the debate is a rout.
This presidential/vice presidential debate season, it took only three rounds for this to happen. Tonight’s debate was not a rout, and I have little confidence that I can determine the winner.
On the whole I thought that Kerry did somewhat better than Bush on the ordinary domestic policy issues. He was almost always on the attack and was better able to back up his arguments with (often misleading) data. On the other hand, Bush did better than Kerry on the “social” or “values” issues. As usual, Kerry seemed much less comfortable than Bush in this area, probably with good reason. Moreover, Bush had a significantly better closing statement. He was able to articulate something approaching a vision, while Kerry was on the defensive, trying to reassure voters that he would defend the country and not give foreign powers a veto over our use of force. This isn’t a good place to be three weeks before the election. On balance, then, I think the debate was probably a draw on substance. If I had to pick a winner, in pure debate terms, it would be Kerry, since most of the debate was dedicated to discussing non-social issues.
If one analyzes the debate in the context of election politics, however, one can argue that Bush won. He probably came off as more human and likeable. He looked fresher than Kerry. And he certainly came across as more optimistic and forward-thinking. Unless a majority of Americans are pessimistic this year, Bush may have won the debate that matters.
But did this debate matter? I didn’t see any moments that are likely to make the debate stand out for voters. I became a little concerned about how Bush’s statements about social security will play in Florida, particularly because he never really addressed the argument that, with younger workers not paying as much into the system, there will be a short-fall for retirees. Other than that, I don’t think Bush said anything that might hurt him. Kerry committed no gaffes either, but I question whether he really sold himself as an effective leader — as a commander-in-chief rather than a complainer-in-chief. Again, the American people will have to be more dissatisfied with the current state of affairs than I think they are for Kerry to have made any in-roads through this debate.
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