The phrase, “War on Terror,” was mentioned 17 times — 7 by Kerry and 10 by Bush, although Bush’s references were frequently repeated in a single sentence.
Bush said his job is “hard work” 11 times.
Sean Hannity said on Fox News last night that he had never seen Bush “more passionate, more articulate, more on top of his game.” But every poll I have seen puts Kerry ahead as the winner. And since Fox News is pushing the notion that it was a draw. . .well, maybe that says it all.
This was Bush’s victory to lose. Most Americans know that he is not a polished whiz kid debater. Expectations of Bush in these debates is always fairly low, but I don’t think he met even those expectations.
Kerry carries the ball and chain of 20 years of Senatorial style with him. But while he can orate and debate, until last night Kerry never made the sale that he could be a strong chief executive. I think he gave Americans an important glimpse at a different John Kerry, one who can own and implement a credible policy agenda.
One of the people I was with last night — and who had recently watched every single debate performance by both Bush and Kerry — thought that last night was Bush’s single worst performance.
Another seasoned observer and journalist in the room, who writes for the Washington Post, said that the headline of the debate could be: “The Professor vs. The Cowboy.”
My family is from Oklahoma and Texas — and I have lots of cowboys in my family tree, and I told her that last night, that the cowboy was “all hat and no cattle.”
Let me go through some of my other notes. These may seem disjointed — but I scribbled them as I watched. Like Josh Marshall, i have tried to keep my impressions of this performance unaffected by the spin commentary that has followed.
I also tried to watch the debate as an advocate for Bush, giving him credit for scores he got — perhaps more frequently than I did for Kerry because I wanted to balance my own bias against the Bush administration.
The first thing that bothered me about Kerry is that he looked only at Jim Lehrer and not at the camera, not at you and me. Kerry didn’t close his deal with his viewers until he looked at the camera in the last two minutes of the debate. Bush looked at the camera when he spoke — but then was clearly out of control listening to Kerry and engaged in all sorts of silly body language reactions to Kerry’s points. This was a lot like Al Gore’s “sighs.” Aesthetically, in terms of poise, Bush lost the contest with all that eyebrow action and crinkled faces.
Bush mentioned frequently that the A.Q. Khan network had been brought to justice? Really? When did that happen? In the pardon that the General Musharraf gave Khan? Kerry failed to hit Bush on the fact that Pakistan was a far greater threat to American security than Iraq. The Khan network proliferated nuclear knowledge, systems, and tools to North Korea, Libya, Iran, and possibly Brazil. Bush’s failure to squarely address the Pakistan problem early on led to consequences that we are going to be dealing with for decades ahead.
Bush came off badly when he responded to Lehrer’s query about whether Kerry’s presidency would draw another 9/11 style incident. Bush said that he believed he was “gonna win,” so we don’t have to worry about that. Evasive and disrespectful. Indulgent. His comment that letting folks “know where I stand is the best way to win the peace” was bizarre. It kind of sounds like something the Pope might say; well maybe not even the Pope.
I liked Bush’s frequent mention of staying on the offensive; of spreading liberty. I thought that he made his best scores in the debate when he was lofty. He couldn’t handle detail; and obviously works best in Hemingwayesque simple sentences — that might explain a lot of Bush’s unbudgeable support among citizens. Hemingway sells.
Kerry finally hit hard on Bush taking his eye off the ball and being distracted from day one by Iraq rather than staying focused on the advent of transnational terrorism and Osama bin Laden. Kerry got in a good line that when 1000 top al Qaeda operatives and Osama bin Laden were pinned down in Tora Bora, Kerry said that Bush “outsourced that job too.”
Bush focused on Hussein. Kerry on bin Laden. Bush on Iraq — and Kerry raised Afghanistan a lot, mentioning troop deaths in Afghanistan, the warlords there, opium production. All good scores.
Bush’s best and only real score against Kerry was Kerry’s flip-flopping on the resolutions and funding bills leading up to the war. But Kerry responded with the slightly modified adage from John Maynard Keynes: “When confronted with new information, I reassess and modify my position. What, sir, do you do when confronted with new information?”
Kerry made the case that if the war is going bad, if there are things to learn, that we need to be empirically aware and modify our course to win. Bush seemed to think that the emphasis was on dogma. He said over and over that the President could not inspire, could not lead the war, nor lead the world with a message that this was “the wrong war, the wrong place, at the wrong time.”
Bush smiled, sort of impishly, a lot. I didn’t like it. He said “We will Succeed — We got a plan to do so.” Where is the plan? Is it secret? Will it be leaked to us? Bush was too cryptic.
Kerry is clearly a detail guy — a lot like Gore in the debates with Bush. The fact that we are sending Humvees and soldiers into harm’s way without armor was an effective critique by Kerry. But Kerry failed to make more about the contrast between the soldiers going to risk their lives on behalf of the country — and those like Richard Perle and James Woolsey who are not on the front line and making money off of the war. Kerry made virtually nothing of the conflicts of interest swirling around Bush’s crusade against Saddam Hussein.
When Bush said that he had tripled the amount of funding devoted to Homeland Security — $30 billion — I was surprised that Kerry didn’t immediately draw out the comparison with the $200 billion thus far spent on the invasion and occupation of Iraq. People have a hard time grapping with numbers that large — but the contrast between what was spent on this adventure and the rather modest investment in defending the soft underbelly of America’s civil infrastructure was a point Kerry failed to make.
Bush, when he critiqued Kerry’s roster of suggestions on what he would do to defend the country, grumbled, “I’d like to see how he’s gonna pay for all that.” What? Was Bush saying that homeland security is too high a price for our budget? Again, Kerry missed an opportunity here.
Kerry mentioned Halliburton in a quick throw-away line — 9:35 p.m.
When the secretary-general, Kofi Annan, offered the United Nations, he said, “No, no, we’ll go do this alone.” To save for Halliburton the spoils of the war, they actually issued a memorandum from the Defense Department saying, “If you weren’t with us in the war, don’t bother applying for any construction.” That’s not a way to invite people.
I thought Kerry did a good job puncturing the myth that America had assembled a genuine coalition. Bush’s comment: “Well, actually, you forgot Poland” will go down as one of the memorable one-liners of the exchange. (By the way, I think that Poland deserves enormous credit for standing with America — but has been given short shrift by Bush frequently and often making many Poles furious.)
Israel was mentioned by Kerry at 9:50 p.m. Kerry said:
Soldiers know over there that this isn’t being done right yet. I’m going to get it right for those soldiers because it’s important to Israel, it’s important to America, it’s important to the world, it’s important to the fight on terror. But I have a plan to do it, he doesn’t.
Bush will get criticized for speaking in religious ‘code’ in his remarks…”we have climbed the mighty mountain,” but Kerry was sending signals on his reference to Israel. I think that he needs to remain resolute and that he will be a steward of American interests in the world — and while it’s good to be cognizant of other nation’s interests, like Israel, the way that Kerry meshed Israeli and American interests in a throw-away line wasn’t the best way to get into the complex subject of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Bush does see bin Laden and Hussein as the same threat. That’s clear. His comment, “The enemy attacked us,” which he used in his defense of the Iraq invasion, was appropriately attacked by Kerry. Kerry hit hard that the enemy is Osama bin Laden:
Jim, the president just said something extraordinarily revealing and, frankly, very important in this debate. In answer to your question about Iraq and sending people into Iraq, he just said the enemy attacked us. Saddam Hussein didn’t attack us; Osama bin Laden attacked us. Al Qaeda attacked us. And when we had Osama bin Laden cornered in the mountains of Tora Bora, 1,000 of his cohorts with him in those mountains, with American military forces nearby and in the field, we didn’t use the best-trained troops in the world to go kill the world’s number one criminal and terrorist. They outsourced the job to Afghan warlords who only a week earlier had been on the other side, fighting against us, neither of whom trusted each other.
Again, Bush seemed flustered and out of his element. He responded:
Of course I know Osama bin Laden attacked us. I know that.
I don’t know what Kerry was thinking when he went off on this broad lesson about nuclear proliferation. The professor flew way over the heads of people there. While I agree that nuclear proliferation is enormously important — it is the intersection between the collapse of the nuclear non-proliferation regime and the empowerment and development of transnational terror groups that would have been a better answer. Kerry seemed to be stuck in the old groove of state-level thinking — and worried about nuclear proliferation to states — whereas it is the breakdown and failure of states with nuclear capacity — or the activities of global crime and terror networks that make this proliferation a million times more scary. Kerry failed to make that point.
I thought Bush would clobber Kerry for his erudite but sterile response on what threatens America. And although he said the words “war on terror” a lot — he failed to say that the most important threat and challenge facing America were terrorists. I was stunned. The fact that Bush didn’t rely on his favorite line but instead got drawn into a lengthy and complex discussion about proliferation may be the biggest indication of Bush’s failure last night.
Bush’s response:

Actually, we’ve increased funding for dealing with nuclear proliferation, about 35 percent since I’ve been the president.
Secondly, we’ve set up what’s called the — well, first of all, I agree with my opponent that the biggest threat facing this country is weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a terrorist network. And that’s why we’ve put proliferation as the — one of the centerpieces of a multi-prong strategy to make the country safer. My administration started what’s called the Proliferation Security Initiative, over 60 nations involved with disrupting the transshipment of information and/or weapons of mass destruction materials. And we’ve been effective.
We busted the A.Q. Khan network. This was a proliferator out of Pakistan that was selling secrets to places like North Korea and Libya. We convinced Libya to disarm, an essential part of dealing with weapons of mass destruction and proliferation.
I’ll tell you another way to help protect America in the long run is to continue with missile defenses. And we’ve got a robust research-and-development program that has been ongoing during my administration.
We’ll be implementing a missile defense system relatively quickly.
And that is another way to help deal with the threats that we face in the 21st century. My opponent is opposed to the missile defenses.

Wendy Sherman, Counselor to Madeleine Albright at the State Department and appointed Ambassador by Bill Clinton to serve as one of the key “fixers” of our problems with North Korea, has obviously had a huge and important impact on Kerry. A lot of what I heard from Kerry last night was vintage Wendy Sherman.
Kerry’s sophisticated and strong commentary on how to fix our North Korea problems moved beyond the obvious, where Bush was stuck. Kerry didn’t just propose bilateral talks with North Korea — he pushed a comprehensive agenda, something close to what Nixon and Kissinger did in the opening of the People’s Republic of China.
This was bold — and his comments are of the same realist ilk of the Kissinger and Brzezinksi schools of thought. Kerry said:
I want bilateral talks which put all of the issues, from the Armistice of 1952 — the economic issues, the human rights issues, the artillery disposal issues, the DMZ issues, and the nuclear issues on the table.
Bush stayed with the conventional — and if anything, Bush argued that China would walk away if we had bilaterals with North Korea and that this would be terrible. This sounded completely out of sync with Bush’s earlier comments that America would do what it needed to do and not give another country, like China, a veto — in effect — of our interest-driven policies. Bush wants China’s leverage over North Korea — but of course, China will charge America a fee for that leverage.
In contrast, Kerry properly stated that China would not walk away because it had ‘interests’ in the outcome. Kerry was dead on target.
Another unforgettable line from the President: “I’ve got a good relationship with Vladimir.” And Kerry hits Bush with the fact that Putin controls all the TV stations and has many of his political opponents in jail.
Bush, who I was trying to favor, really lost me when he sent code to the evangelicals:
We’ve climbed the mighty mountain. I see the valley below, and it’s a valley of peace. By being steadfast and resolute and strong, by keeping our word, by supporting our troops, we can achieve the peace we all want.
Ok — enough.
One of the few comments I saw after the debate that I liked was from John McCain, who opened his spin session with the caveat that he was disappointed that he didn’t hear a broader discussion of American foreign policy challenges, like environmental issues (though the Kyoto Protocol was discussed), immigration, and energy.
I agree with McCain — though I was interested that the International Criminal Court was raised, as was the Kyoto Protocol on global warming. Proliferation was a big topic. So, I get McCain’s point — but still, to be honest, the debate stretched beyond 9/11 and Iraq — a good thing in my view.
So, was it Bush’s worst debate performance ever? In my view, yes.
Bush’s eleven-time mention of “It’s hard work” sounded more like an excuse for bad behavior than something inspired.
Kerry’s line, “We just read in the front pages of America’s papers that there are over 100,000 hours of tapes unlistened-to,” gives us an indication that Kerry reads the papers — which Bush has acknowledged he doesn’t do.
It’s the Cowboy vs. the Professor. The commentator at the debate soiree I attended is probably right.
But the Professor won; and the Cowboy is still a greenhorn. . .even after four years on the job.
— Steve Clemons