Liveblogging the debate

A zeroth draft of history.

Not having doine this before, I can’t guarantee results, or even completion. Blogging may be interrupted if I get mad enough to throw my laptop at my TV screen.

A preliminary thought: this isn’t about Bush. Yes, he could come up with another appalling gaffe like saying the Taliban no longer exists, but barring that he’s pretty much a known quantity. A majority of the country think he’s done a mediocre-to-poor job and that the country is off on the wrong track, but there isn’t a majority for Anybody But Bush.

Right now, the public mind is full of the image of Kerry that Karl Rove and his friends have been so diligent in spreading. But if Kerry can come across looking like someone who knows what he’s talking about and can say it, who doesn’t get rattled, and who is likeable enough so that people think they can stand seeing him on TV for the next four years, the underlying discontent should be enough to put him over the top.

Detailed policy positions aren’t to the point here, and two minutes isn’t enough for them anyway. Kerry should state a few principles in simple declarative sentences.

And if I had been coaching him, I would have said “No zingers.” His attitude should be that the country has serious problems that wishful thinking won’t solve, and he’s here to talk straight about what they are and what to do about them.

Well, here goes…

Kerry lets Bush walk in first, then gets a huge cheer as he comes in.

Hey! Kerry has a topic sentence!

“I can make America safer than President Bush has made us.”

A little too much vague claiming, but a pretty forceful answer.

Bush launches into what’s obviously a prepared speech.

He still thinks having more registered voters than eligible voters in Afghanistan is a good sign.

Bush ducks the second question, directed to him, about whether he really thinks Kerry would increase the chance of another 9-11 attack. Lots of “strong and resolute.” Lots of “freedom.” Another reference to the 10 million registered Afghanistanis.

The camera violates the rule: shows Kerry listening to Bush. Good for them. Kerry looks thoughtful.

Kerry’s turn: “The President has made, I’m sad to say, a colossal error of judgment.” “I would not take my eye off the goal: Osama bin Laden.” “The President relied on Afghan warlords. He outsourced that job too.”

Next question to Kerry. He keeps after Bush. Reaction shot shows Bush looking sour.

Kerry gives a fact-rich answer. Contrast Afghanistan to Iraq. “Was Saddam Hussen ten times more important than Osama bin Laden? I don’t think so.”

Bush says 75% of al-Qaeda leadership is dead or in prison. Bush rides on Allawi, uses Allawi’s voice to criticize Kerry.

Kerry: “He rushed to war in Iraq without a plan to win the peace.” He mentions the missing body armor and the unarmored Humvees. “I don’t know whether the President sees what’s going on.”

Bush asks what message Kerry sends the troops, the Iraqis, and our allies by saying that Iraq was the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time.

Kerry hits back hard: Yes, we must win now, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a mistake to go in. I think we can win, but I don’t think this President knows how.

Homeland security question to Kerry. A laundry list of jobs undone: COPS, firehouses, air cargo, port security, subways, loose nukes. Links it to tax cuts. “At the current pace, the President won’t secure the nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union for thirteen years. I”ll do it in four years.”

Bush responds with a question about how to pay for it, then gives his own laundry list (not very specific), then talks about staying on the offense. We see the trademark Bush Smirk when he says the Patriot Act is vital.

Kerry: “The test is not whether you’re spending more money. The question is whether you’re doing everything you can to keep America safe.”

First flat-out lie from Bush: charges Kerry promised to have all the troops home in six months.

Kerry doesn’t respond. Quotes Bush Sr. against Bush Jr.’s policies. Criticizes the occupation: not guarding the ministries where the information about WMDs might have been.

Bush hits on the $87 billion. Kerry says to the troops: “I will lead you to victory.”

Kerry hits Bush on lack of planning. Camera catches Bush looking very sour.

Good speech from Kerry about inviting new players in. Bush asks how you can invite people in to participate in a diversion. He keeps repeating “Wrong war, wrong place, wrong time.” Hits Kerry hard on dissing the allies. Kerry doesn’t have a chance to respond.

Bush keeps repeating “It’s hard work.” I can’t guess how that’s playing.

Kerry responds back with facts and figures on the coalition. Raises North Korea.

Question to Kerry about Bush’s misstatements. He hits hard, maybe too hard. Bush hits back with the charge that Kerry changes his position. Good response from Kerry, defending his consistency. Bush repeats the charge. Never gives Kerry a name or a title; he’s just “my opponent.” Kerry is consistent in referring to “the President.”

Another obviously prepared speech from Bush on the “Was it worth it?” question. Talks about the nobility of the troops. Kerry: “I want to make sure the outcome honors that nobility.” More wrong place wrong time changed positions from Bush. Kerry says he has a plan and Bush doesn’t.

Kerry politely corrects the misquotation about six months. More detailed critique of the occupation, starting with promising that we’re not there to stay. A glancing blow at the in-and-out on Fallujah. More hard work from Bush. Bush hits Kerry for critizing Allawi. Kerry doesn’t really respond, but quotes Allawi about the uncontrolled border. Quotes the CIA about how bad things are.

Question to Bush: Has the experience in Iraq made you more prone or less prone to another pre-emptive attack? Doesn’t answer. “The enemy attacked us.” “Saddam would have been stronger if we’d waited.” Kerry slams back: “Iraq didn’t attack us. Al-Qaeda attacked us.” Bush looking very sour. Kerry points out that Saddam was being weakened, not strengthened, by the passage of time. Bush comes back weakly, and Kerry unloads with Iran, North Korea, and Darful happening while nine out of ten Army divisions were tied up in Iraq.

Q to Kerry: Doctrine of pre-emption? Sure, Kerry says, But you have to do it right. Another reaction shot of Bush looking sour.

So far, I think Bush is losing the nice-guy contest. He’s coming across like Gore four years ago.

Kerry mentions Kyoto. Bush responds by defending not joining the International Criminal court.

Q to Bush on N. Korea and Iran. Bush defends multilateralism. Pretty weak answer. “If you expect to be part of the world of nations, get rid of your nukular programs.”

Kerry comes back with lots of detail on Korea, accusing Bush of overruling Powell and dissing the S. Korean prime minister. He says N. Korea now has 4-7 nukes.

Q to Kerry on Darfur. He says the Africans ought to handle it, but we need to provide logistical not just humanitarian help. We’re too overextended militarily to go in. We need to add two divisions and double the size of the Special Forces. But if we have to go in with troops, we should; no more Rwandas.

Q to Bush: does Kerry have character deficiencies that disqualify him from the Presidency? Good answer from Bush: nice personal stuff, then hits with “inconsistency” and “mixed messages.” Kerry responds graciously: criticing Bush’s character “isn’t my business.” Then hits Bush on the difference between being certain and being right. “Certainty sometimes can get you in trouble.” Bush comes back on mixed messages, giving Kerry a chance for a perfect thirty seconds defending himself on Iraq.

Kerry hits Bush hard on not securing nuclear materials. More reaction shots of Bush looking as if he’s sucking on lemon. That has to be a mistake. Kerry says he’d shut down the bunker-buster bomb R & D.

Last question, to Bush: is Putin wrong to eliminate democracy in Russia? Bush says yes, but he’s a good ally in the war on terror.

[Refers to Putin as “Vladimir,” which is not, if I recall correctly, a polite form of address in Russian. Semi-formal is name and patronymic; since Putin’s father was also named Vladimir, it ought to be “Vladimir Vladimirovich;” informal would be the diminutive “Volodya.” This note subject to correction by Russophones.]

Kerry uses his last response to point out that Bush has said lots of things that aren’t true. Lehrer invites Bush to resent the slur on his honesty. Bush shrugs it off, slurs Kerry’s consistency. Good come-back from Kerry, restating his position.

Kerry’s summation: ‘I’m not talking about leaving; I’m talking about winning.” A little too flowery for my taste, but not bad.

Bush’s summation: same old same old, but reasonably effective.

Overall: not a knockout, but I think Kerry won on points, and he certainly held his own on the stage on what has been Bush’s issue. Bush looked rather bad, especially mugging for the camera when Kerry was speaking.

Missed in the above: Bush’s continual references to freedom and democracy.

The spinmeisters on CBS: McCain spinning like mad for Bush on Iraq — ignoring his own statement that Iraq is going badly — but says Kerry came across as knowing what he was talking about.

Biden nails Bush on saying that China would pull out of the N. Korea talks if we taked bilaterally. Biden says that China has asked us to negotiate bilaterally with N. Korea.(Too bad Kerry didn’t hit that one.) No mention of Bush’s sour looks.

CBS instapolling from 200 uncommitted voters on “Who won?”

44% Kerry

26% Bush

30% tie

Who has a clear plan for Iraq?

Kerry 51%

Bush 38%

Kerry did better than Bush, especially among women. More than half were more willing to vote for him after the debate, only one in seven less willing.

Well, we’ll see. The spinning is just beginning. But this looks to have been a very good night for Big John. My advice to Democratic spinners: stress how many times Bush scowled. Keep comparing it to Gore’s famous sighing.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: