“You’ve just witnessed the beginning of the end of the Bush administration!”
So shouted a Kerry aide as I stumbled out of the spin alley set up in the University of Miami’s Wellness Center after the end of the first face-off between George W. Bush and John Kerry. Such exuberance was perhaps overstated but understandable. Kerry had more at stake this evening. A poor showing would have placed him in a position from which a come-from-behind victory would have been a hard-to-conceive possibility. But with a viable performance–in which he demonstrated he knows the facts and he knows his own mind–he narrowed that all-important commander-in-chief gap. Still, Bush was no slouch, even though he slumped at the podium. He did at times wince and come across as irritated and annoyed: This guy’s questioning my judgment?. (The Kerry campaign, as I type, is putting together a video for release Friday morning that will chronicle Bush’s unappealing expressions and body language.) But Bush, as he has done well on the campaign trail, defended the war in Iraq with strong, declarative statements meant to convey strength, conviction and idealism.
The snap polls taken by networks immediately after the debate found a decisive edge for Kerry. Yet it’s doubtful the overall dynamics of the race were altered much. These 90 minutes, in a way, reinforced the fundamentals. Bush is the fellow with the uplifting themes: we’re fighting for freedom, democracy, and our own survival in Iraq against killers who want to shake our will; it’s tough work; the costs are indeed high; and I will be the strong and resolute leader who leads us to triumph. Kerry is the one with the sobering words: Iraq is a mess; we’re not any safer; we must change course; and I have a better plan. It’s inspiration (arguably misguided) versus critique (arguably not so inspiring). These are two rather distinct approaches, and they represent more of a psychological than an ideological split. Partisans on each side have already lined up with a candidate, and such voters are not likely to shift their loyalties on the basis of a debate performance (or anything else). The question is whether those legendary undecided voters will be responsive to the stirring tones that Bush aims for or will they be convinced by the pointed, rational arguments that Kerry seeks to present. Polls show that most Americans believe the war in Iraq was a mistake. But does that mean voters will automatically gravitate to the finger-waggerer who says he has a plan instead of the swaggerer responsible for the screw-up? Voters who now consider the war a blunder could still favor the candidate with the more upbeat or rousing message. In his closing remarks, Bush declared, “We’ve been challenged, and we’ve risen to those challenges. We’ve climbed the mighty mountain. I see the valley below, and its a valley of peace.” Kerry said, “I believe America’s best days are ahead of us because I believe that the future belongs to freedom, not to fear.”