I have purposefully starved myself of my daily poliblog reading, so that I could post about the debate without outside influence. What happens with me (and no doubt with you as well) is that when I hear ideas or arguments I like about a given subject, I incorporate them (intentionally or no) into my own understanding and arguments. Most of the time, it takes me a couple minutes (and a few webpages) to find and cite my arguments here, when I know I didn't come up with them on my own.
To prevent this from happening, I've avoided all potentially political blog posts (be grateful, because that's hard for me).
So here's my take on the debate, influenced only by talking with my dad during the debate, and watching a few minutes of wrap-up afterwards on a couple of networks.
In a word: Ugh.
The partisan in me wants to say, "oh yeah man, the Prez was rockin, he told it like it is, total victory!!!" The pessimist in me would say, "Oh man, we needed a slam dunk, and we got a missed free throw." The realist in me is somewhere in the middle.
Presentation: First to the Senator: He did very well. There were some areas that needed more detailed explanation (for example, where he was going to get all these extra troops, or how he was going to convince countries to participate who have said as lately as last week that even if he is elected they will have nothing to do with Iraq). But he kept his head. Another thing I noticed: he took lots of notes, which was good.
We see the college debater come out, someone clearly skilled and practiced in public speaking. Personally, when you're thinking about qualities of a president, I believe this is important, but not that important. It's a polish issue. Kerry seemed to be more polished.
Kerry was not without stumbles. The "global test" line was a gaff that will come back on him. He was clearly trying to shake off some of the "internationalist" criticism he's gotten (often by parroting several ideas and arguments the President has made in the past), but that one will be the soundbite conservatives will hold up as the "big reveal" moment. He's still a globalist, they say, and will sacrifice our national interests for the sake of global appeal.
Kerry also didn't say anything new. He needed more detailed answers, more nuts-and-bolts discussion. Not that he didn't know an awful lot, but it was all very general.
As to the President: He's no great communicator. That much is clear, and it is not disputed. He even admits to that. There were several times where he would burn a few seconds trying to formulate his thoughts, and often those thoughts weren't very deftly delivered. This will be interpreted two ways: some will see this as indecisiveness and unpreparedness; others will see this as circumspection and forethought. Depending on what your opinion of him is already, you will interpret him as idiotic or cautious.
The other complaint I have with the President's performance is that he really hammered home his talking points, but again, there wasn't enough detail. He repeated several phrases and quotes, but didn't stretch beyond that.
To describe this in an academic setting: if the two candidates were college students in my AmNatGov class, where Dr. Litherland would give six possible essay questions to study from, Senator Kerry would study a little bit from each question, and when the essay came, he would try to tie in his other knowledge as filler for the question being asked (the "kitchen sink" approach), while President Bush would really focus his studying on one or two of the questions, but when that question was given, he had trouble ordering his thoughts in the moment.
So for the two candidates, was the problem knowledge or test prep? I think the latter, especially for the President.
Presence: Another issue to consider is the body language and expressions of the candidate. Senator Kerry was a tall and impressive figure, with an admittedly noble presence, though very inexpressive eyes. He listened carefully, made notes on what President Bush said, sometimes smirking to himself while doing so. Again, polished, practiced performance.
President Bush was very composed and mellow for the first half of the debate, but started showing signs of fatigue after that. One of which was during some of the Senator's statements, the President would grimace and sigh a bit, shifting from foot to foot. He had a lot to say, evidenced by the way he would always ask for the one-minute discussion period. His expression reminded me quite a bit of my mother, when she'd get tired of having to tell me the same thing over and over. I'd imagine that he felt that way, that he had to answer the same types of comments over and over again. This was a man who was clearly struggling to keep from interrupting, and really taking his time to speak, so as not to say something negative. But this can and will be perceived another way, probably described like a child getting bored at church, kicking his feet, playing with things, getting frustrated. I don't think it's a fair analogy, but that doesn't mean it won't be made.
The single-word descriptors for me would be "control" vs. "candor." Senator Kerry was very measured and thorough, but I don't know if that helped his "regular-guy" credibility. He may have sounded too much like a politician. On the other hand, President Bush seemed very straightforward and not very "nuanced", which will either play positively to people who want their President to be a regular guy or negatively to those who want their president to be a much loftier figure. And I think that's the issue, when it comes to presence and presentation: Kennedy or Clinton? Reagan or...well, GWB?
Questions: I thought the questions seemed fair, but a bit shallow. In the future, the questions need to provoke more than talking points from either candidate, because in that setting will you see the "real" men emerge.
Final Analysis: Senator Kerry did better than I expected, because clearly Senator Kerry loves debates. He's an educated, refined brahmin with a flair for rhetoric and debate. His experience from college and 20 years of (albeit undistinguished) Congressional service helped him maintain poise and confidence in this setting. On the other side, President Bush clearly doesn't like debates. Not because he's afraid of the issues, as I think he demonstrated by always challenging for more time to discuss them. I think it comes down to President Bush not being a career politician, not having a massive amount of public speaking experience, and being well-aware that he isn't the most eloquent man in the room. To rip off Eliot, "No! he is not Reagan, nor was meant to be..." I vehemently disagree that President Bush is stupid (he graduated from the Ivy League--not just went, but graduated), and I think that anyone who truly believes that he is that ignorant is just fooling themselves. He just doesn't have as much skill at communicating what he knows and believes. But when he started talking about real people, like the dead soldier's family, and issues of honor and courage, he was much more comfortable, because (I feel) he's more familiar with dealing in these concepts. He should have taken more notes, he should have prepared a bit better, but he did a good job of staying on message and really selling his forthrightness.
Decision: Slight victory for Kerry. Bush could have ended the election with a slam dunk performance last night, but he couldn't close. However, Kerry needed to really distinguish himself with a detailed, coherent platform, and I don't think he did that. He's still the "anti-Bush", and that's not going to be enough for swing voters.