Some quick thoughts on the debate, before hearing many talking heads:
I thought John Kerry did a very, very strong job. He managed to appear erudite but not snotty and resolute but not haughty. He even smiled and laughed a little. He managed to repeatedly hammer home a few points (more of which I agree with than not) without sounding repetitive: The war on terror shouldn’t be fought and won’t be won alone. Hussein was a threat based faced by the President with the support of Congress and the international community, and Bush misused the former and squandered the latter. Iraq wasn’t central to the War on Terror until Bush made it a training ground for terrorists. Being resolute isn’t enough if you aren’t right. Screwing up the war is worse than screwing up the words. Bush has been crimminally negligent in shoring up Homeland Security and fighting nuclear proliferation. Of course, I would have liked to see Kerry taking a stronger, more progressive stance on Iraq going back years now, I’d like to see him fighting harder for an immigration policy which doesn’t treat immigrants as terrorists, I’d like to hear more about fighting terrorism by fighting poverty, about AIDS as a threat to international security – the list goes on. But this was a much stronger case for Kerry as commander-in-chief than we got at the Convention, and I think a good chunk of the genuinely undecided will agree.
The best I could say for Bush is he certainly managed to project a sense of sincerity. Arguing that your opponent is a flip-flopper packs a lot less punch in real time in a debate than in retrospect in a newspaper article. And he didn’t find many particularly creative ways to say so. While Bush argued hard (and seemingly unnecessarily) for the chance to rebut several of Kerry’s rebuttals, much of the time it was to dodge the actual question. We heard the word liberty a lot from Bush, but we didn’t get much of a case for his presidency and we got less of a plan for it. And the outrageous moments were hard to count: Bush repeatedly implying that criticizing military policy during war disqualifies you to set it; Bush arguing that protecting America as well as Kerry wants to would be too expensive; Bush confusing Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden (isn’t that why they rehearse); every cut away of Bush smirking or looking petulant.