It was a good debate for John Kerry, or so everyone thought when the night was over. He clearly had the stamina the President did not. Kerry did not have the annoyed look; he was in his element. The President stuttered and stumbled, repeated, and slowed at the end. It was a good night for Kerry and now he has to deal with it.The media was prepared to write the “Kerry as great closer” story before the debate began. The writing was on the wall and Kerry’s campaign knew it. In the end, Bush’s campaign was making excuses. But, lurking beyond the spin, Bush’s campaign realized Kerry gave Bush a valuable present – no gaffes, because Kerry did not screw up, but statements of Kerry’s core beliefs that Bush can use to club him.
“ [The debate] reinforced why voters like Bush and reminded voters that Bush is not a great speaker, which they will take into account in the second and third debates and factor into the win/loss equation.”
First, Kerry showed he fundamentally does not understand the situation in North Korea. Kerry wants bilateral talks at the same time we are engaged in multilateral talks. Kerry believes the North Koreans would be more likely to respond receptively to us in bilateral talks. This is undermined by North Korea’s previous dealings with the Clinton administration. In bilateral talks, the North Koreans felt free to hold Clinton hostage to bizarre demands and behaviors. Bush understands North Korea is linked to China. With China at the table, North Korea can only act up so much. Kerry’s inability to think outside the Clintonian foreign policy box was on display.
Second, Kerry made what should be a gaffe – the “global test” remark. The Bush administration and the conservative 527s of the world should club Kerry like a baby seal this weekend over that remark. The American voter is already suspicious of Kerry for his repeated statements about United Nations authority. In and of itself, the global test remark was a stupid statement for Kerry to make.
Finally, Kerry’s repeated emphasis on summits creates a real problem for him. The American people like Bush because he is a decisive leader. We may not always agree with him, but as Bush said, “The American people know where [he] stand[s].” Bush is seen as a forceful and direct leader. As Bush has inarticulately pointed out, on the world stage at this time in history it is important to have a leader who will do what he says he will do and have the world understand he does what he says he will do. Kerry cannot do that. Kerry’s reliance on diplomatic solutions and summits is a retained tic from the cold war. It is the reflexive, pre-9/11 thing to do. The American people understand the impractical, silly nature of diplomatically talking about and talking to people who only want to kill us.
John Kerry scored a lot of debate points. But, he did not improve on the internal factors that have put Bush ahead in the race. Kerry can keep scoring the same debate points, but he has not done anything to show himself as a decisive, strong leader. It was a good debate for John Kerry. Unfortunately for him, having the foreign policy debate first helped Bush and hurt Kerry. It reinforced why voters like Bush and reminded voters that Bush is not a great speaker, which they will take into account in the second and third debates and factor into the win/loss equation. It did nothing to boost Kerry in areas in which he already lags the President. Voters learned little new about either man, but their stereotypes were reinforced. So far, the voters have seemed to like Bush’s stereotype more.