TCS Daily

Debates Are Not Boxing Matches

By Uriah Kriegel - October 1, 2004 12:00 AM

Immediately after last night's first presidential debate, the chattering class appeared unanimous in saying that Kerry had won the debate. I hold a heretical view: I think it was a tie.

More specifically, I think the debate had two parts. Bush clearly won the first half hour, while Kerry clearly won the remaining hour. But the first half hour is crucial: it is perhaps the only time in the campaign that the two candidates had the nation's undivided attention.

It is true that Bush got repetitious and uninspired in the second part of the debate. But that means that the whole debate got boring. The feeling was that the same points were rehashed over and over.

Unfortunately for Sen. Kerry, debates are not scored like boxing matches. In a debate, the later rounds -- absent a knockout, and the consensus is there were no knockout blows last night -- don't matter as much. That is when viewers start to tune out, channel surf, do the dishes. Kerry's superior performance during the second part of the debate did not have as strong an impact on them as it had on the political junkies M.C.-ing the networks' and websites' post-debate analyses.

Some analysts claimed that Kerry closed the likeability gap and came across as presidential. But the presidential appearance of Kerry was never in contention and therefore cannot account for his lag in the polls. And I doubt that he did make significant inroads on the likeability front.

The chattering majority found Bush to have been annoyed and impatient with Kerry, whereas Kerry was consistently respectful and thoughtful in his facial reactions to Bush. Personally, I read those facial reactions completely differently: Bush seemed to me more engaged and emotional, whereas Kerry came across as reserved, dry, and calculated. Kerry came across as a prosecutor, Bush as a warrior. How the public at large will respond to the candidates' facial expressions should be clearer by the end of the weekend.

Perhaps the most important substantive issue of the campaign is the link between the war in Iraq and the war on terror. In the Republican convention, Bush successfully tied them together, whereupon he bounced ahead tangibly both in national and battleground state polls.

Kerry's main challenge since has been to untie the war in Iraq from the war on terror. If Kerry could pull that off, he'd be positioned to beat Bush separately on Iraq and on the war on terror. If the connection endures October, Bush is likely to win; if it is undone, Kerry has the better shot.

Kerry's challenge is threefold: untie Iraq and terrorism; beat Bush on Iraq; beat Bush on terrorism. Granted the first component, the latter two should be easier to pursue. Iraq is a mess, with American casualties in the thousands and Iraqi casualties in at least the 10,000 range. Meanwhile, we still don't have Osama bin Laden, and as Kerry successfully pounded home last night, that could be seen as mainly Bush's fault, for failing to put American troops on the ground at Tora Bora.

So Kerry stands a good chance of beating Bush on Iraq in separation from terrorism and on terrorism in separation from Iraq. But a prerequisite is for him to make the case for the separation in the first place. He failed to do so thus far in the campaign. And as far as I can tell, he didn't pull it off last night either. Indeed, the attempt to do so took place about 15-20 minutes into the debate, the part of the debate Bush clearly won (in my estimation).

This suggests that although Kerry may have made an overall favorable impression last night, he did not accomplish the foremost exploit he had to: untie Iraq and terrorism. Moreover, this may well have been his best opportunity to do so, an opportunity that will not repeat soon. If I am right that this is what the coming election will hinge on, then in the long run last night's debate will actually stabilize the status quo of Bush's 5-point lead. As we knew coming in, a tie is good for Bush.

The author teaches philosophy at the University of Arizona.


TCS Daily Archives