I wasn’t thrilled with Kerry’s performance, but he did a better job than Bush. Bush was frequently agitated and occasionally at a loss for words. Kerry, who is usually at a loss for brevity, was cool and reasonably concise. Since the value of these debates is as much in the visceral reactions that people have as in the policy points scored, Bush lost ground.
In terms of policy points, commands of facts, etc, one’s analysis almost gets reduced to a question of “who do you want to believe?”. This is, of course, ridiculous–as if there is no objective reality–but partisans will believe who they want to believe, and undecideds will make up their mind based on gut reactions. Both sides exaggerated or mis-stated numbers. The post-mortems have not taken the president to task for the bigger problems in his points–his continued insistence on the Iraq/Al Quaeda links, though Kerry did. Kerry missed an obvious scoring opportunity when discussing the run-up to war: Bush repeatedly insisted we needed to go into Iraq to remove the WMDs. Kerry never asked “what WMDs?? (in The Daily Show’s wrapup, Jon Stewart did ask). Bush has to run on his record–talking about what he will do invites the question “why aren’t you doing it now?”. Kerry has the luxury of talking about what he will do without really being held to account. The tack that he took, of engaging more closely with allies, doesn’t seem likely to gain traction with most people.
The post-debate wrapup (we watched the debate on NBC) struck me as absurd: the network invited each side to give its own spin. This is not acting as a news organization: this is acting as a clearinghouse for press releases.