I decided to let a few days pass before adding my 2 cents about the first Presidential debate last Thursday evening. I wanted some time to reflect on the parts of it that would be of lasting significance.
My main reaction as I watched it live was to feel sympathy for President Bush, since he seemed to be so off his game. There is no doubt, even after watching the debate a second time, that Kerry scored a clear victory on style--appearing composed, articulating answers clearly, standing up straight, etc. Anyone who has seen the two of them speak before would expect Kerry to win on debating style. What was surprising was how wide the margin of victory was in this respect.
On the substance of the debate, and evaluating it as a debate, I can point to a few issues that Bush won and suggest that the rest went to Kerry (even though Kerry did little to convince me that he would improve the situation in Iraq). Surprisingly, Kerry allowed himself to lose ground on the North Korea and Iran questions. North Korea has to be dealt with through the multilateral talks first. Giving North Korea the option of simultaneously engaging in bilateral talks allows it to decide which forum it will favor on some issues. Since these negotiations are voluntary, that option has value. There is no reason to strengthen North Korea's bargaining position in this manner. And Kerry's responding to an either-or question with "both" gives a mild rhetorical victory to those who say he cannot make up his mind. On Iran, the President successfully deflected Kerry's accusations of having willfully mishandled the situation.
I thought that Kerry fared better than Bush on the Iraq questions, even though the President was able to (finally) call Kerry out on the way he has referred to the action as unilateral despite the presence of allies like the UK, Australia, and Poland. Bush failed to effectively rebut the argument that the situation in Iraq is spiraling out of control. He failed to appear composed enough to assert credibly that his war strategy would prevail.
He also missed two critical opportunities to go on the offensive against Kerry. First, he should have demanded that Kerry renounce the statements made by his campaign official, Joe Lockhart, that Allawi is a puppet of the United States. Regardless of whether Kerry thinks that is true, it is clearly contrary to the interest of the United States for Allawi to lose credibility in his country and region. The article linked above shows how the President has done this on the campaign trail.
Second, Bush should have reiterated more plainly that he faced a difficult choice and followed what he perceived to be the right course of action. He has done this fairly eloquently many times (in the part of his standard Iraq speech where he describes Saddam as a madman). He should also have listed some of the countries that we tried unsuccessfully to bring on board and explained why the price they demanded was too high to pay. I think most people would have understood him. May I suggest a re-reading of Charles Krauthammer's Irving Kristol lecture, "Democratic Realism: An American Foreign Policy for a Unipolar World," which is the clearest rationale for the war in Iraq and the choice to "go it alone" that I have heard to date. (It was written before the insurgency gained as much traction as it currently has, and so it does not deal with problems in the conduct of the Iraq war.)
On the day the United States began military action in Afghanistan, the President closed his address to the Nation with the words, "The battle is now joined on many fronts. We will not waver; we will not tire; we will not falter; and we will not fail. Peace and freedom will prevail." At the President's choosing, Iraq is the next front in the War on Terror. The recent setbacks on the ground in Iraq suggest a waver. And on Thursday, the President himself appeared tired and he clearly faltered. For the sake of the United States and people seeking peace and freedom around the globe, let's hope that we and our allies do not fail in our efforts to establish a democracy in Iraq.