Who's winning the post-debate debate?

Dispatches from Campaign 2004.
Oct. 2 2004 9:13 PM

The Post-Debate Debate

Who's winning now, Bush or Kerry?

ORLANDO—Sen. John Kerry, you just walloped President Bush in the first 2004 debate. What are you going to do now? Go to Disney World, apparently: The Kerry campaign and his traveling press spent Friday night at the Swan & Dolphin Hotel at Walt Disney World, possibly the only place more unreal than the presidential campaign bubble. There couldn't be a more appropriate place for Kerry to stay the night after the debate, because right now, Democrats think they're in the happiest place on earth.

As the press bus arrived at the Fort Lauderdale airport Friday morning, a reporter jokingly pronounced a crowd of Kerry supporters to be "30 percent more excited" than they would have been before Thursday's debate. But he underestimated the enthusiasm among Democrats for Kerry's performance. In 90 minutes, Kerry erased the nagging complaints within his party about the effectiveness of his campaign, and he crushed any incipient Dean nostalgia.

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On the stump, Kerry has discovered a new applause line, simply uttering the word "debate." At the University of South Florida in Tampa on Friday, Kerry walked out to the loudest and longest ovation I've seen in more than a year on the campaign. Kerry's still a 40-minute rambler at his campaign events—he should consider traveling with a podium equipped with green, yellow, and red lights that tell him when to stop—but he didn't have to do anything more than ask the crowd, "So, did you watch that debate last night?" to get the rumbling foot-stomping and cheering started again. In Orlando later that night, Kerry uses his new line—"Did you watch that little debate last night?"—as his opener, and again its gets the crowd roaring.

Kerry has even taken to ridiculing the president for his underwhelming showing. On Friday night, he mockingly impersonated Bush as a stammering Porky Pig. (Not Elmer Fudd, as the New York Times claims. Get your cartoon references right, Gray Lady!) The next day, Kerry was at it again, poking fun of Bush's repetition of the phrase "hard work" at the debate: "He confuses staying in place, just kind of saying, 'It's tough, it's hard work, you gotta make a decision,' "—laughter—"he considers that, and confuses that, with leadership."

Those Democrats who aren't already buoyed by the debate will take heart in Saturday's Newsweek poll, which shows the race in a statistical tie: Kerry at 47 percent and Bush at 45 percent, with a 4-point margin of error. Kerry adviser Joel Johnson dismissed the poll's significance during a conference call with reporters, saying, "It's probably a poll that we took issue with in the past," such as when Newsweek showed the president leading by 11 points coming out of the Republican convention.

In the wake of all these good signs for Kerry, the Bush campaign is busy trying to Gore him, to kill the Democratic buzz by turning Kerry's debate victory into a defeat. A White House pool report Saturday from the Baltimore Sun's David Greene reported that Bush communications director Nicolle Devenish said, "Nobody is going to look back on November 3 and remember that first debate for anything other than a night when Kerry made four serious strategic mistakes." Here's how Greene summarized the mistakes: "1) Kerry spoke of a 'global test.' 2) Kerry called the war in Iraq a mistake then later said Americans were not dying for a mistake. 3) Kerry spoke of the troops deserving better after saying in an interview before the debate that his vote on funding was made in protest. 4) Kerry offered what Nicolle called a 'new insult' for allies when he said the coalition is not 'genuine.' "

Thursday night after the debate, the Bush surrogates emphasized Devenish's second point, to reinforce its caricature of the Democratic nominee as a habitual flip-flopper. By Friday and Saturday, however, the Bush campaign had seized upon Kerry's mention—a virtual aside—of a "global test" for pre-emptive war as their chance to reverse the perception that Kerry won the debate. (Based on Devenish's comments, they've also dropped their initial nobody-won spin in which they sounded like Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda: "We didn't lose Vietnam! It was a tie!")

On Friday afternoon, the Bush campaign e-mailed excerpts of remarks the president made in Allentown, Pa., including this quote: "Senator Kerry last night said that America has to pass some sort of global test before we can use American troops to defend ourselves. He wants our national security decisions subject to the approval of a foreign government. Listen, I'll continue to work with our allies and the international community, but I will never submit America's national security to an international test. The use of troops to defend America must never be subject to a veto by countries like France." Scott McClellan piled on, as distilled by another White House pool report, saying that Kerry's comment "showed a fundamental misunderstanding of the war on terrorism," and that the remark "shows something that is very disturbing."

By Saturday, Bush himself had taken to calling the "global test" the "Kerry doctrine," which would "give foreign governments veto power over our own national security decisions." In the afternoon, the Kerry campaign dispatched Richard Holbrooke to rebut "Bush's misleading rhetoric on the stump" in a conference call. Nearly every question was about what Kerry meant during the debate by "global test," and about the Bush's campaign's rhetoric of a "global permission slip" and the "Kerry doctrine." Holbrooke read Kerry's debate statement in full: "No president, through all of American history, has ever ceded, and nor would I, the right to preempt in any way necessary to protect the United States of America. But if and when you do it, Jim, you have to do it in a way that passes the test, that passes the global test where your countrymen, your people understand fully why you're doing what you're doing and you can prove to the world that you did it for legitimate reasons."

Holbrooke said the "Bush attack" was "another flagrant misrepresentation by the administration of what Sen. Kerry said," and added, "Who in their right mind would not wish to be sure that the use of force preemptively, or for that matter, any use of force, gets support and understanding from the rest of the world and from the American people and is fully justified?" He called it "longstanding American doctrine" and "a standard position, all presidents have taken it since at least 1945." Sounding irritated about the repeated mentions of the "Kerry doctrine" by reporters, Holbrooke said, "Don't call it a Kerry doctrine. That would suggest that John Kerry has enunciated something new, and he didn't."

An hour later, at 2:30 p.m., Kerry adviser Joel Johnson and Democratic National Committee adviser Howard Wolfson held a conference call to "discuss the results" of the presidential debate. The first question, from a Knight Ridder reporter, was about "this alleged Kerry doctrine." Would the campaign make any "paid media response"? No, Johnson said, we're going to focus on the economy in our TV ads, as planned. "We don't feel like this one is one we're going to have to respond in any way" in paid media.

The Republicans are "trying to take away the medal from the Olympic gymnast after the contest is over," Wolfson said. ABC's Dan Harris asked, "Aren't you opening yourself up to the charge that you've failed to learn the lessons of August?" referring to the Swift Boat ads and the Kerry campaign's belated response. "We're focusing on the failed economy," Johnson said. But you should know, "He'll never give a veto to any other country, period." Harris replied, "But boy, it really sounds like you're letting that charge hang out there." Johnson: "Well, we'll take that under advisement."

Shortly after that conference call ended, the Bush campaign e-mailed its script for a new TV ad, called—surprise—"Global Test." The ad says in part, "The Kerry doctrine: A global test. So we must seek permission from foreign governments before protecting America? A global test? So America will be forced to wait while threats gather? President Bush believes decisions about protecting America should be made in the Oval Office, not foreign capitals." Within a couple of hours, the Kerry campaign had changed its mind about whether to release its own ad. Their script begins, "George Bush lost the debate.  Now he's lying about it." The Kerry ad also tries to change the subject, to a New York Times story that comes out Sunday. That day's conference call is billed as, "What President Bush Really Knew About Iraq's WMD Programs Before the War."

During his conference call, Joel Johnson complained, "The Bush campaign is trying to concoct arguments that the president couldn't make the other night in the debate." That's exactly right. The mystery is why Johnson didn't think his campaign would have to do the same for Kerry.

Chris Suellentrop is the deputy editor for blogs at Yahoo News and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He has reviewed video games for Slate, Rolling Stone, and NewYorker.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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