Even if you acknowledge the obvious drawbacks--the "debate" was not really a debate, a first-rate rhetorician like Tony Blair would have shredded both these guys, simultaneously--you have to be pleased with last night's proceedings. For once, nobody called anybody a traitor, and both sides used their inside voices. Issues may not have been argued in depth but at least they were aired. It begs a question: What does it say about the campaign that it only got serious when it took on the trappings of a TV game show?
Contestant number one hails from Massachusetts. John Kerry was born in a military hospital, with his chubby baby fingers curled around the edges of a podium. That's how it seemed from his settled, authoritative appearance last night, anyway. At campaign rallies, Kerry sometimes suffers an ill-advised bout of wanderlust, lurching around the stage with a microphone. The debate rules forced him to remain behind his podium, rescuing him from his own bad habits. So did the time limits. The silly row of colored lights that signaled when to stop talking forced him to be concise. (They also ensured that the rest of the world won't start respecting us again anytime soon.) When President Bush tried to use the senator's own words against him, repeating his charge that Saddam's regime was "a grave threat," Kerry's response was sharp. "It was a threat. That's not the issue. The issue is what you do about it." This is the first time in John Kerry's life that he has used three simple declarative sentences in a row.
Contestant number two hails from someplace where people call mullahs "moolas," and say "terra" when they mean "terror" (but not the way Ted Kennedy says "terra"). George W. Bush can at least take comfort in the fact that he wasn't the only loser in last night's contest. He is joined by James Baker, who negotiated the debate rules with Kerry's surrogate, Vernon Jordan. With the clarity of hindsight, it's hard to believe that Baker agreed to let the first (and, presumably, most watched) debate employ a format so well suited to conceal Kerry's weaknesses and expose Bush's. Marooned behind his podium, the president shifted, hunched, and propped his elbows. When a split screen showed Bush reacting to Kerry, he sometimes pursed his lips and flared his nostrils. For once, Kerry wasn't the guy who looked uncomfortable in his own skin.
Bush seemed to be punching a step behind Kerry all night. The president leaned on a couple of major themes, as when he argued, "You cannot lead if you send mixed messages." It was supposed to be the payoff of nearly a year's worth of attack ads and sarcastically brandished footwear. But Kerry effectively undercut the notion that his message was mixed in the first place. At last he made this convincing. "I've had one position, one consistent position, that Saddam Hussein was a threat. There was a right way to disarm him and a wrong way. And the president chose the wrong way." An even better moment--the best of the night, maybe--came after Bush challenged Kerry on voting for and against the $87 billion supplemental. "Well, you know, when I talked about the eighty-seven billion, I made a mistake in how I talk about the war," he replied. "But the president made a mistake in invading Iraq. Which is worse?"
You may detect a pattern. Almost without exception, Kerry's best moments--the most cogent, the most arresting--came when he drew explicit, immediate contrasts. "Saddam Hussein didn't attack us. Osama bin Laden attacked us. Al Qaeda attacked us," he said, neatly undermining four days of Republican nominating speeches. He also continued the work of his own acceptance speech, seizing the language of values to talk about policy choices. "This president thought it was more important to give the wealthiest people in America a tax cut rather than invest in homeland security. Those aren't my values. I believe in protecting America first," he said.
As moderator, Jim Lehrer was polite but firm--unobtrusive, but willing to pose a question when appropriate; he would make a fine sommelier. More than once it looked like he would need to intervene, as the senator still has a tendency to lumber. Like a Macy's float, Kerry might be heading in the right direction, but slowly, with too much air. Bush was more agile. When Kerry droned on about wanting to "change the dynamics on the ground" in Iraq, or hold "statesmanlike summits," Bush flung the phrases back at him. The president's jus' folks approach--his lack of concern for world opinion, or grammar--will strike many as proof of his forthrightness. Yet Bush also has a tendency to stare or stammer while the next sentence coagulates behind his eyes. Last night, the tic contrasted sharply with his opponent's poise, and did not flatter.
What the debate lacked in haymakers, it made up in happy talk. When Lehrer asked Bush about Kerry's character, the president offered warm compliments about the Kerry family. Of course, he still closed with a solid shot: "There must be certainty from the U.S. president." Kerry dawdled away part of his rebuttal time playing rhetorical kissy-face with the First Lady. Then he mustered a near-perfect reply, as efficient as it was potent: "It's one thing to be certain, but you can be certain and be wrong." Where has this attack been all summer? If it sticks around, last night's win may not be Kerry's last.
Jeremy McCarter is a contributing editor at The New Republic and chief heater critic of New York Magazine.