Friday, October 01, 2004

Second Thoughts

I kept a lengthy scorecard as the debate was happening and the conclusion I came to (without listening to any other analyses) was that they each won 9 of the 18 questions, making it a draw.

Of course it's more complicated than that. There is the overall gestalt of the debate, and in analyzing this, each candidate can plausibly claim a tactical victory. Kerry looked presidential, didn't sound condescending, and appeared to have a grasp of small details. His problem was that some of these small details were flat wrong. For instance, he criticized the president for shutting down the NY subway during the convention--which never happened.

That might have been a mental hiccup, but another one of his mistaken details was simply dishonest: Kerry criticized Bush's transformation of the FBI, pointing to the 1,000 hours of untranslated intelligence tapes and saying that the key clue for stopping the next 9/11 could be somewhere in this pile. Let's look at the facts: For one thing, Bush has transformed the FBI from being a law-enforcement agency to a counter-terrorism agency. No one with a serious grasp of what the FBI does could fail to see the magnitude of this sea-change. Where the FBI used to have 35 joint-terrorism task-forces before 9/11, it now has 100. In just three years, the FBI created and made operational the Terrorist Screening Center and Terrorist Threat Integration Centers. By the end of this year, there will be more than 50 FBI Legat offices overseas in terrorist hotspots like Yemen. On September 10, 2001, the FBI was primarily concerned with the mafia and the drug trade. It is now America's equivalent of MI-5.

But back to those untranslated tapes. Since 9/11, the FBI has hired more than 700 new linguists to translate intelligence and the Bureau has put in place a complex system to prioritize incoming intelligence. All al Qaeda intercepts are reviewed and translated within 24 hours. Either Kerry was self-consciously demagogueing the FBI, or he has no idea what's going on inside America's primary domestic counter-terrorism agency.

As for Bush, he hammered the theme that his campaign believes is the key to the election: Kerry is a flip-flopper who doesn't know his own mind and can't be trusted to be commander-in-chief during wartime. We'll soon see if that line of attack has any resonance. If it does, then Bush will have done real damage to Kerry with his single-minded focus.

The problem for Bush was that he looked a bit like the angry Al Gore from that 2000 debate. He sighed and made strange noises. He was tart and, at times, peevish. The message he seemed to be projecting was, Hey, I'm trying to protect the free world against nut-ball terrorists and you want me to debate this guy? Just go ahead and vote for me already.

I'm not sure how that sort of confidence and superiority will play with the voting public--it's entirely possible that they like it. But by being so superior, Bush did save Kerry from himself. Next to the Bush we saw last night, Kerry didn't have to worry about looking like a condescending, know-it-all Lurch.


Anonymous said...

Maybe Bush was right to be peeved--not only was John Kerry making up facts, he was cheating, using notes he'd brought in against debate rules. If Bush saw what was going on, he'd have had good reason to be peevish.

miklos rosza said...

Another thing to keep in mind is that the public does not always respond to "gotcha" type attacks on Bush (or perhaps on anyone else -- see Clinton) the way the attackers expect. Sometimes sympathy is aroused by what may be seen as unfair or excessively lawyerly attacks... even if this reaction may be difficult to express.