Wow, Mills Lane shoulda stopped that one.
All week, the Kerry camp has been trying to raise expectations for the President leading up to last night's meeting in Miami. "He's never lost a debate," they said. "His plain-spoken demeanor will captivate the American public," they said.
I saw no evidence of that last night. In fact, I saw no evidence of the man who doggedly challenged Al Gore in 2000. Kerry had him on the ropes all night. He slammed him on the postwar plan for Iraq, North Korea's nuclear weapons acquisition, the broken homeland security situation in the US, and the lack of focus on Usama bin Laden and his terror network. Here's a few thoughts:
-The split screen revealed what will be seen by many as the "Al Gore sigh" of this debate; Bush's anger, revealed in a smirk. He looked like he didn't want to be there, like nobody should dare challenge him and his policies.
-Bush's only line of attack virtually the whole night was the "mixed message" one; he said it so many times that at one point he threw in a "mexed missages." Kerry defused the flip-flop line utterly by using it first (bringing up a Bush change of policy and indirectly saying "They have a word for that in his campaign."). And he parried the mixed message charge well, relating it to North Korea's gaining nukes on Bush's watch.
-When "nuclear proliferation" was given (by both men) as the answer to "What is the greatest threat to our security," I thought it was 1984. In fact Kerry managed to inject strong liberal policy into the debate (global warming, stopping production of bunker buster missiles, no tax cuts for the rich) without being seen as weak. This is how Kerry became the nominee in the first place; by projecting strength and still maintaining wise policy decisions.
-"The enemy attacked us" moment was one of the finest I've seen in a Presidential debate. Kerry refused to allow Bush to again conflate Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda (Bush even confused Saddam with bin Laden at one point, doing what should be known in the lexicon as a "Rumsfeld"). But Kerry said "Saddam Hussein didn't attack us. Usama bin Laden attacked us." Finally. That's almost the first time Bush has ever had that deceitful strategy of conflation smacked down.
-It's a shame Kerry didn't have more time to address his $87 billion dollar vote, but he calculated that he had to simply call it a mistake. And that short declarative ("I made a mistake in talking about Iraq, he made a mistake in invading Iraq. What's worse?") was quite effective.
-There weren't nearly as many lies as I expected, but a couple of them were salient. 100,000 trained Iraqi troops is a huge lie. 10 million Afghans registered to vote is one too. And saying Kerry "wants to get the troops out of Iraq in 6 months" stretches things. Honestly I expected more.
- Bush was just unfocused the whole time, struggling to come up with answers, employing lots of pregnant pauses, saying phrases like "hard work" and "mixed messages" over and over, and generally looking like a beaten man.
I was infuriated by the initial spin on NBC, whose correspondents immediately after the debate asked Karen Hughes "What's the best thing Bush did," and then asked Mike McCurry "What's the worst thing Kerry did," and "Why did it take Kerry so long to admit his mistake on the $87 billion dollar vote?" But I don't think you can even spin your way out of this one. Kerry won, plain and simple. And people know it.
We know it because, just this morning, US and Iraqi forces have begun a major offensive in Samarra. Now, I'm not the world's biggest conspiracy theory guy, but if Bush did better last night, I suspect the no-go zones would've stayed no-gone. I smell dog-wagging here, an attempt to blow the debate off the front page, literally. I have to say it's about damn time we go into these insurgent strongholds. You can't let guerrilla warriors just fortify their position. That's been a major weakness of this Iraq policy. If we're there (and we shouldn't be, but we are, and I agree with Kerry that it's too important geopolitically to lose), we have to at least fight. For all the President's blather about staying on the offensive, this Samarra attack is the first offensive on a stronghold since Najaf. Also, Juan Cole explains that even this offensive is bungled:
The US military launched a major attack on guerrillas in Samarra. Unfortunately, this procedure actually means that they launched a major attack on the city of Samarra. Residents reported by telephone being shaken by a series of massive explosions. Samarra was captured by insurgents early in the spring or summer. The US had attempted to combine force with negotiations to end the rebellion, but the truce broke down when guerrillas launched new attacks on US forces. The guerrillas in Samarra appear to be local youth gangs, whether Arab nationalist or Sunni fundamentalist. Some have recently adopted the colors of Monotheism and Holy War, the terrorist group that originated in Afghanistan and was established mainly in Germany and Jordan after 1989. These clothes and insignia (orange on black) seem to be being adopted by the Samarra street gangs rather as US urban gangs have colors and symbols that show up in their graffitti.
OK, that's enough for now.