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Presidential Debate Analysis

Robert G. Kaiser
Washington Post Associate Managing Editor
Monday, October 11, 2004; 11:00 AM

Friday night President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) are scheduled to debate for the second time this election season. Who came out ahead? Did the format influence the event? How accurate were the candidates?

Kaiser was online Monday, Oct. 11, at 11 a.m. ET to take your questions, comments and analysis on the debate, the candidates and the 2004 election.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Robert G. Kaiser: Hello to all on Columbus Day, a government holiday in Washington but not at the ever-vigilant Washington Post. We have many questions already, some of them posted Friday night and Saturday, with many of your reactions to the Friday debate. Others are new today, and more I know will be coming in during this hour.

I continue to be impressed by the debates; they are real, unlike so much of our politics these days. They show both candidates having to think on their feet, with fascinating results. Millions of Americans are exposed to issues here that they avoid in t heir everyday lives, alas. I have to say that some of the questions we receive here belie a total lack of knowledge of public affairs, something I try to be tolerant of, but which, I confess, can drive a guy like me batty. "What is nuclear proliferation?" is one such today, which I will answer.

We have an hour, as usual.


Nashville, Tenn.: Do you know if any newspaper has published the complete list of questions that were submitted to ABC's Charles Gibson, including the ones that got rejected at the first screening?

There is a big difference between getting to ask your own qusestion and having to answer one that has been forumlated by a pollster. Twenty questions doesn't begin to do justice to finding out what is on the mind of the American public.

Robert G. Kaiser: Far as I know, the original questions have not been released, this year or in past such debates. The purpose here was not to know what was on the minds of the public, something pollsters are searching for all the time. The purpose was to hear questions for the candidates in the true voices of real voters, and to use those questions to prompt a meaningful debate. On that basis, I give Friday's show an A.


Nashville, Tenn.: Reading Paul Farhi's article, "Debate Did Little to Solidify Votes of Participants", convinces me that we are headed for a replay of the 1972 elections. Exit polls from that election showed that even after voting, many people weren't sure they'd made the right choice. Yet Nixon won in a landslide as will Bush. John Howard's win in Australia clinches it.

The similarities between 2004 and 1972 have been noted by people across the spectrum from Pat Buchanan to the Democratic National Committee, who published it in their March magazine pointing out that "in 2004, Democrats are not running George McGovern".

washingtonpost.com: Debate Did Little to Solidify Votes of Participants (Post, Oct. 9)

Robert G. Kaiser: I think you're nuts, but you can remind me of that on election night! As I've written in the Post and here, I think '80 is a much better parallel than '72. I'd also argue that '68 is closer to what we have here than '72, but that would take more time than I should give one question.

I still have the feeling that this race will not be as close as last time--that in the last days, it will break for one side or the other. But this is sheer hunch.


San Jose, Calif.: It seemed like Bush was really 'on' Friday night and Kerry wasn't as focused as he was in the first debate. Did you sense the same thing?

Robert G. Kaiser: I did see a more focused Bush, but I thought Kerry came across much as he had the first time. We'll discuss later his answer on abortion, which intrigued me, but basically I thought, as virtually always, my colleague Tom Shales got it right. We will post a link to Shales here.

I disagree with Tom on one point, however. I thought the ordinary citizens asking their own questions were great. I loved their seriousness and determination. Tom, who watches too much television, seems to have wanted Charlie Gibson (who did a great job, I thought) to read all the questions. Why, Tom?

I can't pretend to have everyman's reactions to these things. Indeed, there is no everyman, is there? I am not surprised, as I've written here before, that people react differently to these events. People react differently to white chocolate, or cherry Coke.

washingtonpost.com: Bush and Kerry Come Out of Their Corners (Post, Oct. 9)


Philadelphia, Pa.: Mr. Kaiser,
It seemed like the bar for Friday's debate was set ridiculously high for Kerry and ridiculously low for Bush. I thought the only way Pres. Bush wasn't going to get a "Pres. Bush improved his debate performance" story the next day is if he somehow managed to set the stage on fire during the debate. Other than that, he didn't have to do much.

Robert G. Kaiser: Set by whom? The talking heads? Do you really care what they are saying? I urge you not to.

I thought Bush did better than you imply. But the big question this time (the opposite of what it was for debate one) was, will Bush boot the whole ballgame tonight? Measured against that, he did well. Measured against the same question about Kerry at debate one, I'd say Kerry did even better. In debate one, I mean.


Rolla, Mo.: The President has recently emphasized (unanswered by Kerry) that Kerry "saw the same intelligence" as he did, but is this really true? Is a sitting senator privy to all of the info (quantity and quality) that a president has at his disposal? Why has the Kerry campaign not countered this, it would matter to undecideds?

Robert G. Kaiser: Of course a president has enormous advantages over a senator. First of all, he can freely challenge the CIA director or anyone else about the intelligence they are giving him, which Senators cannot do in remotely the same way. One of the best moments in Bob Woodward's last book has Bush telling George Tenet that he wasn't impressed by his Iraq WMD intelligence, to which Tenet replied (Woodward writes) that it is actually a "slam dunk" case. Bush evidently accepted this conclusion without pressing Tenet further--at least that was the conclusion I drew from Woodward's account. Do you think he wishes he had pushed the matter harder?


Portland, Ore.: An interesting thing about the debate, to me, was the question going in: Would the president look and act good for round 2 after round 1? He did, but it is remarkable that the "beauty" contest aspect of these events seems to be more important than the substance.

Frankly, I think all three debates so far have been pretty good -- one gets a clear sense of each man's positions, and his evasions. The winner is the electorate.

For myself, "beauty" contests should be left to Miss America. In today's world a short, fat and irrascible John Adams wouldn't have a chance.

Robert G. Kaiser: Excellent comment, thanks. I agree with it, though I don't think you're right that the substance doesn't matter. It doesn't matter to the ridiculous talking heads on TV, but I am confident that a lot of voters will remember what the candidates said longer than they'll be pondering how they looked.


You give Friday's debate an A?: To me, the most surprising thing about the three debates so far has not been how fantastic they have been but rather what good grades the media has given them. OK, fine, they are better than the debates in 2000, they are better than the debates in 1996, but why should we be grading the Presidential Debates on such an obvious curve? I think that people are more interested in politics these post-9-11 and wartime days, and that makes for more interesting questions being asked at the debates. Nonetheless, the answers from the candidates are just as canned as they have been for a couple decades now. Both Bush and Kerry have spent 95 percent of their speaking time in the debates repeating talking points. Just because the talking points happen to be on issues that a broader section of the body politic cares passionately about these days, doesn't make the "debates" or the speeches of the candidates any better than in the past.

Robert G. Kaiser: You say tomahto, and I say tomato...


Grand Rapids, Mich.: Just as we were approaching the brink of cynicsm and apathy, along come these televised debates, which have reinvigorated substantial discussion of the policies and agenda that will impact out lives and this nation. Considering this, wouldn't it make sense to establish an ongoing debate system for each election, which would proceed at the conclusion of the conventions? Might not this reduce the need or desire to rest upon negative advertising and canned events to communicate policy positions to the electorate and result in an informed and involved electorate making thoughtful election decisions?

Robert G. Kaiser: I see that you also say tomato!

Great idea. Today's political "experts," the advisors and advertising men, would hate it. It would reduce their role, for one thing, and cost them money. And it would throw a lot more responsibility on the candidates themselves.

So it probably won't happen, unless an incumbent president decides to inaurgurate the idea. But they are always too nervous to be so bold, I fear. Remember that Clinton ducked out of one of the three debates in 1996, when he really had little to fear.


Seattle, Wash.: Senator Kerry won the debate on both style and substance. Why would anyone want a President who thinks by yelling his answers, he has more conviction than "his opponent" or by being rude to the moderator makes him a better leader? I'm not sure who really wrote the questions, but my hat is off to them. They were good questions and the forum produced a better debate than I thought would be the outcome.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks. In fact the questions were written by those who asked them, I am confident.


Washington, D.C.: Okay, once and for all, because no one seems to be able to agree: Was Kerry's point that Bush qualifies as a small business owner--thus calling into question the administration's figures about who Kerry's upper class tax increase will affect--a valid one or not?

Robert G. Kaiser: Kerry was accurate, I believe.


Charlotte, N.C.: Do you think the format comes into play in Arizona? Does going back to the podiums help Kerry? Hurt Bush? The topic, in my mind, seems to favor Kerry, although I though Bush did a little better than Kerry on Friday when talk turned to the economy.

Robert G. Kaiser: I'll respond to this and the next question together...


Washington, D.C.: How do you think the fact that the debate took place on a Friday night before a holiday weekend has affected or will affect how lasting anyone's impressions are? Might the results from this debate have had a broader and more long-lasting effect had it taken place on, say, a Tuesday? Is there any noticeable concern in either campaign about this?

Robert G. Kaiser: So my answer to these two previous questions is an insult: Get a Life! What is happening to us, all of us, if we wring our hands about such matters?

I think I have an answer. My colleague Donna Britt wrote a wonderful column about it on Friday, to which we will link here. A lot of Americans are overwrought about this election. I am not blaming anyone here, just observing. This really is an important election; very big issues are at stake; partisans on both sides can't abide the thought that their guy may lose. But one of them will!


Brentwood, Calif.: Why should John Kerry get credit for a plan on Iraq when he was to afraid to propose one prior to or in the early part of the conflict? Strong leadership would demand that his plan was presented early to allow side by side critique along with the President's plan.

Robert G. Kaiser: Geez, you're a tough taskmaster. What was Nixon's plan to end the Vietnam war in '68? Or Ike's to end Korea in '52? I think Kerry is in good company on this one.


Washington, D.C.: So why hasn't the Post had anything on the mystery bulge in Bush's coat during the first debate, which some suspect was a hearing device with a campaign staffer giving Bush answers for the questions? Maybe it's true, maybe it isn't, but the pictures seem valid enough to warrant some coverage.

The BBC has covered it, and the New York Times. If I missed it, sorry, but I just searched post.com. It might explain his scowling, too.

Robert G. Kaiser: We had a story like the NY Times's on Saturday. We also had a truly weird non-denial denial from Scott Stanzel, a Bush spokesman, in a chat here on washingtonpost.com on Friday. We'll link to it also.

I have a number of questions about this today. I am intrigued by it myself. If you look carefully at the picture (and I hope we can give you a link here to an internet version of the photo), it's hard to think this was some kind of natural fold in the president's suit jacket. But what was it?

The other intriguing bit of evidence is in Bush's answer to a question where he said "let me finish" in the middle of his answer, when there was no apparent evidence anyone was pressing him or trying to interupt him. Conceivably he was responding to a look of impatience on Kerry's face at that moment. Or, as many bloggers are speculating, might he have been talking to a voice in his ear?

I have ABSOLUTELY NO EVIDENCE to support any theory in this matter. But given the apparent visual evidence of the photo, I hope we can keep pursuing this question and get an answer.

Another possibility, of course, is that Bush has to wear some kind of elaborate bulletproof vest to keep the Secret Service happy, and that we are seeing part of it in that photo. But the White House doesn't explain.

washingtonpost.com: Bulge Under President's Coat in First Debate Stirs Speculation (Post, Oct. 9)

Transcript: Bush-Cheney Campaign Spokesman Scott Stanzel.

Bush's bulge stirs media rumours (BBC News)


Albany, N.Y.: Media people have been paying a lot of attention to who "won" the Edwards-Cheney debate and the second Edwards-Kerry debate. I don't give a damn who "won" because I think the definition of what constitutes a "win" is completely wrong. I don't think Cheney or Bush converted any Kerry people. I don't think Kerry or Edwards converted any Bush people. That leaves the undecideds. The winner is the side that converted the greater number of "undecideds". What feedback are you getting on that?

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for a wise comment. I think the best feedback we can get now, and it isn't great, is from the polls. Our tracking poll shows a 51-46 race in Bush's favor. It is alone with such a margin, or a clear Bush lead. All the other polls show the race even, essentially. Indeed, so does the Post poll, if you take the margin of error (3 or four points in either direction) seriously. If the margin of possible error is 3, then 51-46 for Bush could, mathematically, also be 48-49 for Kerry.

Given that all the polls, virtually, agreed that Bush enjoyed a lead before the debates began, and the lead is now gone, I'd say we can conclude PRELIMINARILY that Kerry and Edwards have gotten the most out of the debates in terms of moving people who were movable. But all such movements are tentative, and reversible. And I have to agree with Jon Stewart by expressing total bafflement about who really remains undecided today. Perhaps, to be generous, it is mostly people who traditionally vote Republican or Democratic, but have reservations about the candidate they had expected to vote for? I just don't know.


Rhode Island: After Friday's debate, a C-Span analyst said "President Bush showed a 'surprising' grasp of domestic policy." Why is President Bush held to such low expectations and standards? Shouldn't any President have a comprehensible grasp of both foreign and domestic policy, especially after serving a full term in office? Why has the bar been set so low for this President? Thanks.

Robert G. Kaiser: C-Span has no analysts, so I'm not sure who you saw making that preposterous remark.


Madison, Wis.: A question of style, over substance:

A day or two after watching the debates I realized that the aggressive tone that the President took, often appearing to be talking loudly, may have been a factor of considering each response as a sound bite.

Since after the debates, only snippets find their way to the TV and the cable news guys love to run them again and again, the risk of a weak snippet was probably too great. Your impression?

Robert G. Kaiser: I fear you may be right. Fear for my country, I mean. If, decades or centuries from now, some future Gibbon writes that America's great decline began in the last years of the 20th Century and first years of the 21st, she/he will blame the sound bite culture as one of many culprits...


Baltimore, Md.: I hope you saw Saturday Night Live's version of the debate, with "president Bush" repeatedly offering wood to everyone, and an audience member taking offense that "Kerry" presumed that she doesn't make $200,000 a year.

Robert G. Kaiser: I was in a cabin in the woods with no television, an idyllic spot, so I missed SNL. It sounds clever.


New York, N.Y.: I have found the cable news coverage of the debates to be sloppy at best, dragging us through the evening with poorly composed panels of pols and pundits. This weekend, I was watching Meet the Press, and the news panel featured someone from the National Review, who might as well have been a campaign spokesman for Bush-Cheney 2004.

Why is TV journalism failing in this campaign cycle to be anything but an echo chamber replete with tired pols and partisans?

Robert G. Kaiser: excellent question, which I cannot answer. I guess I can give a plug to the book Len Downie and I wrote called THE NEWS ABOUT THE NEWS. The news in that book is bad, and the evidence of it is on your TV every day.


Bethesda, Md.: Do you really think Charlie Gibson was a good moderator? There were so many inconsistencies that he could have followed up on, but didn't. Such as when Kerry claimed he would balance the budget, then he talked about getting out of Iraq by raising our active-duty troops to 40,000! He also talked about increasing spending on Afganistan. It makes no sense, and no one -- not Charlie Gibson, not President Bush -- pointed this out. What gives? Was he paying attention?

Robert G. Kaiser: Gibson decided that the citizens, not he, were the stars of the show, and stood back. He tried once to do the sort of thing you suggest, and Bush wouldn't have it; he ignored Gibson's question.

I continue to feel Gibson did a good job in a very challenging situation.


Washington, D.C.: St. Louis is approximately 28 percent African American. Did you notice there was only one question from an African American and I do not think I saw any others in the audience. Also there were no questions regarding urban policy except as it relates to other broad issues such as taxes or small business development. Perhaps the audience more represented the St. Louis suburbs rather than St. Louis.

Robert G. Kaiser: I have no idea. But I was struck by the question that that black woman asked: in effect, I'm troubled by how much foreigners and old allies dislike us now. Talk about performing against stereotype! She was terrific.


Washington, D.C.: Senator Kerry keeps referring to his "plan" to get us out of Iraq. How is his plan different than President Bush's? How would he get our allies that are not in the coalition (presumably he is referring to France and Germany) to participate when they have already announced that if Kerry is elected it would not change their position? Why would France and Germany want the US to succeed in Iraq when they had been illegally profiting from the Food for Peace Program with kickbacks from Saddam himself?

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for posting. Of course I can't foresee the reactions of France and Germany to a Kerry victory, but I do know that the relief in both countries, and in both governments, would be enormous. If they then failed to respond to his requests for help to do something in Iraq, that could easily mark the end of the Atlantic Alliance as we have known it, it seems to me.

This doesn't mean you don't have grounds for skepticism about Kerry's "plan," which is as much a hope as anything concrete, obviously.

As to who profited from the Iraq sanctions, don't forget what the Duelfer report says: Americans profited too, individuals and companies. We have a lot more to learn about that.


Demarest, NJ: While I admire and appreciate "debate referee" -- your immediate fact-checking of the presidential debates -- I keep thinking of that scene in Woody Allen's Manhattan, in which people at a cocktail party think that a satirical piece in The New Yorker is going to stop a Nazi march, while Allen argues that, in dealing with Nazis, you need to use bricks.

And so, I admire ABC News political director Mark Helperin more than I admire you. In an internal memo posted on Drudge Report and elsewhere, he points out that -- as everyone close to this campaign knows --the Bush administration lies far more often and far more seriously than the Kerry campaign, and is counting on those lies to win it the election. It doesn't fear any consequences, because the press -- in showing greater loyalty to "fairness" than to truth -- inevitably reports that "Both Bush and Kerry shade the truth." (One analysis of the St. Louis debate showed Bush making 8 serious misstatements of fact compared with Kerry's 1.) Helperin said ABC would henceforth no longer let itself be used in this way.

In a basically honest campaign, the he-said, he-said form of balance is typically a good thing; not with these people. At a time when reporters and political junkies say to each other, "Bush is an absolutely shameless liar," no newspaper is saying this plainly to its readers. They are withholding a truth voters need. So when is the Post going to run a story headlined "Bush campaign statements riddled with lies"?

Robert G. Kaiser: Let me once again try to explain The Post's view of what the news section of a newspaper ought to do.

Our job is to hold the powerful accountable. That means, among other things, telling readers when presidential candidates abuse the truth. We do this all the time, often forcefully. Here's a good example from last week, a story by Jim VandeHei on a Bush speech that abused the truth repeatedly, as the story makes clear.

Our post-debate analyses have, yes, found fault with both parties' candidates' statements, but anyone who knows math can count up how many mistakes were noted that Bush or Kerry, or Cheney or Edwards, made. We have pointed out more Republican mistakes than Democratic ones, because it appears that there have been more of those.

But there are no headlines of the type you propose, because that is the headline for an editorial, or an opinion column, not a news story. How long would our credibility last with Republicans if we made such value judgments in our headlines? Or with Democrats if the story in questioned pointed out a Democratic sin? Our hope, forlorn in some cases to be sure, is that fair-minded people, even partisans, will recognize our efforts to be fair, thorough and accurate in these matters. Calling campaigns, or candidates, names would not advance that cause.

So read our journalism for good accountability reporting. Go elsewhere for denunciations.

washingtonpost.com: Bush: Kerry Would 'Weaken' U.S. (Post, Oct. 7)


London, UK: Frankly, I found Bush's inability/refusal to cite any mistakes he had made during his term as a major character failing. That is he was only able to indirectly refer to some mistaken appointments... Why is it such a problem in American politics to admit mistakes? Can you think of any candidate who has gained in the past from admitting a mistake?

Robert G. Kaiser: I wish I had the sort of memory that would produce a great example of a past confession that helped (or hurt) a candidate, but I don't. Maybe another reader will post one.

Personally I have long thought that the candidate who seems most like a real human being with appealling human attributes usually wins the election, but not always. Nixon beat Hubert Humphrey, for example. Gore beat Bush, too, another violation of my rule, but one corrected by our electoral college, which made Bush president anyhow.


Re: Bush's $84 in Timber: Robert, factcheck.org recently corrected their error that stated Bush owned $84 in a lumber company. It turned out that it was in 'oil and gas production'. While it's a minor difference in what small business Bush claimed -- it would explain why Bush was so surprised to find out he 'owned' part of a timber company. Here is the link

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks very much.


Rolla, MO: I am curious, which of the "internets" was the president referring to in relation to the draft rumors?

Robert G. Kaiser: Wasn't that a strange moment? I don't remember ever reading anything about our president and the Internet. Can anyone out there help? Is he known to have used it at all? (I do remember that Al Gore invented it, sort of...)

Part of the psychology of deciding how to vote is, does this guy think like I do, even remotely? Did Bush send an inadvertent signal to NetHeads with that answer?


Toledo, Ohio: On book sales and election cycles:

Seems that every idealogue has a book to peddle this election cycle. Does the publishing industry plan well ahead to release books for the election campaign? I can't help but believe that some of the grassroots activities (eg. Swift Boat Vets) were planned months in advance to meet a publishing schedule.

Are we electing a President and/or looking for a best seller? That said, I'll buy your book.

Robert G. Kaiser: Some books happened by chance, like Richard Clarke's. Some were planned with care, like the Swift Boat volume. I don't think we can generalize about the publishing industry any better than we can about life in general.

But you've made a good book-buying decision!


Arlington, Va.: I'm actually one of the few people who seems to be unhappy with the format of the "town hall" style debate. In 1992 not only were the questions "less vetted" but questioners were allowed to ask a follow up question. The whole format just seemed more lively in 92. I agree with Shales that for all the "imput" the citizens had in Missouri, Gibson could have just read their questions. So how can us "ordinary citizens" try to get the debate formats changed for 2008?

Robert G. Kaiser: Fair point. '92 was better. This format was determined entirely by Bush and Cheney's lawyers. As I said above, I think only an incumbent president would have the standing to change the system in a way that might stick beyond his/her time.


Oakland, Calif.: Outside estimates have pegged Kerry's healthcare proposal at $1.6 trillion while he pegs it at around $600 billion. Increased taxes on the rich will bring in around $600 billion. Why does the press not push him harder to explain how he fills this 1 trillion dollar gap?

Robert G. Kaiser: Here's our best effort to explain the Kerry plan.

washingtonpost.com: Kerry Plan Could Cut Insurance Premiums (Post, June 5)


Presidential errors: I believe Reagan actually took responsbility for the Beirut bombing. He won points for it, if I recall correctly. It could be argued, however, that our subsequent withdrawal demonstrated weakness.

Robert G. Kaiser: I think that may be correct. Thanks.


Los Angeles, Calif.: You said in one of your earlier comments that this election parellels 1980... Mr. Kaiser, I knew Ronald Reagan, Ronald Reagan was a friend of mine -- Senator Kerry is no Ronald Reagan... Not even close!

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks. I hope we can link here to the article I wrote in July on this comparison. If it turns out to be wrong, it will be so for exactly the reason you cite, I think. But I'd add that Reagan the candidate was not, until the one debate that year a few days before the voting, remotely as charmng or effective as Reagan the President became later, coloring all of our recollections of him.

The basis point is, Bush, like Carter in '80, is an unpopular (though less unpopular) president in deeply troubled times that persuade most Americans, a clear majority, that the country is off on the wrong track. That's fertile ground for a challenger. Of course, the challenger has to be able to exploit it.

washingtonpost.com: For Now, Kerry Has History on His Side (Post, July 25)


Robert G. Kaiser: Another hour sped by. Thanks to all participants. Wednesday night will be dramatic, I think. We'll chat again Thursday morning.


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