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Presidential Debate Analysis

Robert G. Kaiser
Washington Post Associate Managing Editor
Thursday, October 14, 2004; 10:00 AM

Wednesday night President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) held the last debate of the election season. Who came out ahead? Did the format influence the event? How accurate were the candidates?

Kaiser was online 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.


Arlington, Va.: It seems like the consensus today is that Kerry came out and finished pretty strongly last night. Where does he have to go from here to keep his momentum up until Election Day?

Robert G. Kaiser: Sorry to be late in starting, a computer glitch. I am in Omaha, Neb., this morning, so this may not work as s moothly as usual. But then again, in may.

If we cast our minds back to the eve of the first debate, there is no escaping the conclusion that John kerry has rescued his candidacy, and is now in an amazingly tight race with George Bush. Lord only knows what can make a difference now. But something will. The movement toward Kerry has been quite strong for days now. If it continues, he doesn't have to do anything but turn out his vote. But lots can happen. Which is why this is so much fun.


Boston, Mass.: Mr. Kaiser,
I'd like to thank the Washington Post for the Debate Referee. It must be getting easier though, with both candidates rolling out the same old, tired lies. Nonetheless, those guys did a good job cutting and pasting.

washingtonpost.com: Debate Referee: Third Presidential Debate

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks. oldfashioned facts have taken quite a beating in this campaign, but does that separate it from any previous campaign anyone can remember? I have lived through scores, hundreds of unfulfilled campaign promises myself. This is a feature of our public life. I don't like it.


Falls Church, Va.: Do you think Kerry meant to say Bush hasn't met with the NAACP instead of the Congressional Black Caucus?

Robert G. Kaiser: No it's both. See the "debate referee" story linked to above for an explanation of the facts. Why, after his 2000 convention, when minorities were so obvious, and after appointing Dr. Rice and Gen. Powell to his administration, Bush has done so little to cultivate black voters is a mystery to me.


Rolla, Mo.: What is going on in the "debate experts" immediate post debate analyses? With each debate, there was virtually the same answer by each expert and panel not associated with either campaign -- it was a draw, even immediately after the first debate. However, they seem to be using a different standard, or missing the point of the debates, which is who the viewer thinks won the debate, and here each result was obvious in most polls, including last night. Yet, there you had almost every pundit not associated with the campaign calling it a draw. By the way, I am a strong Kerry supporter but thought it was a draw as well, so I am obviously missing something too.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks fo rsharing your confusion! The single most interesting commentary I heard last night was on radio, NPR. David Tell, an editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, came right out and said, this was a very bad night for President Bush, because he looked so foolish. In other words, Tell departed from the model you accurately describe. But that is what made him noteworthy; otherwise, calling it a draw is obviously a safe refuge.

A draw for Kerry last night was, of course, a help to his campaign more than to Bush's. Bush was behind, declared the loser of the first two debates by a surprisingly large majority in a USATODAY poll published this week. He had to win pretty big last night to undo the damage; he didn't. I think that's the most important fact of the matter.

As usual, I rely on Tom Shales to judge; Shales called Kerry the winner. We will link to it here. And like Tell he picked up on the aspect of the evening that most struck me; Bush's grin. What was he grinning at?

Shales said after debate one that Kerry had looked more presidential. I wonder if that isn't also the net assessment after all three?

washingtonpost.com: Round 3: Bush Grins, Spins but Doesn't Win (Post, Oct. 14)


Dulles, Va.: Have we reached a new low in political discourse? The number of blatant lies in this year's debates is astonishing. I'm not talking about dueling numbers that can be made to say whatever the speaker wants.

I'm talking about claims like Cheney saying he never met Edwards or Kerry's claim that Bush never met with the Congressional black caucus.

It took me all of five seconds on Google to find (on the White House Web site) a transcript of Bush saying he wasn't concerned about Osama.

Maybe next cycle, we can have a network that delays the debate 30 minutes and then does pop-up video exposing the blatant lies.

Robert G. Kaiser: I think you are young, or your memory is failing you. As I said above, abusing the truth is as fundamental a part of American presidential campaigns as television advertising and baloons.


Boston, Mass.: What's all this talk about not raising taxes? Every respected expert says that in order to maintain current programs tax revenues have to go way up. If not now, then more later, and so and so forth. Why is it when I write a check and I'm $30 overdrawn it's my problem, but when the government writes a check and is $30 billion over drawn, it's STILL my problem?

Robert G. Kaiser: You got that right.


Chicago, Ill.: Do you think Kerry was able to sway women voters last night? Do you think he was able to pull women voters to his side with his answers about abortion, religion, etc?

Robert G. Kaiser: I could put on a wig, but I can't think like a woman. I thought one of Kerry's very best moments of all three debates was his answer on the minimum wage. My memory (not entirely reliable!) tells me that more women are trying to survive on minimum wage jobs than men. He talked about single moms struggling to make ends meet; that's the group I'm thinking of.

Polls in September showed Bush doing better than any recent Republican candidate among women. If he could hold on to that advantage, his chances for Nov. 3 would rise.


New York: The Mary Cheney issue -- Mary Cheney is an activist. She's not in the closet. She's campaigning actively. She's not a young girl who needs protection. Kerry probably should not have referred to her, but I don't see it as a big issue ? Also, by responding, isn't Lynn Cheney politicizing the issue as well ? Your thoughts ?

Robert G. Kaiser: I'll post another comment on this matter then make one of my own.


Reston, Va.: I'm having a hard time deciding what is more offensive. Kerry's use of Cheney's daughter during the homosexuality question or the overplaying of the "indignancy" card by the Republicans afterward.

Robert G. Kaiser: This is the second one. I have learned from the women in my life (a wife and two daughtes) that singling out individuals in ways that may make others wonder why you did it can be a mistake. Kerry could have used his colleague Barney Frank as a better example. Or he could have made the same point (with which I strongly agree--that homosexuals are expressing who they are, not some considered "lifestyle choice"--without a personal example. This will be a distraction, for sure.

I can't attribute motives to Lynn Cheney. She and her husband are political animals, to be sure; they are also parents.


Washington, D.C.: With the current debate set-up a fordable third party candidate could never participate. I think the debates are useless and all we hear is exactly the same speech that both candidates have given a dozens of times during the campaign.

I know it's in both parties best interest to keep the current system.
But what can voters do to change the current set-up and go back to a truly independent group run the debates again?

Robert G. Kaiser: I suspect you write as an attentive citizen who follows the campaign pretty closely. Millions of Americans don't follow it much at all. The debates give them an opportunity to catch up.

I don't myself think adding fringe candidates to spout of their notions would enrich the debates much. Having Ross Perot on in 1992 was appropriate, useful and enriching. But we haven't had a third-party candidate with his support ever since.


River Forest, Ill.: Were you surprised that the issue of stem cell research wasn't more prominent last night? I noticed Michael J. Fox was sitting next to Teresa Heinz, obviously Kerry was hoping the issue would be addressed. What do you think?

Robert G. Kaiser: I know how hard Bob Schieffer worked on the questions he posed last night, and how many questions he had to choose from. I thought he did a good job. 90 minutes isn't that long when the agenda is as broad as "domestic policy," which Bob defined broadly by beginning (legitimately I thought) with homeland security.


Monterey, Calif.: At the end of the debate last night, as Kerry and Bush shook hands with each other etc -- I had a surprising reaction: they were 100 percent totally on the same level Presidential playing field.

As someone who didn't even know John Kerry 8 months ago, I now just instinctively felt that he is capable and qualified to be president.

I have a feeling that this is precisely what the Bush campaign was hoping would not happen, to some degree.

What do you think? What was your take?

Thank you.

Robert G. Kaiser: As I think I indicated earlier, I agree with you. And yes, this has to have been one of Karl Rove's nightmares. But it doesn't surprise me either. Rove and the others kept Bush in a bubble for four years; he has almost never been roughed up in a news conference or other forum, and he isn't good under attack, as we've seen in these debates.


Anonymous: Was this the first time John Kerry came right out and said he would appoint judges who would protect abortion rights?

It's the first time I've heard him be that straightforward about it, and frankly, he may have lost my vote on that one answer. I'm an Anybody-But-Bush voter, but if I can't bring myself to vote for either on moral grounds (Bush started a war without reason), then I may have to write someone in or vote for whatever third party candidate is on the ticket.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for posting. I'm embarrassed to say I don't know if Kerry has been so explicit in the past, though I don't think pro-choice voters have had any doubt about what sort of people he would appoint to the bench.


Pittsburgh, Pa.: I agree that while referencing Cheney's daughter was probably not a good idea, I did understand what his point was. However, Lynn Cheney also did her daughter (and herself) no favors by wasting little time turning the statement into some sort of political slap. Both Kerry and Mrs. Cheney screwed up on this, I think.

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks


Indianapolis, Ind.: I think President Bush's worst moment was when he claimed never to have said he didn't worry about where Osama was because I saw him say it on Michaels Moore's 9/11 movie. the movie shows Bush saying it at a press conference.

Bush's best moment was when he talked about his faith.

Kerry's best moment was the comment about how he "married upward" because he should some humor. Even Schiefer lost it on that one. His worst was when he got all tangled up explaining abortion.

They both sucked when they tried to explain how in the world are they going to get the countries finances in order. They made it clear that neither of them is ready to talk about it seriously.

Scheifer was okay but I've seen him be tougher on Face the Nation. Anyway, I know who I'm voting for.

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks for posting. why didn't you tell us WHO you are voting for?


Alexandria, Va.: Bush: In all due respect, I'm not so sure it's credible to quote leading news organizations about -- oh, nevermind.

With Bob Schieffer of CBS News moderating, was this supposed to be a dig at Dan Rather?

Robert G. Kaiser: I guessed so, but am not at all sure.


Washington, D.C.: I thought Bush saying that he had never said he wasn't worried about Osama bin Laden, to be followed after the debate concluded by videos of him saying, "I'll repeat what I said. I truly am not that concerned about him [bin Laden]," hurt him more than if he had ignored Kerry's assertion that he had said that. Would you agree?

Robert G. Kaiser: My instinct says you are right, but my instincts have been known to fail me!


Outside the beltway: My suspicion is that the outcome of the election rests on one question: Will John Kerry protect the American people as aggressively and relentlessly as the incumbent is perceived to do?

In three debates -- and I'd argue, with increasing success -- Kerry has shown in his demeanor, his composure, his aggressive argument, his relentlessness on the attack that he has the qualities we need. Yes, he has standard lines about protecting the American people. Much more important is his manner in the debate: Three blows to Bush's head every time he opens his mouth, quickly dismissing and contradicting Bush's assertions. In his words, he defended and then quickly attacked in ways that Bush was incapable of matching.

Telling moment: When Bush, toward the end, said exasperatedly, "A plan is more than a litany of complaints". What I heard was a president saying, like a three-year-old: "he's hitting me." What I saw -- as an independent Republican -- was Bush then reducing his lines of attack for the rest of the debate. Actions are truer than words -- I think you're prediction on this election is going smoothly -- pending what's in Karl Rove's bag of dirty tricks.

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks for an interesting comment.


Washington, D.C.: Mr. Kaiser,

I wanted to ask a question about the general reaction to Bush failing to answer FOUR questions. 1. Minimum wage, 2. Job loss to overseas, 3. Roe v. Wade, 4. Affirmative Action. Those are the ones I can recall. Sometimes the nuances of politics are lost on me, but those were clear ducks of those important questions. What are your thoughts on the implications of this tactic by Bush?

Robert G. Kaiser: And Kerry totally ducked the question of how he would pay for his health care plan, and everything else.

To repeat, this is S.O.P., alas.


Castle Rock, Colo.: I don't think last night's debates will change much... those who watched the debates and who are supporting of Kerry are still so, and the same for Mr. Bush. What do you think?

Robert G. Kaiser: I think you're missing the story. Bush had a modest but quite comfortable lead on Sept. 29; it's gone. Many analysts think Kerry has the momentum now that could carry him over the finish line first on Nov. 3.

I won't go that far, because I have felt all year that events would determine the outcome. The debates have been, so far, the three biggest events of the campaign season, in my view. But there could be others before the election.


Doylestown, Pa.: So, John Kerry "looks presidential" in three debates and that should make him President? He has been a Senator for 20 years and done nothing. He would not be hired as a CEO of a small company based on his qualifications.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for the comment.


Bowie, Md.: Mr. Kaiser:
I just listened to your collegue, Peter Neal on CNN. He said John Kerry was the clear winner of this debate. I am wondering if he was watching the first debate or tonight's debate. I assume Mr. Neal's observation is based upon his political affiliation -- Democrat.
Anyone who watched the debate saw a President who dominated the stage. Senator Kerry was clearly on the defensive, and President Bush demonstrated he had the upper hand. How do you rate the President's performance?

Robert G. Kaiser: I don't have a colleague named Peter Neal, so I'm not sure who you saw, but I too would have rated Bush the loser last night, as Tom SHales does (see link above to Shales). Like David Tell of the Weekly Standard, cited above, I though Bush's grin was wildly inappropriate and strange, and hypothesized that this might have rubbed a lot of voters the wrong way.

On the basis of Bush's answer to the minimum wage question alone, I'd say it was a pretty rocky evening for the president. But he had some very good moments, particularly on religion I thought.

I hasten to add, I think the whole concept of winning and losing in these debates misses what will prove to be the important point: good debates like these give voters real meat for thought; they help shape opinions. The fact that a Bush enthusiast like you liked Bush is not really very relevant, do you think? A much-disputed percentage of voters, maybe 5, maybe 20%, were subject to influence this year, and might have change d their minds once or more often. Who THEY thought was most impessive is the only question I'd really like to know the answer too. And soon, I will, I think.


Commerce, Mich.: I thought that Kerry's best moment was in response to the Assault Weapons question - Bush mentioned that when we "was told" that the continuation of the ban did not have bi-partisan support, he essentially let that dynamic stand, he didn't use the bully pulpit in ways he's used it for the tax cuts, for example -- Kerry's response was resolute and direct "I'd tell Tom Delay" that we are "going to have a fight" -- highlighting a real leadership issue - didn't this put the question of strenght and resolution to bed?

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks for the comment. I too thought that was a good moment, especially for women voters concerned about gun violence.


Washington, D.C.: Was it just me, or did Bob Schieffer do a horrible job last night? I thought he went out of his way to inject himself into the debate in an inappropriate way. The most obvious was when he introduced the (silly) question about the candidates/wives and daughters by pointing out that he also had a wife and two daughters. And there were other times when I thought he went out of his way to be "cute" in the way he introduced a subject.

Memo to Bob: It's about the candidates, not you.

Robert G. Kaiser: As I said above, I thought Schieffer was good. I thought that last question created the most human moment of al l three debates.


Laurel, Md.: John Kerry repeated the line Bill Clinton used to use in the State of the Union address -- "Women are paid 76 percent of what men are for doing the same work." That last phrase makes the sentence just plain false. Nationally, women's wages are 76 percent of men's because of differences in the work they do.

Do any media fact-checkers ever point this out? No that I've ever seen, it's just seen as acceptable political rhetoric to justify calling workplace discrimination by a different name.

Robert G. Kaiser: I don't have the figures in front of me, but I'm quite certain that women still are paid considerably less than men for the same or comparable work--that the difference is NOT explainable by the fact they do different kinds of jobs. But I can't provide a citation at the moment. We'll look for one.


Michigan: I am a Kerry supporter, but I was disappointed in both sides playing up how big religion was to them. I know Kerry was playing up to religious Democrats and undecided, but I really don't see why that has to be an important issue in a presidential debate. Especially since, despite their speeches about their faith, they both ducked questions about stem cell research.

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks for the posting.


Colton, N.Y.: Mr Kaiser --

Thanks for being available. Your take on the election is that it will break one way or another. With 19 days to go and, the debates behind us, and a dead heat in the polls what kind of events or issues would cause the race to break one way?

Robert G. Kaiser: How people decide to vote is a fascinating, complicated question. My friend Sam Popkin, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, has written a good book about it.

The book shows how complex the process can be. I can't answer your question, because of that complexity. Water-cooler and back-fence conversations will have a lot to do with it. Organization on the ground will too. I won't be surpreised to see a clear victor on Nov. 3 even if there is no big event to alter the campaign between now and then.


Arlington, Va.: The debates are over, now maybe we can get rid of the silly tracking polls and get some state by state elctoral college analysis in the Post. Please focus your resources on the only contest that matters -- the elctoral college! 270 makes someone a winner -- 269 for Bush figuring the House will stay Republican.

Robert G. Kaiser: I'll reply after posting another, similar comment.


Portland, Maine: My question relates to the race in general: While the polls show the candidates in a dead heat, I saw a recent electoral vote "predictor" which seems to show Bush quite far ahead. What is your take on the candidates' positions regarding the electoral collage? Thanks

Robert G. Kaiser: Don't know which electoral analysis you were looking at, but the ones I've seen show the race too close to call, primarily because Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, New Hampshire and one or two others are too close to call. So any attempt to allocate electoral votes now is a kind of whimsy.


Washington, D.C.: The Washington Post did a good job of explaining what was fact and what was fiction from the debate, and I know a few of the stations do an after the debate fact check, but in truth, most people don't sit around to watch it after the debate, and many people don't read the Post. Thus, they are left thinking that a great deal of the falsehoods were in fact true. This bothers me greatly. Couldn't they change the debates so that they would have both candidates answer, and then the moderator could talk about what each candidate said that was not really the truth? Then people would be forced to watch it (if they were watching the debate) and wouldn't come to the water cooler the next morning with misinformation.

Robert G. Kaiser: I don't like this idea at all. Who would appoint the referees? Who would hold THEM accountable?

The Founders had a basic idea, one of the great ideas of the 18th Century enlightenment: abattle of wits, ideas and philosophies will lead to a reasonably good outcome if free people can chose their leaders. Politicians have been fibbing from Day One; other politicians call them on it (as we saw happen last night, for example). There can never be one "factual" version of events. Take the jobs issue. Kerry is absolutely correct that 1.6 million jobs were "lost" during the Bush presidency so far. They were private-sector jobs. But at the same time, 800,000 new public sector jobs were created, so the net job loss is not what Kerry's number implies. Yet Kerry's number is accurate. How would you sort that out?

No, life is, and will continue to be, ambiguous. Sorry!


Austin, Tex.: Do you think that, from polls, events, or whatever, that we'll have a pretty good idea on November 1 of who's going to win?

Robert G. Kaiser: I definitely think so, maybe.

Or maybe not.


Nitpick: You keep saying November 3rd. The election is November 2nd!;!;

Robert G. Kaiser: Oy! Thanks.


Columbia, Md.: Thanks for taking questions. A lot of good comments today.

Was it just me, or did Sen. Kerry look tired last night? He did well, but he seemed somewhat subdued.

Robert G. Kaiser: I had a similar impression, particularly in the first 20 minutes or so.


St Paul, Minn.: Are you surprised that there were no questions addressing the environment last night and only one among the three debates? Personally, I was a little disappointed with that.

Robert G. Kaiser: I was disappointed also. We who are alive today may have a great deal to answer to generations from now, when the full consequences of our failure to address obvious ecological crises will be unmistakable.


New york, N.Y.: I hardly think of myself as an adamant feminist, but I thought the humorous diversion about "strong women" at the end of the evening was mildly offensive. Both candidates' discussions of the women in their lives seemed seemed frivolous and even disrespectful. And Schieffer's light-hearted tone in posing the question seemed to blatantly disregard any serious, tangible contributions Teresa Heinz and Laura Bush could possibly offer their husbands.

Just a thought. Go Kerry.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for the thought. I watched the debate with a strong woman, a female professor, and she too was offended by that. And I certainly see the point. How would it have played if Kerry had said, "Why, Bob, do you think strong women are unusual, or noteworthy? Haven't strong women been critical to American success for 400 years?" I'd have enjoyed that moment myself.


Washington, D.C.: I noticed that Bob Schieffer asked about abortion and stem cell research in the same question and Kerry confronted abortion, but seemed to forget about stem cell and never addressed it. I say he forgot, because surely this was a big talking point for him -- the majority of Americans favor Kerry's stance and disapprove of Bush's. I think he clearly missed an opportunity to capitalize on this issue and gain a couple more votes.

Robert G. Kaiser: Kerry hit stem cells very hard in Debate One, when he didn't have a Yankee game to compete with. I think the people who really care about that issue know the differences between the candidates on it.


Huntington, N.Y.: The situation in Colorado, where the state is voting about whether to apportion their electoral votes, based upon the popular vote, could significantly affect the outcome of this presidential election... possibly more than the Florida fiasco in 2000. Why is this potential minefield being ignored by the media?

Robert G. Kaiser: I've read about this in The Post and elsewhere. Who's ignoring it? TElevision?


14th and K street, Washington, D.C.: I guess the media can't win. Before the debates, they were criticized about shaping pulic perception by announcing winners before people had a chance to mull it over. In an effort to avoid doing that, they have become totally mealy-mouthed and essentially call every debate a draw right after it's over. (I'm speaking mainly of the broadcast press. Shales has been great)

I'm also sick of articles that purport to show a "fair and balanced" investigation of the false claims made by either side during the course of a debate. In the Post article last Saturday that examined the claims from Friday's debate, the authors made it sound as though each side were equally disingenuous, when the article listed 10 mistakes or lies by Bush and 4 by Kerry.

Look, I'm a smart voter. I don't need to be told who won. But I could use anaylysis that I don't have the knowledge base or background to provide for myself. Where can I turn for intelligent analysis that isn't paralyzed by fear of being called biased?

washingtonpost.com: Round 3: Bush Grins, Spins but Doesn't Win (Post, Oct. 14)

Robert G. Kaiser: Here's another link to Shales, and alink to our Debate Referee package.

Mealy mouthed is a good description. I got an e-mail from a pal in New York this morning who suggested that the entire class of talking heads be guillotined. Personally I have never been a death-penalty enthusiast, but this is a tempting idea.

To quote our president out of context, being a good citizen can be "hard work." But I've always thought the effort was worthwhile.


Atlanta, Ga.: I think Bush would have been better off if his advisors had left him alone about the scowling thing. His weird grins and grimmaces last night were much, much worse. Like he was channeling Howard Dean or something.

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks for posting.


washingtonpost.com: Debate Referee: Third Presidential Debate


Durham, N.C.: Thanks for being available, as always.

I found last night's debate a little frustrating for all it's "you said, I said," but most frustrating was lack of a clear verdict from anyone but the candidate's spinners. I had to actively search to find post-debate coverage not including Karen Hughes or Bob Shrum -- what do the networks honestly think those two bring in terms of actual news or analysis? I love hearing others' reactions to it, but had to give up and go to bed.

Robert G. Kaiser: Putting Hughes and Shrum on tv is utterly useless; whey they do it is a mystery to me. No it isn't, on second thought. They do it because it's so easy. Alas.


Robert G. Kaiser: Out of time. Thanks for a really lively batch of comments and questions. We have several intersting surprises in store for the last days of the campaign, about which more soon. See you next time.


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