The Second Bush/Kerry Debate: Highlights

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Ms. Goodman is a graduate student at Concordia University and an HNN intern

The Instant Polls
  • ABC News: Kerry was the winner 44 to 41 percent, with 13 percent declaring the debate a tie.
  • CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll: Kerry: 47 percent, Bush: 45 percent.
  • Reuters/Zogby poll: Kerry has a slim 46-45 percent lead on Bush in the campaign in the latest poll.

Candidate Soundbites

George W. Bush

  • At one point [George W. Bush] interrupted moderator Charles Gibson's follow-up question after Kerry said he was "not going to go alone like this president did'' in Iraq. "I've got to answer this," Bush said, jumping off his stool.
  • "You tell Tony Blair we're going alone," he said, loudly. At other points, his voice was almost a yell. (CBS's Dick Meyer's account of an exchange during the debate)
  • Kerry has"been in the Senate 20 years. Show me one accomplishment he’s had on Medicare." (Kerry: "Actually, Mr. President, in 1997 we fixed Medicare, and I was one of the people involved in it.")
  • "I wasn't happy when we found out there wasn't weapons, but Saddam Hussein was a unique threat. And the world is better off without him in power. And my opponent's plans lead me to conclude that Saddam Hussein would still be in power, and the world would be more dangerous [if Kerry had been president]."
  • "I can see why people think that he changes position quite often, because he does."
  • "I don't seen how you can lead this country in a time of war, in a time of uncertainty, if you change your mind because of politics."
  • "Uh, let me see where to start here. First, the National Journal named Senator Kennedy the most liberal senator of all. And that's saying something in that bunch. You might say that took a lot of hard work." (Referring to Kerry as Kennedy.)
  • "Yeah, I mean he's got a record. He's been there for 20 years. You can run but you can't hide. He voted 98 times to raise taxes. I mean these aren't made-up figures. And so people are going to have to look at the record. Look at the record of the man running for the president."

John F. Kerry

  • "The president didn't find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, so he has really turned his campaign into a weapon of mass deception, and the result is that you've been bombarded with advertisements suggesting that I've changed a position on this or that or the other."
  • "The world is more dangerous today because the president didn't make the right judgments. So what does he do? He's trying to attack me. He wants you to believe that I can't be president."
  • "The president is just trying to scare everybody here with throwing labels around. I mean, 'compassionate conservative,' what does that mean? Cutting 500,000 kids from after-school programs, cutting 365,000 kids from health care, running up the biggest deficits in American history. Mr. President, you're batting 0 for 2."
  • "Boy, to listen to that — the president, I don’t think is living in a world of reality with respect to the environment."

Historians' Comments

Bruce Shulman (professor of History, Boston University, BU forum on presidential politics)

  • "I think if the president wins re-election, I think that's going to be a pretty strong sign that the move towards conservatism and the growing influence of the sun belt and of religious conservatism in American life that we've seen in the past 25 years, that that is continuing and even strengthening."

Alan Schroeder (presidential debate historian at Northeastern University, on CBS)

  • "Kerry was very aggressive in this debate. In some of those two-shots it looked like Kerry was the prosecutor and Bush was the defendant, Bush was better than last time but he seemed rather shrill to me and not terribly articulate."

David Thomson (film historian on CBS)

  • "The great opportunity that this format gives is movement. A lot of speakers, like to move when talking, preachers, and Bush likes this. Bush gave off a signal right away that this is a format he was more comfortable in. But I think Kerry handled it equally well….I suspect that this is not a debate in which there will be a substantial change one way or another."
  • "I think by the end of this debate there was a feeling that we’ve heard these guys say the same things too many times. We now know. It’s up to us. If we can’t make up our minds on what we see, then the worse for us."

Richard Norton Smith (director of the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum on PBS)

  • "Well you saw that definitely in '92 the first time this format was tried out. I thought this is the third now, well yeah '96 of course with Clinton and Dole. I thought it was by far the best. A lot of people have doubts about the format, the town hall format; they think it is overly theatrical, in some ways, not that modern politics has become theatre.
  • "I thought there was two questions in particular we would have not heard, perhaps from a panel of reporters; one was on abortion, a very pointedly phrased question on abortion directed to Senator Kerry, and one equally pointed directed to President Bush about the Patriot Act by someone who felt their liberties were being infringed."
  • "It certainly felt different than last Friday night, the President showed up, was intensely engaged I think he more than held his own. Its interesting: John Edwards maybe the trial lawyer, but John Kerry is the prosecuting attorney, and I thought that he returned to that role over and over again tonight. I thought he was very aggressive, I though he was crisp, in command of his facts. But I also think its interesting I think he said a couple of times "labels don't mean anything," that reminds me of Michael Dukakis saying "this an election about competence, not values." George Bush seemed to be saying labels mean everything, and I think there in a nutshell is perhaps one of the choices, the stark choices that they offer.

Ellen Fitzpatrick (professor of history at the University of New Hampshire on PBS)

  • "I actually thought that there was a great deal more spontaneity because of the audience participation as your question suggests, but I also was also very struck at a difference in this town hall debate over previous town hall debates, and that was that the questions from the audience were pitched quite broadly In the past you had people standing up and saying I am a so and so, and I have an issue with X and Y."
  • "It was really a kind of advancing, you had a collection of special interests especially coming from the citizenry, which is appropriate, people have their concerns and they look to politicians, and particularly the presidents to address those concerns. But this time I thought the questions, the quality of the questions were pitched, they were good quality questions were pitched broadly to national issues and concerns and I thought that was quite effective."
  • "There's a kind of solemnity that we are seeing in the debates all three of them now that reflect, in a way I feel it's appropriate to the seriousness of the issues at hand. Every election year there are serious issues, but I do think that the post 9-11 environment that we are al now living in, the concerns that so many Americans have about security, the war on terror, the ongoing war in Iraq is lending a kind of solemnity to the proceedings that is very obvious, to me anyway."

Michael Beschloss (on PBS)

  • "I didn't think the format particularly worked, you know especially compared to earlier town meetings. I think there was a reason for this, because often times it does get into show business in a way that perhaps obscures the difference between the two candidates, but I thought the questioners look a little like props, and also there was none of the engagement you saw in previous debates. Part of that was the rules; there wasn't much humor, these were not human beings who were really interacting with each other, and the result was that it was a rather an icy evening, a humorless evening for the most of it it recalled to some extent the relationship between George W. Bush and Al Gore four years ago."
  • "You can have big differences but also have a little bit of humor and a more pleasant atmosphere. Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale, you can't think of two candidates with probably more differences ideologically than those two, yet you look back at those two debates in 1984, there was humor when Reagan told a joke Mondale laughed. There was a sense that you know at the end of this evening these were not two men intensely antagonistic to each other. Mondale began his first debate by saying I like President Reagan, I respect the Presidency, I think he knows that. There wasn't that element tonight, and I think I missed it."
  • "I sure wish they had ten or eleven of these debates rather than three because when there are three there’s not enough time, because they can be affected by someone making a slip. We did not see that tonight, but often times there can be a moment that has inordinate impact. I would love to see a system where you have ten or eleven of these, not only because you get to discuss issues in greater length, depth, you get more of a sense of who these people are. I think one thing we saw this evening was that they both of these candidates knew there was such an enormous amount at stake, but they were a little bit sort of restrained and constrained that's why we didn't have that kind of engagement."

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More Comments:

Maarja Krusten - 10/12/2004

See http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/12/opinion/12tannen.html for linguist Deborah Tannen's op ed on the Presidential debates in today's New York Times. I always find her views interesting although I get frustrated at times by the ease with which she applies stereotypes. When I read her stuff--I've read three of her books--I find myself thinking of some points, "I'm a woman and I do indeed do this." But I also think at other times, "I'm a woman and I do NOT do that, my reaction has more in common with what she describes as men's responses." So a word of warning, Tannen provides interesting insights but her brushstrokes are pretty broad.

Posted on personal time during lunch break

Maarja Krusten - 10/12/2004

Thanks for you kind comments, Adam. I think most HNN are pretty dug in their positions now and few seem to be looking for new facts. But, by all means, post whatcha got regarding your claims....

I'm generally reassessing HNN right now. I came to the boards in late summer with a presumption that most people posting either taught history or had done or were doing research in historical records. While are some people in the former category, and seemingly a few who have done archival research (although not necessarily in federal records), a fair number of posters seem to be history buffs who mostly post their individual perspectives on political issues. So, some of the views reflect those of well-read members of the general public.

At least one other poster has the same impression. When I first starting following HNN closely and consistently this past summer, I noticed a poster asking what historians thought of an issue. Peter Clarke replied that few of HNN's posters were historians.
"What historians ? (#40225)
by Peter K. Clarke on August 19, 2004 at 3:00 AM

Thank you for your well-informed comments, above Mr. Sobottke. I am afraid, however, that you are operating under a misimpression, if you believe that this is primarily a website by and for historians. Deliberately or otherwise, the name "History News Network" is a misnomer. What this really is is a political debating website with a historical flavoring for extra spice. Your observations and questions re the Kerry Swiftboat issue are historically informed, relevant, and important. If you want an intelligent and objective discussion of them, I suggest you take them to a real history web location such as H-Net.


So, again, feel free to post the info you have on the "flip flops" -- I would find it useful -- but I'll be surprised if you find many responders. The Presidential race is so heated this year, unless one yells, "you're wrong, I'm right," I feel it's awfully hard to make one's voice heard on HNN. See, for example, my comments posted at another thread this week at http://hnn.us/articles/6962.html. Again, thanks for your thoughtful reply.

Posted on personal time during lunch break (ah, the Monday Federal holiday yesterday was SOOO nice)

Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 10/12/2004

Thank you for that post.

Indeed, John Kerry has been clear and consistant on Iraq since the very beginning, as he has on many issues. As for those issues that he does "flip-flop," he does so no more than Bush, and I would be more than happy to defend the above claims with evidence in case anyone wants it.

Maarja Krusten - 10/11/2004

I agree with Michael Beschloss that the format was produced a somewhat chilly and constrained debate. As to the substance, the flip flop arguments leave me cold but I can see that they resonate with some voters. In her very useful and interesting summary, Ms. Goodman notes these two commens from President Bush:

"I can see why people think that he changes position quite often, because he does."
"I don't seen how you can lead this country in a time of war, in a time of uncertainty, if you change your mind because of politics."

Kerry's line about making a mistake in how he described his Iraq vote, but noting that the President made the bigger mistake in his Iraq actions, is somewhat effective. But Kerry does not explain to the average voter the extent to which a legislator may be for an issue but find it difficult to vote for a bill due to disagreement over details, such as how to fund action, etc. Kerry would do better in general if he noted that he sometimes votes against something because he prefers a "better" bill or a different approach to achieving the goal in question. BTW, I wonder how many voters know what a "Christmas tree bill" is.

As to flip flopping and Iraq, today's Washington Post has an interesting article at:
"GOP Hopeful Raises War Doubts: Coors Wonders If Congress Would Still Authorize Iraq Action"

"The Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado suggested yesterday that Congress would not have voted to authorize a war in Iraq if the members had known 'what we know today.' GOP candidate Pete Coors went on to say that, 'based on weapons of mass destruction,' the UnitedStates should be more concerned about Iran and North Korea than Iraq."

Bush sells himself as someone is in unwavering in his commitments. And the flip flop arguments he uses against Kerry do appeal to many voters. But I wonder if people ever translate those arguments to their own lives and consider how often they themselves change their minds based on reassessments of circumstances or new knowledge. For example, is it flip flopping if you accept a job only to discover later that you were misled about the type of company which hired you? Are you stuck in the job for life? Or is it ok to leave the job based on what you have learned about the actual facts of the matter? In their own lives, people constantly make adjustments based on what they learn about employers, the people they date, even, in some cases, the people they marry. Rarely are they forced to hold fast to a first reaction or a choice which in retrospect turns out to be based on flawed information.

After the first Presidential Debate this year, I posted a comment asking whether Bush's irritation reflected too much time in an echo chamber. These questions reverberate in the press as well. Consider this account after the second Bush-Kerry debate:

THE NEW YORK TIMES, October 10, 2004, "So Alike, Rivals Make It Personal"

"But over and over, Mr. Bush tapped a foot as he listened to Mr. Kerry's challenges to his record, then exploded off his stool when given the chance to punch back. In making his arguments against Mr. Bush, Mr. Kerry often turned his back on him. While listening to the president, Mr. Kerry stared at him with heavy-lidded eyes, his expression stern and frozen.

The president, according to several Republicans who expressed worry about Mr. Bush's debate performances, may have become too accustomed to deferential treatment. Mr. Kerry's advisers believe their candidate can set him off simply by confronting him. In Friday night's debate, Mr. Kerry used the first question -- about criticism that he is wishy-washy -- to attac kthe president over Iraq, jobs, education and taxes.

'"He's never in an environment where he's contested,'''Michael D. McCurry, a senior spokesman for Mr. Kerry, said of Mr. Bush."

Of course, Mike McCurry is a partisan. But this article is not the only place I've seen comments from unidentified Republicans worried about whether Bush's advisors are able to contest issues internally and throughtly air out matters during policy debates. I did not find Bush's comment about having asked his generals about troop levels to be very reassuring.

E. J. Dionne notes on the Washington Post's opinion page concerns that I have heard expressed by many of my friends, Republican and Democrat alike:

"But a president who pushed the country so hard to go to war on the basis of supposedly imminent threats owes his fellow citizens more than a desultory 'oops.' That's why Bush's refusal to admit mistakes matters. It suggests his belief that voters, even at election time, have no right to a clear and candid explanation of what went wrong, and why.

And when in doubt, the president blames somebody else. Almost all of the war's supporters believe that the United States put too few troops on the ground to keep order after Hussein's fall. What did Bush say about this in the debate? He recalled 'sitting in the White House looking at those generals, saying, "Do you have what you need in this war?" and going to the White House basement and 'asking them, "Do we have the right plan with the right troop level?" And they looked me in the eye and said, "Yes, sir, Mr. President."

Convenient, isn't it? If we don't have enough troops in Iraq, it's the fault of the generals, not of a commander in chief who doesn't seem to like answers other than 'yes, sir.' But in a democracy, voters don't have to say 'yes, sir.' And many of them, like Linda Grabel, are looking for even a smidgen of the humility Bush promised in the debates four years ago but now seems incapable of delivering." See http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A23013-2004Oct10.html