The Third Bush/Kerry Debate: Highlights

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

The Instant Polls
  • CNN-USA Today Gallup poll: John Kerry the winner 53 percent to George Bush's 39 percent.
  • ABC News poll: 42 percent called Kerry the winner, 41 percent said Bush won; 14 per cent called it a tie.
  • Reuters/Zogby Poll: Bush has a one point lead 46-45 percent on Kerry in the campaign poll released Thursday, taken prior to the third debate.

Candidate Soundbites

John F. Kerry

  • "When the president had an opportunity to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, he took his focus off of him, outsourced the job to Afghan warlords and Osama bin Laden escaped. Six months after he said Osama bin Laden must be caught dead or alive this president was asked, where's Osama bin Laden? And he said, 'I don't know. I don't really think him about very much. I'm not that concerned.' We need a president who stays deadly focused on the real war on terror.
  • "The president has turned his back on the wellness of America, and there is no system and it's starting to fall apart."
  • "He's the only president in 72 years to have lost jobs -- 1.6 million jobs lost."
  • " He's the only president to have incomes of families go down. The only president to see exports go down; the only president to see the lowest level of business investment in our country as it is today. Now I'm going to reverse that. I'm going to change that. We're going to restore the fiscal discipline we had in the 1990s."
  • "We're all God's children, Bob, and I think if you were to talk to Dick Cheney's daughter, who is a lesbian, she would tell you that she's being who she was."
  • "I believe that choice, a woman's choice is between a woman, God and her doctor."
  • "If we raise the minimum wage, which I will do over several years, to $7 an hour, 9.2 million women who are trying to raise their families would earn another $3,800 a year. The president has denied 9.2 million women $3,800 a year. But he doesn't hesitate to fight for $136,000 to a millionaire."
  • "Being lectured to by the president on fiscal sanity is kind of like being lectured to by Tony Soprano on law and order."
  • "I regret to say that the president who called himself a uniter, not a divider, is now presiding over the most divided America in the recent memory of our country. I've never seen such ideological squabbles in the Congress of the United States. I've never seen members of a party locked out of meetings the way they're locked out today ·Well, I guess the president and you and I are three examples of lucky people who married up. And some would say maybe me more so than others. But I can take it."

George W. Bush

  • "My opponent just this weekend talked about how terrorism could be reduced to a nuisance, comparing it to prostitution, illegal gambling, I think that attitude and that point of view is dangerous."
  • "If every family in America signed up it would cost the federal government $5 trillion over 10 years. It’s an empty promise. It’s called bait-and-switch."
  • "Well his rhetoric doesn't match his record. He's been a senator for 20 years, he voted to increase taxes 98 times. When they'd try to reduce taxes he voted against that 127 times. He talks about being a fiscal conservative or fiscally sound but he voted 277 times to waive the budget caps, which would have cost the taxpayers $4.2 trillion. He talks about pay-go. I'll tell you what pay-go
    means: when you're a senator from Massachusetts, when you're a colleague of Ted Kennedy, pay-go means you pay and he goes ahead and spends."
  • "There's a mainstream in American politics and you sit right on the far left bank. Your record is such that Ted Kennedy, your colleague, is the conservative senator from Massachusetts."
  • "What he's asking me is will I have a litmus test for my judges. And the answer is no, I will not have a litmus test. I will pick judges who will interpret the Constitution. But I'll have no litmus tests."
  • "Well first of all it's - it is just not true that I haven't met with the Black Congressional Caucus. I've met with the Black Congressional Caucus at the White House."
  • "To listen to them. To stand up straight and not scowl. I love the strong women around me. I can't tell you how much I love my wife and our daughters."

Historians' Comments

Gil Troy (presidential historian, professor of history, McGill University)

  • "The real winner of the debates was... the American people. I know it's cheesy and a tad cliche, but during these times, when nerves are frayed and the conventional wisdom once again deems the campaign the 'nastiest ever,' I was impressed by the debates' civility and substance. The very absence of over-the-top clashes, the great-defining gaffe which didn't occur, meant that the candidates had an opportunity to be themselves, and millions of Americans could assess the candidates up close. John F. Kerry was John F. Kennedyesque, appearing smooth, poised, substantive and intelligent -- although until his final statement, the closing statement of debate #3, he failed to offer an upbeat, inspiring vision. George W. Bush was more erratic and defensive. Defying the conventional wisdom, he was on firmer ground and far less jittery when discussing domestic issues rather than spewing out his robotic oversimplifications regarding the war on terror and Iraq. Stylistic considerations aside, the two candidates offered contrasting visions -- Kerry the multilateralist v. Bush the unilateralist, Kerry the social liberal v. Bush the social conservative, Kerry the nuanced legislator adeptly juggling complex perspectives v. Bush the no-nonsense chief executive with a more black-and-white view. Yes, there were the usual obfuscations, soundbites, and postures, but, on the whole, the debates offered great political theatre and important policy instruction."

Howard Zinn (at Democracy Now)

  • "Well, the contest, unfortunately, is not giving us any kind of fundamental reappraisal of American policy foreign and domestic. By a fundamental reappraisal, I mean we are dealing with a serious issue of the war in Iraq and we're dealing with the serious issues of health and education, and what to do with the wealth of the United States to help people, and neither candidate is addressing the fundamentals. By that I mean, I heard them on the clip that you showed and talked about Osama bin Laden, they exchanged accusations about it. Bush denying, of course, as he denies everything, about what he said, and Kerry saying, no, you said that. It's not important, really, about Osama bin Laden. They're always trying to focus our attention on something that's not fundamental. What's fundamental is not one particular man. What's fundamental is not even al-Qaeda. What's fundamental, really, is American policy in the world, because if there is a root of terrorism, and that's the problem, getting at the root of terrorism, the root of terrorism is not any one man, not any group of people in this country or that country. There are too many countries of where there's anger against the United States, and where the anger against the United States can turn into fanaticism and into terrorism."

Michael Beschloss (on PBS)

  • "One thing that strikes me more than anything else is this, if you think about the last five presidents before George W. Bush three of them were defeated before reelection, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush, that is exactly within the period which we have had debates since 1976. And I think what has struck me more than anything else is the fact that this has changed our political system, it gives challengers a leg up against an incumbent president of a kind that we haven't had in most of American History. If John Kerry is elected in three weeks I think many people will say he couldn't have done it without the ability to debate George W. Bush."
  • "I don't think it has especially worked this year. I guess I disagree with Richard, I think the rules have been too confining, I think the two minutes answers end up being long soundbites, often times the candidates recycling languages that they have been using on the campaign trail that seem to work with audiences."
  • "Actually, it has been different if you look at the texts of the debates before. I think this year you see language used over and over again from debate to debate. Sometimes within a debate you'll hear the same thing said twice by the same candidates. You don't really feel you are getting beyond the surface that was the point of these things to begin with, not just to give a big audience to a candidate to deliver his best lines."
  • "It is a bitter atmosphere and I think it is another thing about these three debates between these Presidential candidates. These were icy debates, there was very little humor and there sure was very little humor between the two guys, and I think if you compare that to for instance to Reagan and Mondale, and even to moments of Carter and Reagan in 1980, it shows how much our political culture has changed to this take no prisoners attitudes on the two sides. In a way these debates are not a very good harbinger of this country getting a little more united as some of them talked about."

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

  • "It's pretty hard as an historian not to walk away from it without thinking its déjà vu all over again. If you take a really long view, and you take a look at 1960 when we had the beginning of these debates, the domestic issues for instance highlighted tonight are very much the same kinds of issues there were being debated by Kennedy and Nixon, healthcare, social provision, Kennedy and Nixon had a long discourse around the issue of providing health insurance for Americans, and Nixon portrayed Kennedy's plan as extreme as an overreach of the Federal government. Kennedy defended it not as big government, but really as the nation taking responsibility for its citizens. What was the program that they were sparing about; Medicare. So it is really hard when you think of these debates all together, of course the foreign policy issues are different, there are different social, cultural, and value issues, the debate about abortion, gay rights those have changed I am not saying nothing's changed, but so much of this is consistent minimum wage, jobs, education, for one thing it shows us how persistent these problems have been."
  • "But it is still a question about what is the responsibility of the Federal government, and what is the responsibility of not only states and localities, but families and parents. I think you do have two very different visions here, even if Democrats since over the Reagan years have backed away enormously from the fundamental tenants of American liberalism and endorsing them in those terms. You notice how little we hear about the cities, about anti-poverty programs, it's about the middle class now, and the way in which it is squeezed economically."
  • "I think these debates continue on the John F. Kennedy comparison. One interesting thing I think, one thing Kerry did tonight which Kennedy did was Kennedy very explicitly in those debates spoke to the nation. He looked out at the camera and addressed his remarks to the American people, and Nixon was later criticized for being having a tendency to speak to his opponent more than to the nation. So Kerry capitalized on that tonight."
  • "What I think is quite remarkable tonight is the emphasis on religion that is important. Both candidates took pains to tell their audience, to tell the American people they are deeply religious. Remember in 1960 when Kennedy was running as a Catholic, he took pains to say that his religion didn't matter to the fact that he was running for president. These two candidates are taking pains to say it does matter, and so they are tapping into and I think shaping a very different cultural environment."

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

  • "I think these three debates have been very substantive, they have been informative, we've seen big issues discussed, broad themes struck. I think they have been very informative debates. Michael's point is well taken, there is this burden on the incumbent, in effect he is the defender of the status quo, and people in America love new. They may not always like the consequences of the new, but as a concept new is pretty attractive. And I thought you saw John Kerry in fact playing the John F. Kennedy role."
  • "Because I think what John F. Kennedy did in 1960 it wasn't a specific moment in those debates we look at gaps, we look at misstatements now, we zero in on those specific moments, and we think those are what actually swayed voters. What actually John Kennedy did in 1960 and I would argue what John Kerry is clearly trying to do is a cumulative process. Over three debates he is introducing himself carefully, incrementally establishing his credibility, his alternative philosophy, his style of leadership. He is getting the voters comfortable with who he is as a man, and as a president. That isn't something that you do in a soundbite or a single debate. We'll know in three weeks if it worked."
  • "I was also I struck by something that this President Bush tried to do tonight, and tried to do in the last couple of debates was reminiscent of something his father did very effectively in 1988. It goes to these issues. Remember Michael Dukakis famously said that this was an election about competence, and not ideology. Ideology is a euphemism particularly for cultural values, and the first President Bush managed really to kind of turn the corner by really trying to use these words against Michael Dukakis. You see that in a repeated attempt by this President Bush to in affect turn Kerry's own record as he defines it, against it."
  • "I think it was a thoughtful, substantive, and heated discussion, that's what democracy is all about."

Doris Kearns Goodwin (on MSNBC's "Imus In The Morning")

  • "It is a pretty horrific process to go through month after month. It's not normal. I mean, who is talking all day long, who is saying their same mantra over and over again where they have to repeat it and they have to pretend that they believe it after a while. So maybe the process is just too long and thank God for the debates. At least these debates show these guys under pressure. I mean think of the pressure these two were under last night, I mean President Bush knowing his whole legacy might depend on how well he did in these debates and Kerry knowing that hail to the chief might be sung to him one day or he is back being a Senator from Massachusetts having lost this enormous stand to make history. So they do stand up under pressure."

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More Comments:

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

The problem of recycled sound-bites, which was most prevalent in the final debate, could be counteracted (in the future) by giving the moderator (or perhaps moderator(s) ) leeway to ask follow up questions, and to present other evidence to refute obvious distortions by the candidates. At least some of the back-and-forth recitation of inconsistent "facts" by the candidates could be halted by on-the-spot action of the debate questioner. This, of course, presumes that there are journalists or news anchors in America capable of asking informed,relevant, and probing follow-up questions.

If we could, for example, import one of the BBC News broadcasters, the kind who will throw incisive follow-up after follow-up question at tin horn dictators and any other public BSer they interview, instead having more and more of the lame and timid practice, now ubiquitous in the American media, of moving from one utterly evaded stock question to the next preplanned, and quickly evaded, stock question. The questions in these just concluded debates were not as bad as they could have been, but we are still a long, long way from a truly informative discussion of the ISSUES in this and nearly every other national political campaign.

The already grievous problems of deliberate deception, obfuscation and blatant hypocrisy which both current presidential campaigns display, and which have been hallmarks of Bush's administration's actions in office, are given too much unquestioning tolerance by a supine news media in this country.

Dave Livingston - 1/7/2005

Two reasons Kerry's campaign is in deep trouble are

1) He's having problems holding the Black vote, which has since August slipped from 83% in favor of Kerry to 73%. In contrast, Bush has doubled his percentage of the Black vote from 6% to 12% since August, according to the Pew Research Center.

See www.worldnetdaily.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=40873

2) Kerry is operating at a Demo graphic disadvantage. His Left/Liberal political notions may play well in Boston, but Boston is no longer very reflective of America. For instance, 80 years ago Boston was one of the ten largest cities in the U.S., but that's no longer true. As of the most recent cencus it was the 23rd largest. The demographic center of the U.S. has for decades been shifting South & West. For instance of the nation's 50 largest cities 28 are located in the West & Southwest, 8 in the South. That'd be ten in the South, if Baltimore & D.C. are to be considered Southern cities.

As the demographic balance has shifted it has produced an inherently more conservative nation increasingly immersed in traditional American values. Remember the Red/zBlue map of the 2000 election? The number of Red counties painted in Red increased in 2002 & the number painted Blue declined. 2004 looks to be a repeat performance. For one thing, Kerry has ticked off G.I.s & veterans, conservative Christians, gun owners. This all the while labor unions, a traditional Democratic Party stronghold, continue their decline in numbers as the economy loses blue collar jobs & gains instead white collar ones.

Of course, a third reason his campaign is in trouble is that the Liberal-dominated old news media of network TV news & weekly newsmagazines & large city daily newspapers is in steep decline, being replaced by the far more conservative on aveage New media, talk radio, Fox News & internet websites.

Many observers think the old media is doomed within the next couple of decades.

Dave Livingston - 1/7/2005


Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 10/17/2004

I actually agree with your entire post!

Democrats are indeed having difficulty in holding on to their base (including but not limited to) blacks. They also have a major demographic problem and the domination and rise of conservative media is really hurting them.

All of this explain why the Democratic party, under Clinton, did the only thing it could do to remain a contender: change its platform. Just as Ronal Reagan significantly transformed the Republican party by embracing the religious right, socially conservative issues, and abandoned traditional conservative goals of abolishing social security and the welfare state, so too did Bill Clinton adopt a strategy of triangulation and moderation.

After Clinton, it became the Democrats arguing for fiscal responsibility, welfare reform, and other policies traditionally conservative issues. Today, true conservative (Pat Buchanan, Alan Keyes, to name the most prominent) despise Bush’s policies, even when hating Kerry’s policies more.

Maarja Krusten - 10/16/2004

See David Brooks's satire on the debates in today's NYT at
which nicely exposes the debate weaknesses you mention.

Maarja Krusten - 10/16/2004

You make some interesting points about demographics. I would add to them that the shift of some traditionally Democratic voters to the Republican party first was seen during the Nixon administration. Remember the "southern strategy?" Consider also the demonstrations in support of Nixon by the "hard hats," and so forth.

I now am an Independent, but comfortably called myself a Republican during the 1970s and 1980s. I guess at one point I actually truly was a "compassionate conservative." (Again, I cannot reveal my more recent voting record.) The main reason I no longer feel comfortable in the Republican party has as much to do with rhetoric as with public policy.

Once a "compassionate conservative," I haven't lost my compassionate side. I genuinely believe in freedom of speech, the value of listening to and even learning from dissenting opinions, all the stuff that separates the U.S. from totalitarian regimes. So I really struggle with some of the rhetoric I hear these days.

Dave, you and I disagree about Ann Coulter, for example. I noted elsewhere on another thread, "I have heard that many people--not in my circle of personal friends, which as you might guess, is made up of intellectuals, both Republican and Democrat--enjoy hearing her. I guess you have to love the smackdown style of discourse to be drawn to Coulter and I clearly do not. I obviously reflect distaste for communisim and totalitarianism, under which some members of my family suffered. How the Republican party, which took so strong a stance against Communism and still values democracy and freedom in terms of public policy, tolerates and even seems to condone bullying and intimidation in public discourse by the likes of Coulter, is an enduring mystery to me."

I have to tell you, I watched FoxNews for years, but stopped watching it altogether this year. I found a lot of the anger expressed by commentators to be a total turn-off. More to my liking are the sentiments expressed by former Bush official Christine Todd Whitman in an article about moderate Repubicans at

My question to you is, if conservatives or members of the Republican party express anger at moderates in their own party, and reject the validity of opposing viewpoints in the Democratic party, how do they view a President's obligations to the nation as a whole? It isn't an option to round up those who do not agree with the right wing of the Republican party and put them in internment camps, LOL. But I hear so much rage from people such as Coulter, who calls liberals traitors, that I have to wonder where they are headed.

And what about the military? You mention that most present and former members of active duty forces support Bush. Do they see themselves as just defending the freedoms of Republicans--surely not--or as defending the nation as a whole, including Democrats and even liberals? Sounds like a dumb question and I apologize if I cannot express it better. But the partisan divide is so great these days, I really worry about how we can hold on to the underlying democratic notions that have kept our nation strong in the past.

Maarja Krusten - 10/16/2004

Both of you offer interesting and useful observations on the debates. But it is useful to keep in mind that many voters are swayed by emotion rather than reason, and a large part of the voting population largely is ignorant of how government works and what impact their votes will have. Many simply do not care that they are ignorant and some even seem to revel in it.

Rather than repeat long posts on anti-intellectualism and on public perceptions of government, I refer you to my posts this morning on Cliopatria at http://hnn.us/readcomment.php?id=44524#44524
and on the Vietnam thread at

There are so many divides on display these days, not just in values and public policy choices, but also in how voters intellectually work their way through issues. With the nation so split, there obviously are going to be many unhappy people after the election, no matter who wins. Unfortunately, the days when we heard about the need to be "a uniter, not a divider" seem very long ago, indeed. I've seen in bookstores but not read a book called _Sore Winners_. Maybe it would help explain some of the startling amount of rage you see in politics these days. Of course, the book might turn out to just be a partisan screed. But the concept sounds like an interesting phenomenon, something for future political scientists and social scientists to unravel.

Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 10/15/2004

I would like to look at how Bush’s statements are so deceptive, even his highlights are mostly lies and distortions. In fact, 6 of the 7 highlights mentioned here are either lies, or distortions of reality.

1) "My opponent just this weekend talked about how terrorism could be reduced to a nuisance, comparing it to prostitution, illegal gambling, I think that attitude and that point of view is dangerous."

In fact, the article in which Kerry is quoted discussed at length his plan to “hunt down and kill the terrorists wherever the are.”

Let us look at what Bush himself once said on the subject (but has since changed his mind): "I don't think you can win [the war on terror]. But I think you can create conditions so that the -- those who use terror as a tool are -- less acceptable in parts of the world."

In other words, you mean it can be reduced to… a nuisance, Mr. President? Perhaps for some inspiration to Kerry’s statement, we can also look at this quote:

"Can we win the war on terrorism? Yes, I think we can, in the sense that we can win the war on crime. There is going to be no peace treaty on the battleship Missouri in the war on terrorism, but we can break its back so that it is a horrible nuisance and not a paralyzing influence on our societies." That was said by Brent Scowcroft 2 years ago. Snowcroft is currently the chairman of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, was national security adviser under Presidents Ford and George H.W. Bush and served with Cheney in those administrations.

2) "If every family in America signed up it would cost the federal government $5 trillion over 10 years. It’s an empty promise. It’s called bait-and-switch."

This is simply a lie that the campaign has used before. The Bush campaign originally quoted a study by Ken Thorpe of Emory University, who estimates the total cost of Kerry's plan to be $653 billion over 10 years. Another study released later by The Lewin Group concluded that Kerry's plan would cost about $1.25 trillion over 10 years. This information and more can be found on factcheck.org.

3) "Well his rhetoric doesn't match his record. He's been a senator for 20 years, he voted to increase taxes 98 times. When they'd try to reduce taxes he voted against that 127 times. He talks about being a fiscal conservative or fiscally sound but he voted 277 times to waive the budget caps, which would have cost the taxpayers $4.2 trillion. He talks about pay-go. I'll tell you what pay-go means: when you're a senator from Massachusetts, when you're a colleague of Ted Kennedy, pay-go means you pay and he goes ahead and spends."

So much for being a uniter. No wonder the nation is more polarized! In any event, another distortion. That number is including includes up to 16 votes on a single tax bill, and 43 votes on budget measures that set targets but don't actually legislate tax increases! The remaining bills include tax increases that Bush’s own father introduced, Republican sponsored tax increase, and bills that actually CUT some taxes in exchange for raising them elsewhere.

4) "There's a mainstream in American politics and you sit right on the far left bank. Your record is such that Ted Kennedy, your colleague, is the conservative senator from Massachusetts."

Kerry’s policies are actually right where America is. Kerry is pro-choice, as much of America is, he is pro-gun rights but supports the ban on assault weapons, as most Americans do. He believes that marriage is between a man and a women, as most Americans do, and he also opposed a constitutional amendment, again as most Americas want. From healthcare, to social policy, Kerry is exactly in the mainstream while Bush continues to pander to his base and support policies that many Americans are totally against, such as the said constitutional amendment, and stem cell research.

5) "What he's asking me is will I have a litmus test for my judges. And the answer is no, I will not have a litmus test. I will pick judges who will interpret the Constitution. But I'll have no litmus tests."
Actually, Mr. President, what the moderator asked was quite simple and direct:
“Mr. President, I want to go back to something Senator
Kerry said earlier tonight and ask a follow-up of my own. He said, and this will be a new question to you, he said that you had never said whether you would like to overturn Roe v. Wade, so I will ask you directly.”

6) "Well first of all it's - it is just not true that I haven't met with the Black Congressional Caucus. I've met with the Black Congressional Caucus at the White House."

This is actually true, and Kerry was obviously mistaken. What Kerry should have said is that the meeting with the CBC was purely ceremonial and according to a letter written by Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Elijah Cummings on 7/16/03: “Mr. President, I need not remind you that the CBC's requests for meetings with you have gone unanswered for more than two-and-one-half years.”

I could go on for each of these, and would be happy to elaborate on any of them if asked, but I think everyone gets the idea.