Now that the dust has cleared (or really, now that the dust is picking up and swirling around again), here are the key mistakes that were made by each candidate last night.
I’ll be more subtle when commenting on the Bush mistakes just because someone in his campaign staff could be reading this, and to be blunt, I’m that good.
Let’s leave it at this. When John Kerry was attacking the President for his failure to perform in the area of homeland security, he left himself wide open for a very obvious results-oriented (and perhaps election-defining) response from Bush. I don’t know why the President didn’t offer this obvious response. Maybe the GOP is reserving this response for the last week of the campaign. Maybe they see it as inappropriate (just kidding).
To get at what I’m thinking of here, go back about three years and ask yourself what was the main if not the only question that you thought would define the 2004 election.
Kerry’s missed opportunity was less obvious, but it is equally important and if taken, it could have helped him to turn one solid night into a couple of good weeks.
At one point during the debate, Kerry said this when discussing Bush’s hesitation about going to the UN:
“In fact, he first didn’t even want to do that. And it wasn’t until former Secretary of State Jim Baker and General Scowcroft and others pushed publicly and said you’ve got to go to the U.N., that the president finally changed his mind — his campaign has a word for that — and went to the United Nations. ”
Close listeners, political junkies and transcript readers can obviously pick up on the subtle jab here. But debates are watched while the kids are being fed, the dishes are being done and the phone is ringing in the background. Kerry chose to tickle the American public with a feather when he should have been hitting them over the head with a sledgehammer.
And this moment is connected with the broader opportunity missed. For the last couple of months, the Bush team has used pretty simple and very disciplined strategies to avoid their own record and shift the focus on what they want the American people to see as Kerry’s weakest features and character flaws.
They’re good. In fact, there is every reason to assume that the Bush post-debate spin will be better than the Kerry post-debate spin (even though Kerry won the night according to just about every poll).
Kerry should have been less subtle and pointed out exactly what the Bush team has done and what the American people can expect them to do in the coming days. I’m not talking about a unappealing whine session. I’m talking about something more along the lines of Reagan’s “There you go again.”
What I’m talking about is pre-emptive campaigning.
Be straight with people. Tell them:
The President has repeatedly distorted my views and my record in order to shift the focus away from his performance. He takes quotes out of context. He releases misleading ads. He tries to paint a picture of me that anyone who knows me or hears me talking tonight knows is false. They want you to believe I’m a flip-flopper even though I am the guy you’d most want in that foxhole next to you. They want you to believe I don’t support the troops even though I wore the uniform and fought for this country. Folks, I am the troops. That’s what they’ve given you so far in this campaign. And these are exactly the kind of distortions you’ll be hearing from the President when he describes this debate tomorrow morning and throughout the weekend. Pay close attention and you’ll see this false strategy rolling out. This is what the Bush team does. And, make no mistake, they are good at it. But from Iraq to the economy to this very debate the American people know what they see with their own eyes and they are too smart to let this President continue to convince them of the opposite.
What I’m suggesting is that Kerry out the President’s campaign strategy. Once he does, the Bush team would have to alter that strategy a bit. And so far, as effective as it’s been, it seems like it’s all they’ve got.