Brian Bailey Preface to the Revised Edition

Debate I: I Regret to Say

Tonight was the first presidential debate between President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry. Simply put, the debate could not have better for Senator Kerry.

As has already become the conventional wisdom, the president spent the entire evening on the defensive, failing to make a positive case for a second term or clearly define Kerry's record and public contradictions. The most succinct summary I have found is that the president arrived at a 90-minute debate with 30-minutes of material. Once he made his four primary points (stay the course, the world is safer without Saddam, Kerry is sending mixed messages, and Kerry can't be an effective commander-in-chief and world leader on Iraq due to his criticisms of the war), he was left with repetition, frustration, and responding to minor Kerry attacks. Bush had innumerable openings to attack Kerry or offer a more thorough, persuasive defense, but missed each and every one. It is difficult to imagine how a sitting president, with fresh memories of the 2000 campaign, could appear less prepared.

Kerry, on the other hand, had the focus and determination of someone who clearly understood that this was the seminal moment of his campaign. Up until the debate, he had failed to present a coherent, consistent message. His convention acceptance speech was poor and his attacks on the president had grown increasingly strident, angry, and, unsurprisingly, ineffective.

Tonight, his answers were clear, eloquent, and concise (an honorable mention goes to the blinking red light). The key to his success, however, was the respect he showed the president, even as he systematically exposed his flaws. One consistent phrase was the key, "The president, I regret to say..."

Much has been made about the frustration Bush expressed throughout the debate. In my opinion, Bush expected to face the Kerry of the campaign trail, and was completely befuddled by the respect and decorum Kerry presented.

The president also failed to realize a fairly obvious debate principle. If you make a charge against your opponent, and your opponent denies the charge, you can't win the argument by simply repeating the charge ad nauseum.

Bush: My opponent has been inconsistent on Iraq and continues to change his position.

Kerry: My position has been consistent throughout.

Bush: My opponent has been inconsistent on Iraq and continues to change his position.

Next time, the president may want to offer some proof.

So, what's next? The polls will tighten and the next debate will be even more significant, with all eyes on how Bush will responds to this defeat.