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Lindsay: First Debate Benefited Kerry More Than Bush

Interviewee: James M. Lindsay, Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Visiting Fellow
October 1, 2004


James M. Lindsay, the Council’s director of studies and a long-time student of American politics, says that the first of the three planned presidential debates—this one on foreign affairs—was “remarkably good” and provided an excellent opportunity for voters to see “where the two men stand on the issues” and “how they see the world.”

He says that President George W. Bush appeared “surprisingly passive” in the debate and spent most of the night on the defensive. “For much of the debate, the president was explaining his positions, and generally in politics, when you’re explaining, you’re losing,” says Lindsay, who is also a vice president of the Council and who holds the Maurice R. Greenberg chair.

Lindsay says that Senator John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) likely benefited from the debate. “I think John Kerry clearly took the debate on the offensive, criticized the president, and probably helped himself. Whether Kerry helped himself enough to make a dent in the polls is a whole other issue, but I think clearly last night was John Kerry’s big moment to stay in the game. I think he did.”

Lindsay was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for, on October 1, 2004.

What did you think of last night’s presidential debate on foreign affairs?

Last night was a remarkably good debate. It was substantive, it was focused mostly on Iraq, a lot of issues were left off to the side, but I think the voters got a chance to see the two men, both as individuals, but also to see their world view. I think it was laid out quite nicely, and I think voters can’t complain that they don’t know where the two men stand on the issues or how they see the world.

Do you think their world views, as put forth last night, were accurate reflections of each candidate’s positions as we know them today?

Yes. I think last night both men laid out for voters how they see the world, what they see as the nature of American engagement in the world, how America should engage, when it should go alone and when it shouldn’t. Ultimately, I think that’s what voters have to base their decisions on, because voters don’t know what the issues are going to be in 2006 or 2007. So the debate allows voters, in some sense, to take the measure of the man and assess how they think he’s going to approach making decisions.

Let’s take each candidate separately. How did you regard what Bush had to say?

The president was surprisingly passive last night. He spent much of the evening on the defensive. I’m surprised that he didn’t draw sharper distinctions between his style of leadership and John Kerry’s style of leadership. On numerous occasions, he made reference to Senator Kerry being a flip-flopper, but he never really drew it out to make the strong comparisons that he seems to make on the stump, and so that was surprising. For much of the debate, the president was explaining his positions, and generally in politics, when you’re explaining, you’re losing.

But I was also surprised that on a couple of opportunities, given some of the things Senator Kerry raised, Bush didn’t strike back more forcefully. For example, when Senator Kerry criticized his approach to North Korea, I would have anticipated the president saying, “Wait a second, you’re criticizing me on North Korea because I’m working with others, and you’re criticizing me on Iraq when I’m not working enough with others. Which is it?” Also, when Senator Kerry talked about a “global test,” I would have expected the president to make a strong argument that he’s not in favor of a global test, he’s in favor of an American test when it comes to defending interests. So I would expect to see some of those things recovered by President Bush going forward.

And Senator Kerry?

Senator Kerry helped himself a lot last night, partly because of the expectations many people brought to the debate. They had heard that this was a man who couldn’t speak directly, couldn’t answer a question, and I think we saw last night John Kerry can speak in declarative sentences, so much so that I think there are a lot of Democrats around the country wondering where this assertive, plain-spoken John Kerry has been for the last nine months. I think John Kerry clearly took the debate on the offensive, criticized the president, and probably helped himself. Whether Kerry helped himself enough to make a dent in the polls is a whole other issue, but I think clearly last night was John Kerry’s big moment to stay in the game. I think he did.

If I read your remarks correctly, if you were a debating judge, you would have awarded Kerry the victory on points?

If I were a debating judge, I think Kerry helped himself more in this election than George Bush did. As a political analyst, I will simply say that the Yale graduate won.

We didn’t learn anything more about either man’s position last night, did we? Kerry more or less repeated what he said at New York University ten days ago, right?

People who have followed the two candidates very closely didn’t learn very much new about substance. But many of the people in the viewing audience last night hadn’t followed the two candidates closely, and this was their chance to see what both candidates had to say. In that respect, I think a lot of meaningful information was conveyed.

In our past discussions, we talked about Kerry’s promising, in effect, that if he were elected, he would be able to enlarge the Iraq coalition by getting France and Germany to participate, and you were rather skeptical that this would be possible. Do you still remain skeptical about that?

By all indications, it’s going to be hard for any American president, whether it’s John Kerry or George Bush, to get more troops from our European allies on the ground in Iraq as long as the security situation continues to deteriorate. The paradox here is that if the security situation improves, then you don’t need them. I think it’s going to be a tough sell, and the president is in a bit of a bind on this issue, because the president can’t make the argument that others don’t want to help us, because part of his response to Kerry’s claims that he didn’t do enough diplomacy is to say, “What do you mean? We have lots of friends helping us out in Iraq.”

He doesn’t want to draw attention to the fact that they may be helping us, but they’re not helping us with boots on the ground. That was an issue in which the president hasn’t found a way yet to go after Kerry to challenge Kerry’s claim that, “If I’m President, I’ll be able to spread the burden among other countries,” which is, from a political point of view, a very appealing pitch to make to the American public.

On North Korea, I think Kerry kept to the same general position that he outlined first at the Democratic Convention. Bush hasn’t talked much about North Korea—this is the first time I’ve really heard him talk about it. Did you learn much from the discussions?

Both men repeated positions they’ve taken in the past. My guess is, for most Americans, that portion of the debate wasn’t especially revealing or informative because both candidates lapsed into Washington-speak: “six-party talks, bi-lateral talks.” These are terms that I don’t think mean a lot to most voters, so it’s not clear how much voters got out of this except to know that the candidates have different views on how to approach the problem. But I’m not really sure that there was a lot of information conveyed that would allow a viewer to come away and say, “Aha, this is Kerry’s position—this is why it is better than Bush’s position or vice-versa.”

And what did you think of the discussion of Iran?

Well, on Iran, as we’ve discussed before, whoever is president in January 2005 is going to face a really tough issue. Senator Kerry, in speaking about Iran, has emphasized how Iran has moved toward nuclear weapons on President Bush’s watch, and that’s what any challenger would do in that situation. Senator Kerry has said, “I’m going to work with others to keep that from happening,” which is also a reasonable thing to say.

What Senator Kerry didn’t offer up, and what President Bush didn’t challenge him on, is whether the Kerry strategy would work or, indeed, how different a Kerry strategy would be on that score from a Bush strategy. Again, these are debates, and they’re debates for political ends, not debates for an academic audience. The challenge for Kerry is to create doubt about President Bush and vice-versa, so they’re always going to be very strong on their criticisms and not necessarily as detailed on their policy prescriptions.

In terms of the world’s reaction to the debate, it happened too late for much of the world’s press, but I was looking at the Toronto Star, which asked readers for their comments. No one could imagine how any American in his right mind could vote for Bush. I guess Bush is so unpopular worldwide that there’s probably a big audience for Kerry out there.

It’s clear from polls that have been done in Canada, Europe, and much of the rest of the world that the president is not a popular figure. Many people overseas see him as a man who is a hothead, who’s unwilling to comply with international rules, who is arrogant. Some of that has to do with his policy choices. Some of it has to do with his style, which grates. Many of the things George Bush has been accused of, such as giving speeches in which he refers to God, were equally true with [President] Bill Clinton, but were stylistically very different.

The disappointing thing about the debate last night was that [debate moderator] Jim Lehrer didn’t ask President Bush a question on this point about anti-Americanism. The president has been very emphatic in his public statements and in his private comments in books like Bob Woodward’s [Plan of Attack] that America is a special country, that we are a beacon of freedom in the world, and that people can trust us—we know they can trust us. The polling data suggests that a lot of countries out there—a lot of people in a lot of countries—don’t trust us. How does the president square those two things? Are there things he has done wrong, or that we as a country are doing wrong, that would lead people to doubt us? It would have been fascinating to hear the president [answer] that question.