Campaign 2004: The Third Bush/Kerry Debate: Highlights

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HNN, 10-14-04

The Third Bush/Kerry Debate: Highlights

By Bonnie Goodman

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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