Debate round one: Both show weakness

By Joel Lanceta

The most profound thought I had last week occurred to me while watching the first presidential debate: People should play drinking games while watching debates. I’ve already formulated my own set of rules for the next one: Take one drink whenever John Kerry mentions “Vietnam,” two drinks when President Bush stares blankly at the camera, blinks, and crinkles his mouth in that strange grimace, three drinks if Bush attempts to interrupt Kerry, and just start chugging if Bush accidentally says “Saddam” instead of “Osama.” My friend Andy came up with, let’s just say, his own extreme version of the rules for the VP debates: Should Dick Cheney swear, drink a fifth of Skol vodka.

So why am I so cynical about the debates, a series of events that helps the American public determine which candidate should become the next president? Because despite the seriousness of the debate, I could not take the candidates seriously for all 90 minutes of it. Perhaps that’s the reason I didn’t go to the Obama-Keyes debate this weekend: I don’t know if I could have controlled my laughter when Keyes explained why Jesus would vote for him.

In the case of the presidential debate, the prime culprit for initiating my bursts of laughter was none other than President Bush. His constant switch from smirking to scowling appeared to show he was practicing facial exercises for an acting class. His constant insistence that defeating and disarming Saddam Hussein was the right course didn’t convince me it wasn’t a distraction from the war on terror, a point Kerry supported by noting the ability of al Qaeda to still carry out attacks in Indonesia, Spain, and Afghanistan. Bush’s repetition of certain “facts” seemed very rehearsed and less believable. His blank stares into the camera while attempting to make eye contact with the public made it seem as if his mind was elsewhere, especially in comparison to Kerry’s unwavering composure—even when taking down notes during Bush’s responses. Bush reminded me of a deer caught in headlights.

And then there was Bush’s apparent detachment from a little thing called reality. He painted a rosy picture of Iraq, where citizens are now fully enjoying life after the establishment of an American based democracy. Granted, Iraqis don’t have the tyranny of the Baathists anymore; instead they have radical Islamic terrorists proclaiming war on the average citizen, with every day ravaged by bombings, firefights, kidnappings, beheadings and other forms of turmoil. These circumstances have been plaguing U.S. servicemen and women, international civilian workers, and the Iraqi citizens since Bush parachuted onto a U.S. aircraft carrier and declared an end to combat some 16 months ago. On the day the first presidential debate was broadcast from Miami, car bombings in Baghdad killed 41 Iraqis, including 34 children.

Of course, Kerry’s presentation wasn’t free of gaffes either, and I feel like he owes me a lot more than what he delivered in this debate. I have been campaigning for him in Wisconsin since last June. But I felt that while he made more valid points than Bush, his words were still bogged down in the political rhetoric I have come to dislike.

Kerry also needed to get a few of his facts straight. He said that the subways in New York were closed during the Republican National Convention. Speaking as a non-anarchist protester in New York during the RNC, the subways were not closed. Kerry, while painting a more realistic though depressing picture of Iraq, still didn’t have a concise or different course of action to successfully resolve the situation. He also wasn’t able to remove the still-surviving image of Bush as a capable and dependable leader who will keep American secure.

Aside from the predictable rhetoric, the presidential debate did serve its purpose: To educate the public about the candidates. But when one of the candidates is a moderate with no new ideas and the other has no common sense, viewers are really not learning anything new. Overall, Kerry won on style, not so much on content – enough to keep his campaign alive for another month. Bush and Kerry could use improvement on both style and substance for the next debate. That might keep me from laughing.