President George W. Bush received a thrashing at the hands of the more experienced debater, Senator John Kerry, in the first presidential debate. And you could really tell it was a beating when the Republican spin-masters were calling it a "tie" afterwards. After the immediate boost Kerry got in the polls, Karl Rove & Co. headed back to the war room to re-strategize for the next two meetings between the contenders.
But you could tell that the media was reluctant to come down hard on Bush again in the subsequent debates. In the second, town hall-style debate, all the major networks were commending Bush for merely keeping it together this time around. "No frowning, scowling, mumbling, and long awkward pauses this time!" You could literally see the standards lowering.
In the third and final debate, we returned to the format that was so merciless to Bush the first time around. This time the moderator was Bob Schieffer from CBS (which just went through the whole Dan Rather and 60 Minutes debacle). At first, it seemed like he would play it straight; there were some humdingers for both Bush and Kerry early on.
Heading into question seven, however, it started to get strange. Essentially what Schieffer asked John Kerry was: "How do you respond to the Catholic Church telling its members not to vote for you because you support abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research?"
What? How could he embed two such important policy issues into such a loaded question? Let's face facts: In matters of religion, Bush has the clear advantage. The hastily grafted soul that the Kerry camp has tried to give him in recent weeks isn't really convincing. Here were two topics in which Bush naturally had the advantage, and the way that the question was phrased practically handed it to Bush for the win. Combine this with the fact that neither subject is touched on again in detail for the rest of the debate (except for the Roe v. Wade question, which became a Supreme Court appointment issue) and you start to get a strange picture. What's going on here, Bob?
That sneaking "rigged" suspicion was further aggravated by questions 18 and 20, which were the third-to-last and last questions respectively, meaning people were going to leave with these answers as last impressions.
Specifically, question 18 asked Bush "What part does faith play in your policy decisions?" This is such an easy question for Bush and just an opportunity for him to shore up his religious base. There's no way Kerry's going to come off looking convincing with these sorts of questions. At heart, he's a rational guy, and he doesn't really think faith-first, even though he might pretend to. This question was so easy for Bush that they could've delivered it to him on a silver platter.
Which led us to the final question: "What is the most important thing you've learned from the strong women in your life?" Not only was this a strange love-fest closer, what it really did was force Kerry to end on a bad note. How? Because even Kerry supporters must admit that their man has about as much charisma as a cardboard box and emotes less than the Lost in Space robot. This sort of question is going to naturally favor Bush. Not only that, it's the closing question, and there's no way for Kerry to turn it into a policy issue (though he tried really hard to, God bless his artificial soul).
That's not to say there weren't any hard ones for Bush. Certainly questions about minimum wage (question 13), homosexuality (question 6), and outsourcing (question 4) weren't favorable for him, but they were at least debatable, substantive questions. The easy lobs that Bush got throughout (which was time lost to ask real questions about stem cell research and environmental policy, for instance) seemed designed to leave Bush with a favorable impression on people, which is really what's going to swing the undecided voters at this point. Why would Bob do this?
Like I said at the beginning: The media simply didn't want Bush to look downright goofy again, because they'd have to blast him on air again. Not only that, there was probably considerable pressure from CBS on Bob Schieffer not to look like he was attacking Bush after the whole fraudulent documents fiasco. It certainly looks like a lot of these questions were designed to be "Bush-friendly" (or "Bush-proof," however you want to look at it). How else can you explain it?
What's amazing is that the CNN/USA Today/Gallup snap poll taken immediately after the debate still gave the edge to Kerry 52 percent to Bush's 39, a substantial margin. Now that's an achievement if Kerry really was playing against a stacked deck. Keep the momentum going, Robotman!