No Mockery, But A Quick Fade
First things first: I didn't sit down and watch the thing straight through; in fact, my viewing was very sporadic. I missed the first half hour because I was playing with my little boy, then I spent the rest of the debate switching between getting him to bed (he was cranky), watching TV, and hitting the liveblogs. I may watch the whole thing straight through later, but I'm not sure.
That said, here's what I think. Viewing the debate as such, it was a draw on points. Kerry succeeded in not being overwhelmingly arrogant, and Bush succeeded in talking about the real accomplishments he's had on the ground. The back-and-forths frequently answered one another's charges as well as reiterated the planned talking points, and the zingers were fairly evenly matched. The comedians will be disappointed (which is a big deal--more on that later.) The fact-checkers will be stretching to "refute" certain alleged misstatements because the debate ended up being about judgement. Within the standard circles (probably including much of the blogosphere), the evaluation will be that both sides did pretty well but that Bush comes out ahead because Kerry needed to do more.
That's the inside-politics viewpoint. But when we zoom out into the larger world, we find that Kerry had a stacked deck and could only force a draw. It's the Boston Convention all over again, and it sets Kerry up for an October much like the August he had.
Here's the reasoning. Bush was on the defensive much of the night because the questions were set up that way. That means two things. First, it is the President's actions and ideas that set the terms of the debate. After the initial buzz has faded (and maybe sooner), people won't come away with what Kerry's view of U.S. foreign policy is except that it involves more foreign countries. In other words, the bulk of the debate wasn't about analyzing and critiquing Kerry's ideas, it was about analyzing and critiquing Bush's ideas. At the end of the day, all people will remember about Kerry is that he mostly played Monday-morning quarterback but did a pretty good job of it.
The second thing it means is that Kerry didn't have to defend his ideas and his record in the biggest public venue he's likely to get before Election Day. He didn't have to defend his nuclear freeze position when it came to nuclear proliferation. He didn't have to say why he's praising the 1991 war now but voted against it then. Instead, he got to make nice, calm, definitive statements about what he supposedly believes now. (I'm curious what Dick Morris' take on this will be since he's been focusing on Kerry's divided base.) The initial impression from pundits is that this is a good thing for Kerry, but that's also what Terry McAuliffe thought about the rushed primaries. What it actually means is that those positions aren't vetted thoroughly at a time when the candidate can dismiss them in person when the spotlight is on him.
So now all that's needed from the Bush campaign, the RNC, or a 527 is to pull one of the "I am strong and trustworthy on issue X" lines and build commercials around the unexamined stuff in his Senate record. Kerry must either then spend precious campaign dollars to refute it with his own ads or ignore it and risk the charge getting embedded into people's minds (that is, those people who still want to tune in.) (Oh, and I suppose outside groups might jump in for him, but they've been amazingly ineffective in the actual heat of the campaign.) Because Kerry didn't actually have to defend himself in the debate where he's apparently most comfortable (more than I expected, really), now he must do so in a venue in which he's already proved himself to be lacking (e.g., Swift Vets.)
John Kerry's major loss in this debate was that he didn't seize the opportunity to set the terms of the presidential race (Boston all over again.) It's still about Bush, and the positive things Kerry said will dribble out of memory as he's put on the defensive. Since Kerry's arguments still boil down to "elect me because I'm smarter and better", this missed opportunity to make this about his ideas will cost him two to three points between now and next Friday, I think. (Besides, that debate is far more dangerous to Kerry than most realize; that's where his inability to connect with regular folks will show up. Of course, I also thought he'd do something tonight he'd be mocked for, so I could be wrong.)