Preconceived notions set tone of debate

The first presidential debate Thursday night was an image very representative of the state our nation is currently in: two persons standing next to each other, pretending to listen but not really taking it in because both have very strong preconceived notions about the topics being discussed. In that regard, the debate delivered. In other regards, the debate was quite different from what had been expected.

The format, for example, was much less restrictive than anticipated. After the hype surrounding the 32-page “memorandum of understanding” that both campaigns signed was certainly a surprise to see the networks throw out the rulebook like they apparently did. The candidate’s reaction to one another while one of them was speaking was shown in split-screen for a large part of the debate. What the viewer saw on CNN was Kerry shaking his head and Bush blinking beady-eyed while the other was talking — exactly what the respective campaigns were trying to prevent and had been specifically prohibited in the memorandum.

Another hot topic among pundits in the days leading up to the debate is how President George W. Bush masterfully lowered expectations to make his debating skill look better when he finally delivered. Some Democrats were rather skittish about this and admitted defeat before the debate even happened.

Instead Sen. John Kerry was surprisingly decisive and, probably more important, concise. Usually his rhetorical attacks consist of long-winded, sub-clause ridden constructs of nuanced sentences that — and he does this often, just like I am doing now — separate thoughts thrown in. Some like this, as it shows he understands complexity. But the general voting public seems to prefer the “likeable fella” Bush portrays quite masterfully (I am still not sure if it’s just an act, but it really doesn’t matter in the end).

It was good to see Kerry answer questions with concise sentences. Stating “I will hunt down the terrorist wherever they are” and calling the rush to war in Iraq without a clear exit strategy a “colossal error of judgment” put him on the offense.

In order to win this election he will have to stay on top of the issues for the weeks to come. If he lets Republicans dictate the issues as has happened in the past, he will most likely lose. But if manages to stay on the offensive, then he stands a chance.

Bush, on the other hand, had a few moments where he was clearly flustered. Confusing Osama bin Laden with Saddam Hussein did not exactly make him look smart. But by lowering the expectations before the debate, viewers were almost expecting such flubs and may forgive him just as they have repeatedly have in the past (Bush himself once said people “misunderestimate” him. Maybe it’s all part of his “strategery?”).

In the end, these debates will not be fought out during the 90 minutes each debate is set to. The true winner will be decided after the debates in spin alley, Sunday morning political talk shows and other means that we probably haven’t even considered yet. This happened in 2000 when Gore was widely regarded as coming out ahead before the first debate ended, but after the pundits had chewed over every statement several times, Bush suddenly was regarded as the “winner” of the debate.

For the average voters the choices are relatively defined now.

If they want “more of the same,” as Kerry put it, they will vote for Bush. To do so would mean that they prefer a gun-toting America that shapes the world according to its will and will only fall back on international alliances when convenient, but does not put these foremost.

Kerry voters sees such alliances as more effective than any multi-billion missile defense system that could be built.

The undercurrent behind all this is the war in Iraq. Kerry stated this quite cleverly: “I made a mistake how I talked about the war. But the president made a mistake in going to war. Which is worse?”

This debate will not be the last one that will take place under the heading of foreign policy and homeland security. No matter what topics will be discussed in the coming presidential and vice presidential debates, it will all boil down to the voters’ personal assessment of the war in Iraq. For most voters, this decision is already made and it is doubtful that any debate, no matter how eloquent arguments are presented, could change this.

Sebastian Meyer is a junior majoring in geography and the Oracle Opinion editor.