I was almost giddy last night, but the conventional wisdom is disappointing: Kerry was clearer and more presidential than expected, but the debate was a draw on content. In the print edition of The New York Times, the headline of the jump of this Todd Purdum story gives you the CW in twelve words: "With Nation Watching, Both Candidates Stand Firm aand Their Messages Are Clear."
Kerry was terrific, but he really may have needed to be better than terrific to change this race. Or it may be that being solid for ninety minutes was fine, but he would have gotten a huge boost if he'd connected with one good quip ("There you go again"; "You're no John Kennedy").
Kerry sounded strong, but I don't know if confused swing voters who've heard months of GOP attacks on him will now think his positions are clear. (Sorry -- I'm a bit spooked by ABC's snap poll, which shows that voters gave a clear debate edge to Kerry but also shows virtually no movement in presidential preference.) I wish Kerry had turned the "nuance" attack around and used it on Bush, by pointing out, say, that Bush's insistence on six-party talks rather than two-party talks to deal with North Korea sounds pretty damn nuanced.
The elephant in the room that post-debate analysts all seem to have decided that they absolutely can't discuss is the fact that Bush seemed scatterbrained and utterly lacking in dignity and maturity. In 1984, Reagan had one moment in which he desperately groped for a word; Bush last night had at least half a dozen moments like that. In 2000, Gore (scroll down) sighed once, and was hammered for it for days afterward; Bush spent virtually all of last night's debate in a petulant snit. Is the lesson that if you're going to lose your composure it's better not to bother regaining it? Or are we now playing by the Bush Rules, under which this president always gets a gentleman's C no matter how ineptly he makes his case?
UPDATE: I see that there's a short piece in The Washington Post that focuses on Bush's temper:
President Bush has thrown Sen. John F. Kerry's words back on him during nearly every speech of the campaign, but he rocked back in irritation during the first presidential debate Thursday night when the Massachusetts senator did the same thing to him.
...Bush's apparent annoyance at the idea of Kerry as the commander in chief was perhaps the debate's clearest emotion. Bush repeatedly prefaced his answers with "of course" and even used the phrase he uses to rebuke offending journalists: "Let me finish." ...
Good -- although the first half of the oh-gosh-we'd-better-make-sure-it's-balanced headline -- "Kerry vs. the Format, Bush vs. His Temper" -- seems to have been written about what insiders thought was going to happen; there's nothing in the article that suggests Kerry had any problems with the format.