Bin Laden tape

Josh Marshall thinks the public's response to the new video will be markedly different than it would have been just a year ago: "Things have changed."

I'm inclined to go with him here, albeit cautiously. The number of Americans who believe the badness of Iraq has anything to do with the badness of Osama bin Laden has been decreasing ever since the initial Iraq buzz wore off (I believe 60-70 percent of Americans believed Saddam was direclty involved in 9/11 in early 2002 compared to 20-30 percent now. See Pew for the numbers). Moreover, if there's one thing John Kerry has done well in this campaign, it has been differentiating the Iraq war from getting Osama bin Laden. Either way, Americans today are less inclined to believe that the bin Laden threat has anything to do with what we've been focusing on recently than they were.

By deliberately obscuring the issue for the past three years, the Bush administration has ensured that a videotape like today's isn't an automatic point in the President's favor.

P.S. I just watched the Wall Street Journal editorial roundtable thing on PBS. The real problem for the 2004 election in their view? The lawyers. Why is PBS running this garbage??? I guess you have to credit them for coming up with this line first, which we are sure to see first thing on Novemver 3rd: "Why are these liberal trial lawyers holding up Bush's reelection?" Holy Shit. Tucker Carlson is now on. This man is such a freaking idiot. Or as Jon Stewart said, a DICK!!! Why, PBS, why?

Outrage round-up

Raw Story has scans of the new Bush PA flyer...

The GOP black vote suppression effort not involving an abuse of election law has begun in Milwaukee...

Ed Kilgore visualizes the confrontation I myself have pondered over the past week:
"I don't know exactly who the "volunteers" are who are planning to flood African-American polling places in Ohio to gum up the works and mess with the minds and ballots of voters. But given the rather limited number of black Republicans available, I have a clear mental image of some pasty-faced, bow-tie clad Federalist Society dweeb from Case-Western Law School showing up at an inner-city Cleveland precinct spouting 1953 case law at angry voters who know how often this sort of crap was pulled on African-Americans in the Deep South."
Indeed, as a colleague noted today, the GOP's big strategic error in this election may very well turn out to be that they have made voting a clear cut civil rights battle again. No one was supposed to really find out about the suppression schemes until it was too late, you realize. And granted it still hasn't gotten quite the coverage it deserves, and the GOP could end up spinning the national media if these schemes become the focus of a post-election battle. But for now, one thing is for sure: for black people going to the polls in Cleveland next Tuesday, the stakes are bitterly clear.


Bin laden gets the "My Pet Goat" thing wrong in the video, inadvertently betraying his familiarity with people who actually have goats. From the Times transcript:
"It never occurred to us that he, the commander in chief of the country, would leave 50,000 citizens in the two towers to face those horrors alone, because he thought listening to a child discussing her goats was more important. "


Pigs in flight

Andrew Sullivan's Kerry endorsement is a good read. I would call this the base argument that liberals are asking all thinking conservatives who really care about the future of the country to accept come Tuesday, and he articulates it quite well. Essentially, "We know how excited you were to be on the right side of 9/11, and how great moral clarity felt, and how nice it was to feel like you were the only person in the world who understood the nature of evil. But come on guys, he's really fucking things up and you know it."

Or in the more charitable formulation, "Bush's skills have served us well framing the last 4 years of war, and thank god he was president on 9/11, but he doesn't have the flexibility, nuance, and credibility we'll need to succeed in the next four years."

I like it because it sounds like it would make sense to a conservative that has at least a tenuous grasp on reality. But then again, I can't begin to comprehend how Sullivan can write something as sensible as this and square it with the amount of shameless pro-Bush hackery he has frequently engaged in for the past several years. So take my understanding of what people are capable of with a grain of salt.

Election armageddon

Just a quick note about how deeply disappointing the coverage of the GOP's shameless efforts to suppress votes is. Not to say the papers haven't been doing a fine job of picking up the election stories in general, but ultimately, the stories are falling into a predictable he said/she said rhythm. I.e., Republicans are trying to suppress the vote but they say they are doing it simply because Democrats are engaging in fraud. Reporters need to attach at least one significant and verifiable incident of registration fraud to be allowed to print these rebuttals without serious skepticism. As others have noted, the GOP is making a calculated bid to pre-empt challenges to a stalemate or a close Bush loss, ensuring that the meme is primed for deployment on November 3rd. But buying into this means that the media is watering down a veritabe explosion in GOP affiliated voter suppression schemes, most of which are hardly hidden. If they are still playing this game when the recounts begin, it is going to be a very, very, long November.



Infuriating spin grudge match...go!

In one corner, the effort to downplay the importance and destructive power of the 350 tons of high explosives we failed to secure, i.e., this stooge on CNN. Or this Cornerite on how these explosives are just a drop in the bucket in the arsenal Iraqis control now,

In the other, we have an attempt to spin the missing explosive story as a late entry in the "why we invaded Iraq" game.

Since they seem to be a little behind the curve, it should be an especially good match.


"Liberal" where is thy sting?

A great piece by Peter Beinart today. He asks why Bush's last ditch strategy, i.e. calling Kerry a liberal whenever possible, isn't working very well, and hasn't been for a while:

The mystifying thing about this change of course is that, while character attacks have worked well for the GOP in recent years--both against Al Gore in 2000 and against Kerry this year--the liberal charge has not. Poppy used the L word effectively against Michael Dukakis in 1988, and, as late as 1994, it helped slay New York Governor Mario Cuomo, whom George Pataki dubbed "too liberal for too long." But, by 1996, the magic had run out. Bob Dole hurled the charge at Bill Clinton to little avail. And, as Jonathan Cohn has noted ("Fade to Black," November 13, 2000), Pataki's consultant, Arthur Finkelstein, played the liberal card against three Democratic Senate candidates that year--Robert Torricelli in New Jersey, Paul Wellstone in Minnesota, and Jack Reed in Rhode Island. After losing all three races, Finkelstein admitted that the epithet had lost its sting.

Beinart goes on to say that "liberal" as the term was employed in the 80s, has lost its power because A) on the domestic front, it is nearly meaningless after 8 years of Clintonism and B) enough people are ambivalent about Bush's national security policies to be interested in an alternative.

As regards A, Beinart says, the kernel at the heart of the liberal epithet was always about one thing: implying that Democrats were going to give your money to poor black people. That was the GOP's dominant trump card in the 80s, and while it was hot, they were able to parlay it into a whole arsenal of sticks with which to beat Democrats: crime, the federal budget, family politics, and the list goes on. But that was 20 plus years ago. And both parties bear little resemblance to their 1982 keywords, even as GOP strategists try their damndest to make it so.


Absurdity for everyone

Required reading today for those still interested in keeping up with some of the stunning departures from reality that have come to characterize the last, pathetic leg this race is standing on.

Chait on the parallel Social Security universe mentioned below (with some nice bonus vindication for everyone who can't stomach The Note anymore); and Frank Rich with what should be the last word about Mary Cheney but, thanks to the shills we have for reporters these days, probably won't be.



The Social Security privatization mini-scandal is a fine complement to the Mary Cheney canard that the Bush campaign (or more precisely its shameless surrogates, see Goldberg, Jonah) has, remarkably, dragged into a 6th day almost solely by sheer force of will.

Now Bush is taking up the "scaring seniors" line in response to a speech Kerry made about Bush's intentions to privatize Social Security in a second term. It's almost the textbook case of the current GOP spinning one of their unpopular positions into an 'attack' simply because the opposition is correct, and vocal, about its unpopularity.

It's pretty obvious that Social Security privatization is not going to happen anytime soon because A) despite years of work by very smart people, no one has figured out how to make the damn thing work without blowing a multi-trillion dollar hole in the budget and B) because there are enough Republicans in Congress who are smart enough to have nothing to do with a harebrained privatization scheme nearly guaranteed to lose them votes.

But you know what? George Bush and his "economic team" should still be punished for it. Because they have poisoned the debate about Social Security in a way that will take years to repair, and becuase they know it won't get anywhere. That's why they do it. Because even though they don't give a shit, they have to look like they have an agenda for big social insurance programs. The end result is that they get a free pass out of a politically difficult debate while wasting everyone's time and stalling progress while the situation gets worse.

And another thing. If Bush really wanted to go forward with this privatization account, he would have thought about that before he fucked the federal budget for eternity. Back in 2000, a Republican administration would have enjoyed a far more attractive hand in implementing private accounts, considering the surpluses as far as the eye could see. But now this administration's incompetence has made things tough all over. Private accounts are an absurd pipe dream, while the future deficits he's created are going to make repaying the trust fund in the 2030s that much more painful. Can we please get rid of these guys?


More Brooks

Sam Rosenfeld is similarly appalled at Brooks today. I know the Times is willing to give op-ed columnists a long time to hit their groove, but my god, they can't really continue to publish this man for the next decade or more, can they?


David Brooks makes me want to throw my computer out the window. If John Kerry commits one heinously fascist act in his administration, let it be to strip this man of his space on the Times op-ed page and send him far, far away from civilized discouse. Hackwise, he has obviously acheived every height one could possibly imagine, so what else is their left to do? Seriously. He sucks.


Fille Cheney

Mickey Kaus and Glenn Reynolds agree that Kerry's mention of Mary Cheney being a lesbian was a cheap attempt to "swing the votes of homophobes." Are they kidding? The voters in this election who intend to cast their votes based on homophobia aren't voting for John Kerry, period. And undecided homophobes of the presidential debate watching variety aren't sitting at home rethinking a Bush vote so they can keep his vice president's lesbian daughter as far away from the White House as possible. To suggest Kerry would engage in such a "strategy" is just absurd. That's on the level with some of the depths of Gore sneakiness fantasized about in 2000.

Kerry mentioned her because he wanted to point out the administration's hypocrisy on gay issues. Despite Bush's bleating about tolerance and pathetic attempt to spin the FMA as having nothing against gay people, anyone with half a brain in their head knows that people who don't like gay people vote for Bush. Not all Bush voters are homphobes, far from it, but everyone who makes their political decisions based on homophobia is in the Bush camp. By mentioning her, Kerry quietly pointed out that this kind of intolerance is outside the mainstream and untenable, exhibit A being the vice president's proud, out daughter.

Lost in all of this is a more important point: Kerry pushed the envelope of discourse on gay rights in that answer.

Bush's answer boiled down to, "I know most of you don't want to talk and think about this, but at the same time you think some of the people who vote for me are social issues fascists. Let's just sweep it under the rug with some cliche about live and let live, shall we?"

Kerry, on the other hand, revealed a little taste of what the future holds for gay rights as a mainstream social issue, and gay constituencies as a run-of-the-mill presence at the political table. Gays got the same treatment from Kerry on Wednesday that all interest groups get: awkward sympathy from an old straight white man. That's a good thing.

In a decade or so, when the culture war hysteria has been pushed back to the fringe, when the legal crisis over gay families has settled down, and when marriage or domestic partner benefits are nearly universal, that is what gay politics will look like. A craggy old straight white man will be running for president, and he will reach out for gay votes by trying to empathize with the unique hardships involved in being part of that group, and describe the specific policies he will support targeted to those needs.

The power that religious fundamentalists wield over politics right now is temporary. It is a fragile coalition to begin with, and it is contingent on a relatively small number of people that should be turned out of office fairly soon. Once that is out of the way, the progress on gay rights will be determined by whether we have politicians that are willing to take moderate-hat Bush's "Let's not worry about it unless someone forces the issue" stance, or politicians ready to proactively pander to gays like they do everyone else.

For now, our fine leaders, along with their helpmates Mickey and Glenn, are still stuck in 1995, trying to exploit yesterday's closet politics to make people think Kerry crossed some line. If you think he somehow violated her or her family's privacy you are still living in a past where gay people who aren't visibly flaming are assumed to want the full measure of discretion over when they are recognized as gay: "Sure he's comfortable with it, I just don't know if he wants to be gay at work" and that sort of thing. It treats openly gay people as if they must value their ability to 'pass', and it is tired bullshit.

Thoughtful conservatives who think they appreciate gay tolerance (unlike those nasty fundamentalists) need to shut up about this and quick. Did Kerry use her to prove a point? Yes. Can you say anything about it? No. Because that is Kerry's point, dumbasses. If you say something about it, you are admitting you find it uncouth and impolite to mention someone's gayness on national TV, which implies you think there is something delicate and questionable about it. There is simply no way around this. You just have to sit there and accept it as if he mentioned she was an inspiring working woman. Want to do something about it? Then stop covering for people who are trying to cheapen your fellow citizens' civil rights.

You're fired

John Kerry did well to note Snow's deployment of the household survey claptrap. So far, we have been spared this coming out of Bush's mouth, but it has always been on the tip of his tongue. "Hell, if you don't like my fake policies for creating jobs, what if job loss never happened at all? Then where would you be? Nyah."

When the Secreatry of the Freaking Treasury denies the economic consensus that has been approved and attested to by no less than the single most important figure in your policy shenanigans (Alan Greenspan's remarks last July) then you don't get to push that line in public. The fact that they are doing just that is a measure of how depraved the merger of political operation and policymaking have grown in the Bush administration.

Why you should

It has been interesting to watch, in the later days of this campaign, the extent to which Kerry handwringing has all but disappeared. This has always been the central gamble of the campaign--would affection for Kerry ever live up to the purity of Bush-hatred, but ultimetly, it seems not to matter.

Part of this is certainly due to a well run Kerry campaign. Has it been perfect? Hell no. But they have kept their heads above water, avoided any nuclear embarassments, and weathered some pretty considerable shit-storms with resiliance.

But beyond that, I think that voters have dropped their substantive questions about Kerry. The negatives on Bush have transcended regular partisan divisions and, in the ill-fated words of Michael Dukakis, come to rest on 'comeptence'. Even fairweather Democratic voters are not demanding a viable plan from Kerry for how he is going to neatly settle this whole Iraq mess. They just know he not going to carry Bush's baggage.

That is an important and encouraging turning point in the race, because it means that among many voters, Bush has exhausted his post 9-11 carte blanche. In the intervening three years, American voters feel that they have grown savvy about the issues involved in terrorism, and that a hunker down and say yes mentality isn't necessary anymore.

Once more with feeling

Matthew Yglesias very patiently explains, again, why precision strikes in densely populated urban areas is an oxymoron. It's not being negative about the war, it's just a fact. And it's one we have to take into account if our stated mission is to win their hearts and minds. If you're one of those people who thinks we should just fucking blow them up, then I still find you morally consistent. But if you've ever talked about spreading democracy, breaking the back of Middle Eastern tyranny, or heart/mind winning, you have to deal with the fact that prolonged periods of violence are very problematic to your mission.


Debate Odds and Ends

Two good things in Slate today. First, Saletan points out something that should have made every thinking American throw something at their TV: Bush's utter refusal to grapple with Kerry's "truth standard" line--that an American president must present credible evidence to the country and the world before going to war. He didn't try to pretend that the evidence was there or that it wasn't his fault, which would be its own can of worms, but agreeable on principle. He told the world, and the country, to go screw itself for asking for evidence. I know its hardball and the global test line was getting mileage and he wanted to punch it some more, but this is serious business, and he keeps saying it.

Two, Timothy Noah takes Bush to task for his Massachusetts-bashing. The lies and cynicism that allow a President of the United States to get away with trashing a state of the Union like this (imagine if Kerry started slamming Wyoming for using too much federal money) just goes to prove the strong geographic aspect of the sort of argument the argument Tom Frank is making in What's the Matter With Kansas? Namely, the skill of the GOP and the conservative movement at large in creating the mythical liberal beast that is the country's real problem. The long-form version of Bush's Massachusetts-slam goes "You know how they think. Condescendingly. You know what they like. Big government. And you know where they live. Massachusetts!"

The media, for their part, are so snowed by conservative claptrap that no one even thinks to ask whether it's out of line, or at least deeply and viciously divisive, to use an entire, diverse state full of people of many different political persuasions as a euphemism for what's wrong with the country. It's absurd, isn't it?


What up with Bush?

There's been a lot of revived talk lately about just why exactly Bush is so much less articluate than he was only a decade ago. But the usual theories: that he is deliberately trying to sound dumb, that his cocoon of yes men has dulled his senses, and of course, mild cognitive dysfunction, just don't seem to add up.

I've watched this Frontline thing on Bush and Kerry twice now (I have no cable) and I'll agree that the difference really is remarkable. In nearly all the footage of Bush prior to the 2000 race, he comes off as smart, articulate, and aware, albeit in a cocky, self-assured way. He spins descriptions of policy with ease, flair and confidence, and while you might call him glib you certainly would not call him stupid or dense.

So what has changed since those early days? From all accounts, Bush is still just as charming and smooth in person, so why has his public persona veered so far off course? I think the trouble lies in the evolution of the unique political machine that surrounds him.

Perhaps Bush's greatest political asset has been a political operation tighter than perhaps any seen before in national politics. As guided by Rove, Karen Hughes, and others, the Bush team has an ability to maintain an absurdly high level of message discipline. Discipline (combined with cojones and a cowed press corps) that enables them to craft the most uncomfortable realities into a favorable narrative.

Bush understands the power of this strategy in a way that few other people did at the time. The trouble is, that sort of message discipline is incompatible with the kind of personality you see in his earlier appearances, as well as an increasingly hostile national audience. So while he understands the immense payoff to be had from chaining himself to the larger media strategy, an understanding that requires both shrewd patience and self-control, it doesn't leave him with a lot to talk about in extamporaneous situations, and makes him somewhat uncomfortable reading from a prepared text (although his genius speechwriters make up for this to some extent).

His public persona has far more constraints on it than Clinton's, constraints he most certainly appreciates the full value of, but he has never quite figured out how to make the actual being of that person work seamlessly.

Smart war

Kevin Drum weighs in on Kerry and Bush's different conceptual frames for combating terrorism, as exemplified by his "I don't think about Osama" remark. I think this goes hand in hand with my comments the other day about the how this is a choice between the sort of indulgent globe-bestriding approach to terrorism of the Bush administration and a quieter, more mature and realistic approach Kerry talked about in the NY Times piece.

The question left over, of course, is how much the rhetoric enabled by this misguided theory of terrorism informs the policy. The political payoff of getting to call the war against al-Qaeda World War III, the Cold War, and World War II all wrapped up in one is considerable, but it forces you to introduce all the necessary props, i.e., conventional wars.



This time around was kind of a snore...its really remarkable how shallow and uninteresting shared dialogue about domestic policy has become in the past four years. With the gloves off, liberals and conservatives can both accuse each other of representing a degenerate polar opposite, but put two of them in the same room with some political stakes present, and you just get a parade of eye-glazing numbers. Although granted, its nice to be on the side using numbers which actually represent things happening in the world. I'm indisposed at the moment, but more thoughts tomorrow...



I suppose I'll throw my two cents in regarding the Matt Bai piece, since the nuisance line appears to have legs. As others (here, here) have noted, this is pretty right on, and actually quite encouraging regarding Kerry's potential.

As Mickey Kaus has noted in his kinder moments, the world needs a break from the Bush administration's War on Terror. Four years of confused semi-hysteria, one big stupid war, and a few hundred million enraged Muslims were perhaps inevitable to some extent. But it is time for us to embrace a mature approach to terror that is not afraid to let the political narrative be subsumed by a quiet execution.

Just in case we need one more reminder, "terrorism" is essentially meaningless. Weak peoples who have a little of the crazy on their side will always choose to confront big slow-moving states with vicious targeted acts of violence. This is an inevitable effect of having states, after all. But September 11 opened the door for America to right its policy on a host of pressing concerns we have ignored for too long: A) the violent byproducts of weak states and the global black market, and B) the unique economic, political and social crises afflicting the Muslim world.

Come on people. It was a very satisfying ride, but we all know that complex global problems and nonstate fugitive groups aren't going to be addressed by "breaking the back of tyranny" or "short-circuiting history" or "steadfast resolve". These are labor intensive, delicate projects. And while violence must of course be an option when needed, the unpredictable, catastrophic consequences of large scale violence are antithetical to the kind of hard, thoughtful work we need to do.

At it again

If bullshit could kill...David Brooks this morning hammers out a masterpiece from one of his favorite column templates: reduce two positions to the most banal generalizations possible, spin into a false dichotomy that makes them appear to be a fundamental clash of ideas, then make the one accorded to Bush sound a bit more appealing:

Put this way, the argument we are having about international relations is the same argument we are having about domestic affairs, just on a larger scale. It's a conflict between two value systems. One is based on a presumption of a world in which individuals and nations should be self-reliant and free to develop their own capacities - forming voluntary associations when they want - without being overly coerced by national or global elites. The other is based on the presumption of a crowded world, which emphasizes that no individual or nation can go off and do as it pleases, but should work instead within governing institutions that establish norms and provide security.

Brooks employs the same tactics that Heritage Foundation 'academics' have been using for years: subverting the layman's opinion by positing your fringe beliefs as equal competition for the established consensus. What a hack.


Round deux

Well, it seems the conventional wisdom is a "draw" regarding tonight's debate. Which is right where the Bush people want it. These are smart people, they know that unless Kerry becomes schizophrenic overnight there's no "winning" these debates. The issues Bush has to run on are just too murky/utterly fabricated. They spun the first debate as "Kerry is the defacto winner because Bush lost" and I'm sure they'll spin this one as "Bush is the defacto winner because he did better than last time."

I was actually quite surprised this time around. I thought Kerry held his ground in the first debate, but I sure as hell didn't like watching it. This time, I thought Kerry was performing quite dramatically ahead of Bush. His responses were disticntly more eloquent and coherent than the President's, and he kept the President on the defensive a clear majority of the time. While some will certainly voice complaints about his constant "I have a plan" intro, I thought it distanced him from Bush everytime he said it. In a good way.

The negative on this debate ought to be that Bush was performing at the peak of his capacity and it still didn't hold up. The President was obviously engaged and animated tonight, no one would deny him that. And yet, time and again, he failed to go beyond the tired old soundbytes and make a case for his second term. Interested people of course have known this to be the case for the past year, but its time the regular voted started asking similar questions.


Down a notch

Well, it appears we have gone from "weapons" to "weapons programs" to "weapons of mass destruction program-related activities" to "intentions to begin weapons of mass destruction program-related activities." Keep 'em coming, guys.


Just once

I would like to see Kerry or Edwards explain why the $87 billion thing is crap. I think Pandagon mentioned awhile ago: at the least can't they bring up the fact that Bush was planning to veto it?

Their seeming reluctance to take this on seems a little too bizarre, so maybe someone has good reason to think they shouldn't be arguing about it. Maybe the strategy gods will find it a petty quibble and up their value-less nitpicker quotient. At the same time, Bushco continues to use it to justify just about every charge they can think of against Kerry, like some kind of free pass which permits the speaker to insinuate whatever they want about Kerry regardless of logic or taste or proof. Kerry could say something like: "I've heard you distort my vote on that bill for a year now and I'm not going to take it anymore. Myself and many of my colleagues felt that now that we were in a war we should be prudent about our finances, and knew that well-off Americans would want to join us in that small sacrifice. This is the first war in history during which taxes have actually gone down, and you can see the result in our half trillion dollar deficit. But the President doesn't understand what real sacrifice is, and thought he could get this war for free. He threatened to veto that same funding for troops to save his tax cuts, to choose breaks for the wealthy over body armor for our soldiers, and he bullied Congress into thinking likewise."


Veeps in the ring

The difference between Bush and Cheney is that Bush doesn't read the papers, and thus doesn't have a grasp of the total reality of the conservative spin universe. Every time Bush sputtered last week, there was a carefully cultivated logic out there that could have filled that gap. But Bush just doesn't have those things at his fingertips.

I remember the 2000 VP debate between Cheney and Lieberman as being a very mature, quite sensible affair. Cheney had to prove he was an adult to counterbalance Bush, and he did it. This time ain't quite so civilized. It's interesting though, every time Cheney pulls out one of the really low blows distorting Kerry's senate votes his mouth kind of curls up. He'll do it, of course, but he still can't quite hide that the knows its bullshit.

Wow, Cheney really made the attendance thing burn. He sounded like a principle taking the popular kid to task. I don't know what it means that that really appealed to me.


Debate roundup

I've had this discouraging thought before, and tonight's exercises only reinforced it. Namely, that this election has to pit followers against people who consider themselves endowed with even half a brain. Not to say that only the enlightened can be liberal, but simply that if you're not voting for Bush, you have, at some point, decided not to drink the intellectual Kool-aid which is his sole selling point.

***I do think Kerry held his own, contrary to my expectations. That's mostly due to Bush though. His ability to (A) "make shit up" has dwindled it seems, in the last four years, and (B) his stump speech about liberty n' democracy n' not liking terrorism a lot doesn't fare very well when he has to deliver it piecemeal in debate format. In fact, you could watch it disintegrate in real time, as Bush got weaker and weaker as he got further away from his opening remark.

***Josh Marshall notes Bush's ability to succinctly dispatch his opponent's argument with a deft turn of phrase or simplification of argument:

Where he was strong were those few times in which he mobilized what I think is one of his true strengths: an ability to keep his ears open to turns of phrase which can be used against his opponent, ones that allow him to cast himself as a no-nonsense tough-guy and his opponent as either feckless or weak. To me, it's an ear for the cadence of a rancid populism. But that's a subjective view. The relevant point is that it is a strength.

I like to call this the "That is totally gay" rebuttal, and Bush certainly tried to use it to full effect tonight. Trouble was, not all of the time but certainly some of it, that the comeback didn't work. The complete dearth of substance in some of his responses actually resonated in contrast to Kerry's concise, significant arguments. And I think I say that as someone who has a good appreciation for when Bush is really on and really entertaining. Tonight, I found myself fairly bored and anxious during his time.

***I think/hope its fair to say the "less appealing" honor went to Bush (although this is highly contingent on the spin of the next couple days). As others have said, Kerry was able to maintain an initiative by repeatedly forcing Bush to defend his actions with regard to 1) why Iraq isn't going well, 2) how he's actually making America safer. and 3) what he's doing on other terrorism fronts, most importantly the nonproliferation issue. It's hard to gauge who won these exchanges, since Bush was impeccable about responding on message, and obviously that sells, but the important point was that Kerry maintained the upper hand. In contrast, the upper hand Bush was fighting for was Kerry's inconsistency on the war, and that's just not very interesting or engaging anymore. Could it be the Bush campaign has overplayed its most precious hand? Do they have a nefarious Plan B for October that we haven't seen yet?

That's it for now...