Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

A there it is. The DNC has up 'Faces of Frustration' -- a compilation of presidential grimaces, moments of pique, agitation, impatience and anger. 'Hey, why do I have to be up? I'm the president! What'd you say about me? I'm the president!'

PS: This is good on quick turnaround. But I think I remember a lot of gestures and grimaces that didn't make it into this video, some of the worst ones I think. Keep this one up. But the vid-wizards at the DNC should have their folks pore over that debate footage for the best stuff and re-edit that tape.

Another angle the Democrats should hit.<$NoAd$>

In various ways last night the president kept coming back to how being president is hard, how Iraq is hard, hard work, really hard, etc.

I see others have already picked up on this. And, for instance, Atrios quotes this passage ...

In Iraq, no doubt about it, it's tough. It's hard work. It's incredibly hard.

It's-and it's hard work. I understand how hard it is. I get the casualty reports every day. I see on the TV screens how hard it is. But it's necessary work.

We're making progress. It is hard work.

If one wanted to be ungenerous one might note that what's really hard is being over in Iraq getting shot at every day. But the president did give the impression of being a little worn out.

I think we all know that the presidency is tremendously hard work, even for a president like this one who keeps notoriously light hours. It's amazing to look back at the way the office ages the men who occupy it. But worn out and complaining isn't exactly presidential or an example of strong leadership. No one's making him be president after all. Maybe it's time to move on. He's punched his ticket. He can move on to the next gig.

Perhaps someone can help me with this. But I'm pretty sure both campaigns agreed in advance that they wouldn't use clips from the debate as part of TV ads. But I assume that doesn't mean the DNC can't use them on the site or that independent groups can't use on their sites or even, themselves, use them in ads.

As I noted last night, President Bush's reactions during Sen. Kerry's comments looked really bad. I've heard various people say he looked peevish or irritable or tense of sullen or whatever. But what came through to me most though was that he didn't like being up and hearing himself criticized.

Whatever moods or feelings you ascribe to him, Democrats really need to pick up this ball and run with it and have people see those images again and again because they play to an impression of a man who is out of touch, doesn't like being questioned, petulant, unable to take criticism, as short on temper as on facts. Small, angry and in over his head.

Nervous, unpredictable ... (could I go on and on? Yes, and so should the Dems ...)

Now comes the hard part: winning the spin.

John Kerry made a good start of it tonight. But it is absolutely critical for his campaign and his supporters, formal and otherwise, to hit the ground running with a plan to use the grist from the debate to shape perceptions in the final weeks of the campaign.

As I said earlier, I think Kerry did himself the most good tonight simply by belying the Bush campaign's portrayal of him as weak-willed flip-flopper.

But that positive impression could quickly dissipate if the follow-up is not effective. Some of this will involve zinging the president for misstatements he made or knocking him for other similar missteps. But what is critical is for them to burrow into the president's performance and sift out the most damaging impressions he conveyed -- ones that voters may have been troubled by while watching the debate but need to have driven home again and again over the coming week.

The key point I think, the key impression, was of a president who was out of touch. Erratic. Without a plan. In a cocoon. Unwilling to admit mistakes. Unwilling to level with himself or voters about what's happening in Iraq. Lost.

These are broad brush of course. But I suspect these impressions are at least some of the ones that are most damaging for the president coming out of tonight.

There was an air of prickliness and entitlement about the president that Kerry's surrogates should play up too. If you notice, one of the president's major attacks on Kerry through the debate was his claim that Kerry's criticism of the president's own war policy made him unfit to be president.

That's extraordinary -- certainly a set of rules that would put Kerry in something of a bind if he followed them, no?

And that's the best he could come up with: say I've made a mistake in Iraq and you're letting down the troops.

Notice the structure of the president's thinking: The point isn't whether he's made mistakes or screwed things up. But saying he has is bad.

Again, denial. Refusal to see what's happening. Lost. Adrift.

It's a rather technical matter. And I'm not sure how much attention it will garner since the issue hasn't gotten that much attention in the US press. But one of the notable things in the debate was that President Bush didn't seem to have any really clear idea what his administration's North Korea policy even is.

To a degree that's understandable since the policy has been muddled and divided from the beginning. But even taking a charitable view, taking the present policy on its own terms, President Bush couldn't seem to explain it more clearly than to say that it'd be bad to have bilateral talks with the North Koreans because then the Chinese wouldn't help us or else that it wouldn't be fair to the Chinese.

"And I hope it‘s as soon as<$NoAd$> possible. But I know putting artificial deadlines won‘t work. My opponent at one time said, 'Well, get me elected, I‘ll have them out of there in six months.' You can‘t do that and expect to win the war on terror."

That was another throw away line from President Bush in tonight's debate.

Needless to say (and as Sen. Kerry later made clear), Kerry's never said any such thing.

As best I can tell, what President Bush was referring to was this passage from Sen. Kerry's recent speech on Iraq ...

If the President would move in this direction … if he would bring in more help from other countries to provide resources and forces … train the Iraqis to provide their own security …develop a reconstruction plan that brings real benefits to the Iraqi people … and take the steps necessary to hold credible elections next year … we could begin to withdraw U.S. forces starting next summer and realistically aim to bring all our troops home within the next four years.

A bit different, no?

In addition to being unaccustomed to being criticized, President Bush also seemed unused to having people call him on it when he makes up 'quotes' they never said.

"The A.Q. Khan network has been brought to justice," President Bush said in the debate tonight.

Brought to justice?


The White House went along with a deal in which Khan was immediately pardoned after making a perfunctory apology for spreading nuclear weapons technology all over the globe.

I guess it's really not about law enforcement.

I've been watching the rerun of the debate. And that's given me a chance to look more closely at the body language and other things I didn't see on the first go through. What jumps out at me in the second viewing are the times when the camera was on Bush during Kerry's responses (obviously some networks had more of this than others.)

Bush looked tense or impatient or peeved or even a bit miffed that he even had to be up there on the stage with Kerry. At other times he just looked lost. Obviously, one can read many things into these expressions or grimaces. But whatever they were they didn't look good.

What occured to me somewhat while I was watching the first time and even more on the second go through was just how long it's been since President Bush had to face someone who disagrees with him or is criticizing him.

Every president gets tucked away into a cocoon to some degree. But President Bush does notoriously few press conferences or serious interviews. His townhall meetings are screened so that only supporters show up. And, of course, he hasn't debated anyone since almost exactly four years ago.

Frankly, I think it showed. It irked him to have to stand there and be criticized and not be able to repeat his talking points without contradiction.

I just flipped off the volume on the TV so that I could try to put down some initial impressions of the debate before being inundated by the spin from both sides and the endless pundit chatter.

For the first ten minutes or so, my pained reaction was, "Where did we get these two guys?"

I'm going from memory here without reviewing the text or anything. But I remember thinking that John Kerry's first answer was awfully meandering and unfocused. A laundry list, playing exactly to the critique of him.

But then President Bush was just as bad in his own way.

Soon enough, though, both guys settled down to their game.

From there I thought Kerry got better, sharper and more focused as the debate progressed. Roughly speaking, I thought he was at his best in the second third of the debate. He was clear. And he hit on some of the central points of criticism against the president -- the lack of a plan in Iraq, the failure to come clean on what's really happening there, turning the president's 'strong leadership' into stubborn obstinacy, etc.

There were certainly no Ronald Reagan moments. But there were several times when Kerry landed solid punches that the president seemed unable to counter.

President Bush hit on his core messages again and again: Kerry changes his positions, perseverance, no mixed messages, etc. His campaign will be glad he kept driving those points home.

But there were a number of times through the debate where the president stumbled through responses and seemed almost lost. More than a few times he appeared to struggle to fill up the alloted time.

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.

Two things stand out to me about the debate.

First, for most of the 90 minutes Kerry kept the initiative and kept the president on the defensive. The president was able to parry many of those challenges, at least in a way that would be convincing to his supporters or those inclined to support his policies. But I was surprised how few times President Bush brought the debate to Kerry or got him on the defensive. The standard bludgeon lines the president and his surrogates have been using against Kerry for months only barely got into play. When they did, Kerry came back quickly.

I remember that when both men came out to shake hands at the outset, President Bush came out quicker and shook hands with Kerry on his own side of the stage. I took this as the president's way of getting in Kerry's face, asserting dominance. But that's not how the rest of the 90 minutes went.

My point isn't that Kerry clobbered the president or anything. But for most of the 90 minutes I thought Kerry held the initiative, keeping the energy of the debate on questions about the president's record.

It's the second point however that is, I think, the really big deal about this debate.

If you look at the dynamics of this race and the small but durable lead President Bush has built up over the last month, it comes less from people becoming more enamored of President Bush or his policies as it has from a steep decline in confidence in Sen. Kerry.

To put it bluntly, the Bush campaign has created an image of Kerry as a weak and indecisive man, someone that -- whatever you think of President Bush -- just can't be trusted to keep the country safe in these dangerous times.

Often they've made him into an object of contempt.

Whatever else you can say about this debate, though, whatever you think of his policies, I don't think that's how Kerry came off. I think he came off as forceful and direct. And I suspect that most people who were at all genuinely undecided came away from the 90 minutes with that impression.

If President Bush's current lead is built not upon confidence in him or his policies but in a simple belief that Kerry isn't solid enough to be president, then I think this performance could help Kerry a good deal.