Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Now, to follow up.

Various mistatements get made in debates. Some clearly intentional; others because of poor memory or confusion. But the president gave the Democrats one helluva gift with that remark about bin Laden.

As you'll remember, it came from this exchange ...

KERRY: Yes. When the president had an opportunity to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, he took his focus off of them, outsourced the job to Afghan warlords, and Osama bin Laden escaped.

Six months after he said Osama bin Laden must be caught dead or alive, this president was asked, "Where is Osama bin Laden?" He said, "I don't know. I don't really think about him very much. I'm not that concerned."

We need a president who stays deadly focused on the real war on terror.

SCHIEFFER: Mr. President?

BUSH: Gosh, I just don't think I ever said I'm not worried about Osama bin Laden. It's kind of one of those exaggerations.

Now of course about a thousand wire stories have made crystal clear that the president said precisely that.

As the AP put it in a story out just after the debate ...

Kerry accurately quoted Bush as saying he does not think much about Osama bin Laden and is not all that concerned about him. The president protested: "I just don't think I ever said I'm not worried about Osama bin Laden. It's kind of one of those exaggerations."

But in March 2002, Bush indeed said, "I truly am not that concerned about him. I know he is on the run." He described the terrorist leader as "marginalized," and said, "I just don't spend that much time on him."

It's actually worth reading the passage in its entirety. It comes from a press conference the president held on March 13th 2002, just as the build-up for the Iraq war was getting underway ...

Q But don't you believe that the threat that bin Laden posed won't truly be eliminated until he is found either dead or alive?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, as I say, we haven't heard much from him. And I wouldn't necessarily say he's at the center of any command structure. And, again, I don't know where he is. I -- I'll repeat what I said. I truly am not that concerned about him. I know he is on the run. I was concerned about him, when he had taken over a country. I was concerned about the fact that he was basically running Afghanistan and calling the shots for the Taliban.

But once we set out the policy and started executing the plan, he became -- we shoved him out more and more on the margins. He has no place to train his al Qaeda killers anymore. And if we -- excuse me for a minute -- and if we find a training camp, we'll take care of it. Either we will or our friends will. That's one of the things -- part of the new phase that's becoming apparent to the American people is that we're working closely with other governments to deny sanctuary, or training, or a place to hide, or a place to raise money.

And we've got more work to do. See, that's the thing the American people have got to understand, that we've only been at this six months. This is going to be a long struggle. I keep saying that; I don't know whether you all believe me or not. But time will show you that it's going to take a long time to achieve this objective. And I can assure you, I am not going to blink. And I'm not going to get tired. Because I know what is at stake. And history has called us to action, and I am going to seize this moment for the good of the world, for peace in the world and for freedom.

Not only is the quote accurate. But the broader context is <$Ad$>entirely on the mark. This wasn't some stray comment taken out of context.

Setting the narrow gotcha issue aside, though, there are three reasons why the Democrats can use this effectively against the president.

First, this isn't some insignifcant matter like whether Dick Cheney ever met John Edwards. This cuts to the essence of what the election is about: terrorism and whether the president kept his eye on the ball.

Second, the president's honesty is also a central issue. In particular, honesty about terrorism and bin Laden and Saddam. This cuts to the heart of that too: the president not leveling with the public about what's happened in the war on terror.

Third, as Kevin Drum rightly notes, this is an excuse to play that video clip again and again and again. And for the president that's not a good clip at all. In that passage, when the president says that bin Laden has become marginalized and that he's moving ahead with the war on terror, what he's talking about -- more or less explicitly -- is shifting from bin Laden to Iraq. He's describing how he took his eye off the ball. And seeing what we're now seeing in Iraq, that really says it all.

Looking back over these four debates I realize that in two of the cases my judgment was significantly different than what the consensus judgment turned out to be. In the first debate I thought Kerry put on a solid performance while the president was wobbly. I thought Kerry won; but my initial impression was not that it was a rout, as the consensus judgment eventually determined. I thought the veep debate went much better for Edwards than many thought.

Having said that, I thought John Kerry won this debate. And I say that in the context of the debate itself as well as its role in the campaign now unfolding. It wasn't a trouncing. Bush did okay. But here are several reasons why I think Kerry bested the president.

Kerry looked more presidential than the president. I don't know how else to put it.

He seemed collected and forceful through the whole thing. The president, meanwhile, seemed excitable, edgy and sometimes ungrounded. Again and again with the banging the table. Perhaps after one question you can get away with a cocky look of sarcastic disbelief after your opponent stops talking. But not every other time.

At one point in the debate, after Kerry referred to two leading news organizations rejecting the president's attacks on Kerry's plan, Bush looked back at Bob Schieffer and made a crack about trusting "leading news organizations."

I don't doubt a few media bias obsessives (and probably a few CBS execs) understood that this was a dig at Scieffer's employer, CBS. But I suspect it went right over most people's heads. As well it should have. Not everyone lives in wingerville. And the president's habit of roughing people up with jocular derision doesn't work as well when the trappings of power aren't all around him.

Again, to recap, Kerry seemed more presidential than the president.

Another point struck me as similar to the first debate, very similar. Kerry controlled the tempo of the evening. He kept the president on the defensive. He landed his key points about the budget deficit and the president's avoidance of the job issue several times. On health care there was more of a tussle. But I don't think the president framed the evening in the way he and his advisors wanted -- defining Kerry as an out-of-the-mainstream liberal. He did better at that in debate number two than he did tonight.

Let me draw back now and say something about timing and the progression of the debate. I thought both candidates came out to fight. The president came in hitting hard. But Kerry stood toe-to-toe with him. And after maybe 15 or 20 minutes I thought some of the ummph went out of the president.

I watched on CSPAN, where you have the benefit of the permanent split screen. And right there at probably about the half hour mark, there were a few times when Kerry was talking and the president was looking over at him, neck slightly craned, with this odd look on his face. (My dad would probably call it a sh-t-eating grin.). And with that look of edgy hesitation the president seemed to be saying, 'You're guttin' me like a fish.'

At some level the president seemed to wobble after that. His hits about the 'global test' seemed half-hearted and poorly delivered, as did other attacks. They even struck me as a tad desperate. Sometimes he'd tack on a catch-phrase after not being able to put together an actual answer. He talked about being strong but he didn't seem strong.

A few other miscellaneous points.

The president should have used humor more. It works for him. And I mean actual humor, not the jabs at the moderator.

I thought President Bush landed some punches with his attacks on leadership as well as when he hit Kerry on spending in the abstract after Kerry was discussing so many different new programs.

On the other hand, as was the case with the veep's debate, the president just told a number of untruths. And I think that'll be used against him in the coming days. Kerry is better at thinking on his feet than using prefab lines from the debate coaches. The Tony Soprano line? ehhh ...

As for the broader context of the race. If you look at the polls right now they are about as close to an absolute tie as they could possibly be. Even a standard margin of error should -- or one might expect would -- have created a little more of a spread in the numbers. But if these guys go into election day dead even in the mid- or high 40s, that's not good at all for the president. And there does seem to be some very slight poll momentum moving in Kerry's direction. As was the case with the first debate I think the key to tonight's performance was that the public saw a very different John Kerry than the president, his vice president and their surrogates are portraying on the hustings.

The president needed to land some punches tonight. I don't think he did. I think a tie would be a narrow win for Kerry, given the broader dynamics of the race. And I don't think it was a tie.

One more time, same drill: comments to follow shortly.

You'll notice that we've been referring to Voters Outreach of America as GOP-backed or GOP-funded. We're not using the phrase loosely. You'll note that on this VOA job flyer posted on careerbuilder.com it says "Paid for by the Republican National Committee. www.gop.com. Not authorized by any candidate or candidate's committee."

Nathan Sproul, it seems, is also a regional president of Voyager Expanded Learning Company, a company chock-full of Bush cronies currently supping at the No Child Left Behind act gravy-train. Also at Voyager is Jim Nelson, President Bush's education commissioner during his tenure in Texas. That was before the president appointed him as deputy education czar in Baghdad for a brief stint in 2003. This thread at Kos seems to provide a complete Sproularama.

Fascinating. Employees of Voters Outreach of America, a GOP-funded voter registration outfit operating in Nevada, say they personally witnessed company employees shredding hundreds or even thousands of Democratic registrations. Now the same company (VOA) is being accused of destroying Democratic registration forms in Oregon.

The head of VOA is Nathan Sproul, a Republican political consultant who used to be the executive director of the Arizona state Republican party.

In gaining access to venues to register voters, he has apparently been claiming that his group is part of America Votes, a voter education and registration groups put together by a consortium of Democrat-leaning groups like the AFL-CIO, Emily's List, the Sierra Club and others.

A quick scan of Nexis shows Sproul's outfit is also operating in West Virginia (see Charleston Gazette, August 20th), where they've already raised some controversy for misleading tactics if not destroying legally valid registrations.

The guy who's got the best handle on the Bush campaign's strategy in the final stretch is the author of the NewDonkey website. It's back to the future, straight outta the 1980s, 'liberal, liberal, liberal!'

Before the afternoon slips away, I'm hoping to do a few posts about tonight's debate. But given that new strategy, the Kerry camp would do well to mine this end-of-August piece from the National Journal. You'll remember that the Bush campaign has been endlessly harping on the claim that the Journal judged Kerry the most liberal member of the Senate.

In this piece the Journal itself says in so many words that the stat is bogus and that the Republicans' use of it has been "sometimes misleading -- or just plain wrong."

As the Bush campaign's reputation for lying goes, it's not all that bad. But it's still worth noting.

I've already gotten a number <$Ad$>of emails, as I expected, about the Newsmax ad for Ann Coulter's new book down there to the left. It's not a mistake. The site hasn't been hacked. A year ago, when I started accepting ads I gave much thought to the policy I would maintain for them. And I decided, for many reasons, that I would not reject ads based on political content. (I restated the policy a few days ago in this post and discussed limits of taste and appropriateness that I do apply.) Distinguishing issues of taste and appropriateness from mere political disagreement is not always easy, especially when the opinions expressed are as hateful, ugly and -- more than either of those two -- just ridiculous as Coulter's are. But this is my policy. It is consistent with my understanding of what this site is and why it accepts paid advertising. And I'm sticking with it. Your comments are of course welcome.