WASHINGTON – The debates of 2004 may be remembered more for pained facial expressions than ringing words. Is there one line that will survive the week, never mind the ages?
But when it comes to missed opportunities, there were plenty, whether it was John Kerry (search) failing to knock an environmental question out of the ballpark or President Bush giving his opponent a pass when the Democrat left open the possibility Saddam Hussein (search) might have survived a Kerry administration.
And there were words to hold the candidates to account for after the election: Kerry's pledge not to raise taxes on any except the rich; Bush saying there will never be a draft so long as he is president.
Lines were thought up in advance, bearing the hallmarks of a campaign quote shop, not born in the spontaneous combustion of a freewheeling debate.
"You know, there's a mainstream in American politics," Bush told Kerry, "and you sit right on the far left bank."
Kerry had his zinger ready, too. "Being lectured by the president on fiscal responsibility is a little bit like Tony Soprano (search) talking to me about law and order in this country," he said. He paused briefly as if waiting for applause, although people were not allowed to clap.
Bush zinged himself as well as his opponent, poking fun at his own grimacing performance in the first debate in the hope that everyone would loosen up about it. In the second debate, he responded to a Kerry answer by cracking, "That answer almost made me want to scowl." When he was asked in the third debate what he learned from his strong wife, he said, "To stand up straight and not scowl."
Gotchas Gone Awry
Vice President Dick Cheney (search) was winding up for perhaps his best shot in the running mates' debate. "You've got one of the worst attendance records in the United States Senate," he lectured John Edwards (search). "Now, in my capacity as vice president, I am the president of Senate, the presiding officer. I'm up in the Senate most Tuesdays when they're in session.
"The first time I ever met you was when you walked on the stage tonight."
There was one huge problem with that gotcha — it was wrong. They had met before, and the Democratic campaign had pictures to prove it.
Kerry flustered Bush several times, but in one exchange produced a moment of confusion that seemed to have the audience of undecided voters laughing along with the president. The Democrat was trying to shoot down Bush's claims that the senator's plan to raise income taxes on the richest Americans would drive up the tax burden for 900,000 small businesses.
It turns out the Bush campaign reaches that figure by counting even $1 of outside income on a rich individual's return as a small business, even if that person has no employees. Kerry had independent studies to back him up, but he did not press the case to full advantage in the short time available.
He did note that even Bush qualifies as a small businessman because he claimed $84 from a timber-company interest on his 2001 tax return. The president had plainly forgotten about that.
"I own a timber company?" Bush asked, cheerfully bewildered. "That's news to me. Need some wood?"
"Saddam would still be in power if he were the president," Bush charged.
If those were fighting words for a Democrat who needs to prove he's as tough as Bush on the world stage, Kerry didn't bite. "Not necessarily," he mildly protested. Then he veered into another defense of his decision to vote against $87 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan operations. The president didn't exploit the opening.
A question on the environment prompted much boasting from Bush and only a meandering counterpoint from the Democrat, despite a sterling Kerry environmental record in the view of activists.
"I guess you'd say I'm a good steward of the land," Bush said. "The quality of the air's cleaner since I've been the president. Fewer water complaints since I've been the president. More land being restored since I've been the president." You could almost feel the environmental movement melting in mortification.
In his allotted 90-second rebuttal, Kerry talked about welfare reform, cops on the street, a balanced budget and faith-based initiatives before getting to his main counts against the Bush environmental legacy.
The debates are done but the material is still being mined for a second life before a smaller audience. Candidates will have a chance to say what they wished they'd said; video can be replayed and edited to make the other guy look foolish.
The Democratic National Committee was hard at work on that Thursday, coming out with two videos using debate footage.
One recalls the moment when Kerry chided Bush for saying he was no longer concerned about Usama bin Laden, a comment Bush denied making but in fact did make in 2002.
The other shows Bush laughing awkwardly when he was asked who's to blame for rising health insurance costs, and saying, "Gosh, I sure hope it's not the administration." His laughter is edited into a repetitive echo that makes it sound as if he sniggered.