To be continued. That is, nothing was resolved during the final encounter between George W. Bush and John Kerry. The challenger certainly outperformed the title-holder–perhaps not by much, but probably by enough for Kerry to reinforce his standing as a credible alternative to Bush. But at Arizona State University in Tempe neither man landed a decisive blow that could be expected to change the contours of the remaining campaign. With the focus on domestic issues, this face-off took a rather traditional shape. Bush attacked Kerry as a tax-and-spend liberal from Massachusetts with no record of real accomplishment, and he touted his tax cuts as the cure-all for the economy’s ills (which he barely acknowledged). Kerry assailed Bush as a handmaiden of corporate America who is out of touch with middle-class workers, and he promised to fight for the folks Bush has neglected. Alongside this conventional political warfare was the continuing back-and-forth on national security. This time out, Bush accused Kerry not of being inconsistent or personally weak, as he has done previously. Instead, Bush whacked Kerry for favoring a timid defensive strategy in the so-called war on terrorism, and he contended that his own “comprehensive” offensive approach would protect America the best. Kerry argued that Bush had not kept his eye on the “real war on terrorism,” and Kerry vowed to do better.
Though the policy differences between the two were sharp, it is hard to know if this debate will affect the attitudes of those 37 voters in Toledo who haven’t yet made up their minds. In the media tent after the debate, Kerry campaign aides pointed to the instant polls that showed Kerry the victor–a CNN poll had Kerry winning by 52 to 39 percent–and asked, how could going 3-and-0 in the debates not boost Kerry? But it may be possible that the few undecided voters left do not equate debating with leading. The Bush spinners even insisted that their man had won. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist told me that it was clear Bush had trounced Kerry because Bush “had clear-cut plans” on Social Security and health care and because he depicted Kerry as a liberal. But when I mentioned to him that the polls had Kerry the winner, Frist quickly changed course and noted that was only due to the “stylistic” difference between the two: Kerry is a “prep-school debater, who stands up straight and has tailored suits. And at the end of the day, the voters don’t want an Ivy League liberal who is well-coiffed, well-tailored, and who is bad on the substance.” (Didn’t Bush go to two Ivy League schools? I asked. “Yes,” Frist said with that grin of a spinner who doesn’t buy his own spin, “and I went to one, too.”)
Not to lose sight of substance–and there was a fair bit of substance in the debate–Bush did not answer moderator Bob Schieffer’s question on Social Security. The news anchor asked Bush where he would find the $1 trillion necessary to cover the policy he fancies (letting younger workers take money out of Social Security for private retirement account while not cutting benefits for current recipients). Bush only replied, “we’re of course going to have to consider the costs.” Kerry, for his part, used this question as an opportunity to whack Bush for being fiscally irresponsible and for proposing a change in Social Security that would have to lead to slashes in benefits. But when Schieffer asked Kerry what he would do about Social Security, Kerry noted that before dealing with Social Security he would deal with the budget deficit and attempt to boost economic growth. Kerry said: