“You’ve just witnessed the beginning of the end of the Bush administration!”
So shouted a Kerry aide as I stumbled out of the spin alley set up in the University of Miami’s Wellness Center after the end of the first face-off between George W. Bush and John Kerry. Such exuberance was perhaps overstated but understandable. Kerry had more at stake this evening. A poor showing would have placed him in a position from which a come-from-behind victory would have been a hard-to-conceive possibility. But with a viable performance–in which he demonstrated he knows the facts and he knows his own mind–he narrowed that all-important commander-in-chief gap. Still, Bush was no slouch, even though he slumped at the podium. He did at times wince and come across as irritated and annoyed: This guy’s questioning my judgment?. (The Kerry campaign, as I type, is putting together a video for release Friday morning that will chronicle Bush’s unappealing expressions and body language.) But Bush, as he has done well on the campaign trail, defended the war in Iraq with strong, declarative statements meant to convey strength, conviction and idealism.
The snap polls taken by networks immediately after the debate found a decisive edge for Kerry. Yet it’s doubtful the overall dynamics of the race were altered much. These 90 minutes, in a way, reinforced the fundamentals. Bush is the fellow with the uplifting themes: we’re fighting for freedom, democracy, and our own survival in Iraq against killers who want to shake our will; it’s tough work; the costs are indeed high; and I will be the strong and resolute leader who leads us to triumph. Kerry is the one with the sobering words: Iraq is a mess; we’re not any safer; we must change course; and I have a better plan. It’s inspiration (arguably misguided) versus critique (arguably not so inspiring). These are two rather distinct approaches, and they represent more of a psychological than an ideological split. Partisans on each side have already lined up with a candidate, and such voters are not likely to shift their loyalties on the basis of a debate performance (or anything else). The question is whether those legendary undecided voters will be responsive to the stirring tones that Bush aims for or will they be convinced by the pointed, rational arguments that Kerry seeks to present. Polls show that most Americans believe the war in Iraq was a mistake. But does that mean voters will automatically gravitate to the finger-waggerer who says he has a plan instead of the swaggerer responsible for the screw-up? Voters who now consider the war a blunder could still favor the candidate with the more upbeat or rousing message. In his closing remarks, Bush declared, “We’ve been challenged, and we’ve risen to those challenges. We’ve climbed the mighty mountain. I see the valley below, and its a valley of peace.” Kerry said, “I believe America’s best days are ahead of us because I believe that the future belongs to freedom, not to fear.”
What Kerry achieved in this debate, which focused on foreign policy and national security, was to show tens of millions of television viewers that he could be forceful and that Bush is not the only person in the race with a set of convictions. Kerry vigorously argued that Bush has not made the nation safer and that there are critical differences between his approach and Bush’s approach to dealing with the threats faced by the United States. He repeatedly maintained he could work better with other nations and persuade them to become more involved in dealing with the fiasco in Iraq. He declared more than once that he had plans for Iraq, for the so-called war on terrorism, and for homeland security. He denied his intent is to turn tail in Iraq. “I believe America is safest and strongest when we are leading the world and we are leading strong alliances,” he said. “I’ll never give a veto to any country over our security. But I also know how to lead those alliances. This president has left them in tatters across the globe.” And Kerry accused Bush of making “a colossal error of judgment” by invading Iraq and diverting attention from “the real war on terror in Afghanistan against Osama bin Laden.” Iraq, he said, “was not even close to the center of the war on terror before the president invaded it…And he rushed to war in Iraq without a plan to win the peace. Now that is not a judgment that a president of the United States should make.”
Bush hit the familiar points: his administration has captured or killed much of al Qaeda’s leadership (if not the top guy) and has taken out repressive regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq. He repeated what has become his customary defense of the invasion of Iraq–with or without WMD stockpiles, Saddam Hussein was a threat–and he threw in the usual misrepresentations. (For instance, he said that Hussein had been “systematically deceiving” the UN weapons inspectors, but the inspections process had been proceeding, more or less, effectively prior to the invasion.) Oddly, Bush cited few indications of progress in Iraq, but he did claim that 100,000 Iraqi soldiers and police officers have been trained. (After the debate, Kerry aide Rand Beers exclaimed, “By any generous estimate, it’s closer to 22,000.”) But Bush did speak in passionate and emotional tones about the casualties and difficulties in Iraq, and he insisted he had his own plan for success there.
Bush repeatedly cited his own steadfastness and attacked Kerry for having sent “mixed messages” by voting to authorize Bush to use force in Iraq and then claiming Iraq was “the wrong war at the wrong time at the wrong place.” Again and again, Bush pounded Kerry on this point. A person who sends such “mixed messages” cannot be expected to be a decisive leader in the war on terrorism. And Bush attempted on several occasions to deride Kerry’s arguments: “He says the cornerstone of his plan to succeed in Iraq is to call upon nations to serve. So what’s the message going to be: ‘Please join us in Iraq. We’re a grand diversion. Join us for a war that is the wrong war at the wrong place at the wrong time?'” When Kerry said that if an American president wants to launch a preemptive strike, “you have to do it in a way that passes the test, that passes the global test where your countrymen, your people fully understand why you’re doing what you’re doing and you can prove to the world that you did it for legitimate reasons,” Bush saw an opening. “I’m not exactly sure,” he said, “what you mean, ‘passes the global test,’ you take preemptive action, you pass a global test. My attitude is you take preemptive action in order to make this country secure.” Expect to see a Bush ad soon in which Kerry is mocked for believing the United States must “pass a test” before taking action to defend itself.
When you’re done reading this article,visit David Corn’s WEBLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent entries on the Bush administration decision to smother bad news from Iraq, Bush’s embrace of High School Politics 101, and the supposedly aborted Bush plan to secretly muck about in the coming Iraqi elections,
There were no breakout moments for either candidate. Kerry did not dramatically distinguish his plan for Iraq from Bush’s plan for Iraq. But Kerry managed to level a series of substantial policy-based charges at Bush. He noted that Bush has not addressed obvious homeland security issues, such as security at chemical plants, the high number of shipping containers that enter the United States uninspected, and the lack of extensive screening of cargo carried by airliners. Kerry suggested Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy would have been better spent on plugging these holes in homeland security. Bush did not address these points. Instead, he claimed his administration had boosted spending on homeland security to $30 billion a year. Kerry criticized Bush for not moving fast enough to secure loose-nukes in the Soviet Union. Bush bashed him for supporting the International Criminal Court. The two squabbled over whether the United States should negotiate directly with North Korea (Kerry said yes, Bush said no.) And Bush did look silly noting his “good relations” with “Vladimir”–as in Putin–in response to a question about Putin’s recent moves to limit democracy in Russia.
But Bush’s main argument was simple: “If we remain strong and resolute, we will defeat this enemy.” And, of course, Kerry is neither strong nor resolute. “The only consistent [thing] about my opponent’s position,” Bush commented, “is that he’s been inconsistent. He changes his positions. And you cannot change positions in this war on terror if you expect to win.” Kerry’s main argument was simple as well: Strength is necessary, “but we also have to be smart.” And he suggested Bush hasn’t been all that intelligent. “When I talked about [the vote on] the $87 billion [appropriations bill that funded the war],” Kerry said, “I made a mistake in how I talked about the war. But the president made a mistake in invading Iraq. Which is worse?”
After the debating was over, the spinning began. Karl Rove and other Bush aides immediately claimed that Kerry had once again been nothing but inconsistent. “John Kerry did not resolve these contradictions,” Rove asserted. “He made them worse.” He and GOP chairman Edward Gillespie pointed to Kerry’s answer to moderator Jim Lehrer’s question, “After you came back from Vietnam…you said, ‘How do you ask a man to be last man to die for a mistake?’ Are Americans now dying in Iraq for a mistake?” Kerry had said, “No, and they don’t have to, providing we have the leadership that I am offering. I believe we have to win this.” See? the Bush aides exclaimed; Kerry calls the war a “mistake” yet he refuses to say American GIs have died for a “mistake.” Were they getting desperate for material?
No, they were sticking with the gameplan. Before the invasion, Kerry said Saddam Hussein was a threat; he now says the war was wrong; he is a flip-flopper. And flip-floppers, everybody knows, can’t defeat terrorists. But, I asked Rove, didn’t Kerry explain tonight that while he had thought Hussein posed a threat, he believed further diplomacy and inspections should have been tried before heading off to war? “The fundamental point,” Rove replied, “is that we are a safer country because Saddam Hussein was removed from power.” That, as we say, was changing the subject. One outcome of this debate might be that the Bush team has a tougher time depicting Kerry as a wavering, finger-in-the-air pol, for Kerry did forcefully present his views on Iraq, terrorism and other national security matters. Yet that may not stop the Bushies from still claiming he is a defeatist weakling with no plan for victory who holds not a single clear and steady belief.
In spin alley, the Kerry spinners seemed happier than the Bush spinners. Rove was not amused when a New York Post reporter asked him more than once whether this had been Bush’s worst debate performance ever. The Kerryistas faced no such questioning. Kerry aide Joel Johnson said that Kerry had done well by showing that “he could lead and fight the war on terror with as much energy and vigor as Bush. His strength and command of facts will give people confidence that he could be the fresh start to end the mess in Iraq. If you like the way the war is going, you should vote for Bush. Otherwise, he is the alternative.” And Tad Devine, a chief Kerry strategist, declared the debate a “blowout,” citing the snap polls. “Kerry,” he said, “looked and sounded like the president this country is looking for.”
Those initial polls about the debate were encouraging news for the Kerry camp, but in all the polls of recent weeks, Bush has cleaned Kerry’s clock, when likely voters were asked which candidate is stronger and better able to handle the war in Iraq and the threat of terrorism. Will one debate change this? “The President,” Devine said, “will always be seen as a strong leader. But if he is leading us in the wrong direction, that is not a great asset.”
In the spin room, as reporters pressed representatives of each campaign for comments that were mostly predictable, the journalists also questioned one another about the debate. The overwhelming consensus was that Kerry had “won.” But the word spread that I thought Bush had done better than Kerry. Joe Klein came up to me and said, “So I hear you think Bush won.” No, I did not. But I did think that each candidate had done fine and that few new votes would be won by either side as a result of this debate. It’s apples and oranges. Kerry and Bush think differently, talk differently, and appeal to different crowds. As I’ve noted in previous articles, Bush pushes buttons; Kerry attempts to score points. That’s what each did at this debate. But most importantly for Kerry, the debate did look like a fight between equals–in that Kerry seemed as presidential as any challenger to an incumbent can seem. This does not mean Kerry is on the road to victory. But this debate probably keeps him in the hunt, and for Kerry and blue-staters everywhere, that certainly beats the alternative.
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