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:
“Now, if later on after a period of time we find that Social Security is in trouble, we’ll pull together the top experts of the country. We’ll do exactly what we did in the 1990s. And we’ll make whatever adjustment is necessary. But the first and most important thing is to start creating jobs in America. The jobs the president is creating pay $9,000 less than the jobs that we’re losing. And this is the first president in 72 years to preside over an economy in America that has lost jobs, 1.6 million jobs.”
Kerry repeatedly made jobs the issue. And Bush’s response was basically tax cuts, tax cuts, and tax cuts. (Bush stretched the truth quite thin when he claimed, “Most of the tax cuts went to low and middle income Americans, and now the tax code is more fair, 20 percent of the upper income people pay about 80 percent of the taxes in America today because of how we structured the tax cuts.” (The top 1 percent received more from his tax cuts than the bottom income groups, and government figures show that the tax burden has been eased on the wealthy and increased on middle-income taxpayers.) Kerry called for raising the minimum wage, for addressing the gender gap in pay, for providing health insurance coverage to children and families with incomes up to 300 percent of the poverty level, and for ending a tax loophole that offers companies an incentive to outsource. (Much of this was good material for the Democratic base.) Bush referred to health savings accounts, which work mainly for people who have the financial resources to purchase them. And Kerry’s spin brigade were ecstatic about Bush’s response to a question on the minimum wage. Should it be raised? Schieffer asked. Kerry said yes, and offered a host of facts to back up his position, adding
“One percent of America got $89 billion last year in a tax cut, but people working hard, playing by the rules, trying to take care of their kids, family values, that we’re supposed to value so much in America — I’m tired of politicians who talk about family values and don’t value families.”
In response, Bush spent about five seconds discussing the minimum wage, maintaining he supported some plan to raise it that he declined to describe. Then he abruptly changed the subject to education legislation. When Schieffer asked Bush what he would tell an American worker who had lost his or her job to a worker overseas making 50 cents an hour, Bush again used the occasion to talk about his No Child Left Behind Act. And when Schieffer asked Bush if he “would like to overturn Roe v. Wade,” Bush ducked the question and vowed he would not apply a litmus test to his judicial appointees. Kerry replied, “Well, again, the president didn’t answer the question. I’ll answer it straight to America. I’m not going to appoint a judge to the Court who’s going to undo a constitutional right.”
Bush kept challenging Kerry’s credibility on tax and fiscal matters, claiming Kerry voted 98 times to raise taxes and 277 times to exceed budget caps. Kerry refused to yield any ground: “I have supported or voted for tax cuts over 600 times. I broke with my party in order to balance the budget.” And he quipped, “Being lectured by the president on fiscal responsibility is a little bit like Tony Soprano talking to me about law and order in this country.” He accused Bush of having cut Pell grants for college students and job training. He was relentless in assailing various Bush policies and tried to position himself as the champion of the middle class. An example:
“The American middle-class family isn’t making it right now, Bob. And what the president said about the tax cuts has been wiped out by the increase in health care, the increase in gasoline, the increase in tuitions, the increase in prescription drugs. The fact is, the take-home pay of a typical American family as a share of national income is lower than it’s been since 1929. And the take-home pay of the richest 1 percent of Americans is the highest it’s been since 1928. Under President Bush, the middle class has seen their tax burden go up and the wealthiest’s tax burden has gone down. Now that’s wrong.”
Kerry spent much of his time slamming Bush’s policies and decisions. He came down hard on Bush for blocking the reimportation of drugs from Canada and for preventing Medicare from negotiating bulk drug purchases. Bush endeavored to make Kerry the issue. “You know,” Bush said, “there’s a mainstream in American politics and you sit right on the far left bank. As a matter of fact, your record is such that Ted Kennedy, your colleague, is the conservative senator from Massachusetts.” Bush claimed Kerry has been a do-nothing senator who has only managed to pass five bills during his long career in the Senate. Kerry claimed he had passed 56 bills. After the debate, Bush spinners–including campaign aide Tucker Eskew–pointed to Kerry’s 56-bill defense as a Gore moment, meaning it was a whopper. Referring to this comment, Eskew said, “Kerry may have signed his own death warrant.” Kerry aides did not come across as worried about this. “If they think that’s their big win tonight,” Joe Lockhart said, “that tells you everything. I am glad they thing that’s their big win.” (After the debate, the Kerry campaign immediately released a list of the 56 bills and resolutions Kerry had passed. Not every entry on the list was an impressive legislative accomplishment. For instance, the list included a joint resolution designating October 22 through 28, 1989, as “World Population Awareness Week.”)
When you’re done reading this article,visit David Corn’s WEBLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent entries on Bruce Springsteen and John Kerry, what Washington insiders say about the presidential race, and the fuss over the latest WMD report.
On national security, Bush continued with the gameplan: make Kerry and his ideas look feeble. “My opponent,” Bush said, “has got a plan of retreat and defeat in Iraq.” Bush stuck to the tactic of misconstruing Kerry phrases and presenting them as dramatic evidence of impotence. “My opponent just this weekend,” Bush said, “talked about how terrorism could be reduced to a nuisance, comparing it to prostitution, illegal gambling.” (Actually, Kerry said that he hoped that one day terrorism will be seen as a nuisance.) Bush again claimed that Kerry would turn over US national security decisions to other nations (meaning, mostly, France). “In our first debate he proposed America pass a global test,” Bush maintained. “In order to defend ourselves, we’d have to get international approval.” Kerry countered, “I will never allow any country to have a veto over our security.” But Bush set up a new dichotomy: in the war on terrorism, Bush is willing to go on the offense, yet Kerry is too wed to a defensive mindset. In other words, I will kick more butt than he will.
In spin alley, I asked Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman what was the basis for Bush’s claim that Kerry was in favor of “retreat and defeat in Iraq.” He replied that Kerry had once said the goal was to remove troops from Iraq in six months. (Kerry and his aides have said that if all goes well–which may be wishful thinking–the United States could start to draw down troops in Iraq next summer.) But what about that “global test” charge? Bush keeps saying that Kerry would give other nations a veto over US national security decisions, and Kerry has specifically said that he would not. Mehlman quickly hit his fallback position: “We need to look at [the global test remark] in the context of everything [Kerry] has said…and his 20-year record…A reasonable person would assume he would take an approach that is weaker and more defensive.”
Standing a few feet from Mehlman, Eskew claimed that Kerry has a “fetish for the UN.” An NPR reporter then pointed out that Kerry supported the military action in Kosovo, which was not okayed by the UN. “An exception,” Eskew huffed. And, the NPRer continued, Kerry voted to grant Bush the authority to use force in Iraq, which was not based on UN approval. “And he has continued to complain about it,” Eskew shot back. Don’t let facts interfere with good spin.
In response to the first question of the night, Kerry argued that Bush has not done all he could have on such crucial homeland security issues as port security, airliner cargo inspection, and funding for police and firefighters. Kerry did not hit the war in Iraq as hard as he might have. Tonight, he was the advocate of the middle-class, the fight-for-you guy. “The public got a real sense,” Kerry aide Joe Lockhart said after the debate, “that Bush does not sense what the middle class is going through.” Campaign adviser Bob Shrum noted, “On jobs, Bush gave excuses.” But do voters believe Kerry can do better? Up to now, the polls have not been that strong for Kerry on this front. “John Kerry,” Shrum said, “talks about being able to defend this country and to fight for people while the president sides with powerful special interests.” Shrum claimed that according to the campaign’s focus group–members of which registered their opinion of the debate as it happened–Bush’s answer to the question on the flu vaccine shortage was a “disaster.” Bush blamed the problem on a British company and suggested that younger and healthy Americans not get a flu shot. “Excuses and not much policy,” Shrum said.
After debates that were dominated by Iraq and the so-called war on terrorism, each campaign used the final side-by-side to prepare for the final 20 days. Without Iraq, this would be a classic Democrat-Republican confrontation: a crusader for the middle class versus the uncaring corporatist, or a hardworking tax-cutter against a profligate liberal. In this sort of match-up, Kerry–at least in the debate–seemed to have the advantage. But then there’s the war. Can Kerry stay on the I’m-fighting-for-you message? (Shrum noted that in this debate Kerry made a concerted effort to look into the camera in order to address people at home.) Or will events–or Bush attacks–force Kerry to respond to other issues, such as the war? Will Bush stick with his you’re-a-weak-liberal strategy? Is there still fire in that old chestnut? (Shades of 1988!) Can Bush escape becoming bogged down politically in Iraq? And if Bush continues to lash out at Kerry, will his unfavorable ratings keep rising?
All three debates appear to have put Kerry on even (or near-even) footing with Bush, a wartime president. The spinners from the different camps may disagree over who won the concluding debate. They have to; that’s their job. But they all were saying the contest is oh-so tight. (Be prepared for recounts in more than one state, some advised.) No side was claiming that it expected to see a large swing of voters to its candidate. Kerry pollster Mark Mellman said the “natural state” of the contest is 50-50. And (in public) Bush strategist Karl Rove agreed. After the debate, a reporter asked him, “How do you explain why this is a statistical dead heat?” Rove replied, “Because it’s a close race.”
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