Bush-Kerry II was a true-to-form middle episode of a yet-to-be-finished trilogy. In Episode I, the newcomer bested the holder of the throne. In the sequel, the humiliated leader fought back–but at the same time the challenger improved his chops and kept alive the threat to the established order. This all sets up next Wednesday’s debate–the final confrontation–as a potentially dramatic finale. Then again, the two might just pummel each other to a draw and disappoint those few remaining undecided voters who yearn for a climactic scene that will reveal the ultimate clue indicating who deserves their vote.
I don’t want to push the metaphor too far or dismiss the content of the debate. There was no clear winner in conventional terms at this substance-heavy, townhall-style debate at Washington University in St. Louis (though the first ABC News snapshot poll gave John Kerry a slight edge over George W. Bush, 44 to 41 percent). Bush performed better than he did in the first contest. He still smirked and knitted his brow, looking irritated (or aggrieved) when Kerry attacked, but he did so less than last time, and the television commentators did not even bother to comment on his face moves. At times, Bush was overly defensive. But perhaps to some in the audience that appeared a sign of decisive feistiness. He was more sharp-edged in his criticism of Kerry. For his part, Kerry maintained his forceful criticism of Bush–on Iraq, on jobs, on tax cuts, on health care–and repeatedly declared he has was a man of convictions. He continued to look (to many viewers, I assume) as an equal of Bush.
But–as even a good middle act cannot do–the debate did not resolve the conflicts shaping the dynamic of the race. Bush positioned himself as the more upbeat candidate. The economy, he declared, “is on the move” and overseas “freedom is on the march.” Kerry is the critic. He claimed America is in the midst of a “middle-class crisis” and that Bush had committed “a catastrophic mistake” by invading Iraq. This is a rather severe divide. And those mythical undecided voters are going to have to choose which side of this big fence they are on.
The second debate also reinforced a stylistic divide that is far from superficial. Kerry deployed facts to land blows on Bush. He came across as the prosecutor he once was. Bush relied more on meta-principles. His goal was to emphasize his I-know-what-I-believe quality, which he claims is essential to strong leadership. In fact, these two men are offering different methods of leadership. Kerry embraces–he embodies–rational analysis. Bush sells himself as a cut-to-the-chase guy.