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.
An exchange late in the debate on abortion characterized the stark contrast. Sarah Degenhart, one of the “soft” voters selected by the Gallup outfit to be the questioners at the debate, asked Kerry if he could tell abortion-rights opponents that their tax dollars would not be used to pay for abortions (say, for poor woman who rely on Medicaid). Kerry began by noting he respected Degenhart’s obvious antiabortion sentiments, and he explained that he even though he is a Catholic he believes he cannot impose his own “article on faith” upon others. Kerry discussed actions that could be taken to diminish the demand for abortion. And, finally answering the woman’s query, he said, “As a president, I have to represent all the people in the nation….You don’t deny a poor person the right to be able to have whatever the Constitution affords them if they can’t afford it otherwise.” Kerry did not duck the question, but he did answer it with plenty of context.
How did Bush counter? As soon as Kerry was done, Bush quipped, “I’m trying to decipher that.” As if there was something to decode. He then shot out, “My answer is, we’re not going to spend taxpayers’ money on abortion.” Next–playing to his base–he outlined his support for the ban on late-term abortions and legislation that would compel minors to gain the consent of a parent before being allowed to undergo an abortion. Kerry, he said, was against both measures. In response, Kerry explained that he would support a ban on late-term abortion if it included exceptions to protect the health and life of the mother and that he would back a parental notification measure if it permitted a minor to go to a judge, instead of a parent, in certain cases. “I’m not going to require a 16-or 17-year-old kid who’s been raped by her father and who’s pregnant to have to notify her father,” he explained, adding, “it’s never quite as simple as the president wants you to believe.”
Bush took issue with that: “Well, it’s pretty simple when they say: Are you for a ban on partial birth abortion? Yes or no?” Simple or not. That may be one way of summing up this race.
Concerning the so-called war on terrorism and the war in Iraq, Bush is the we’re-going-to-do-it candidate. Kerry is the let-me-explain-in-detail-what’s gone-wrong contender. The two continued their fight over all this, and Kerry continued to hold his own. The first question of the night was put to Kerry: did he have a response to people who claim he is “too wishy-washy.” Kerry immediately took the opportunity to defend himself and accuse Bush of having mislead the country:
The president didn’t find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, so he’s really turned his campaign into a weapon of mass deception. And the result is that you’ve been bombarded with advertisements suggesting that I’ve changed a position on this or that or the other.
Now, the three things they try to say I’ve changed position on are the Patriot Act; I haven’t. I support it. I just don’t like the way John Ashcroft has applied it, and we’re going to change a few things. The chairman of the Republican Party thinks we ought to change a few things.
No Child Left Behind Act, I voted for it. I support it. I support the goals. But the president has underfunded it by $28 billion. Right here in St. Louis, you’ve laid off 350 teachers. You’re…about $100 million shy of what you ought to be under the No Child Left Behind Act to help your education system here. So I complain about that. I’ve argued that we should fully funded it. The president says I’ve changed my mind. I haven’t changed my mind: I’m going to fully fund it.
Bush promoted his favorite talking point: Kerry has been inconsistent on Iraq–by voting for one version of the $87 billion appropriations bill that funded military operations in Iraq and then voting against another version, by calling Saddam Hussein a threat but then saying the war to remove him was a mistake. And such a waverer, Bush said, is not commander-in-chief material. Bush continued to justify his war in Iraq by citing Hussein as a “unique threat.” He maintained that Hussein was a danger because “he could give weapons of mass destruction to an organization like al Qaeda,” ignoring the recently-released Duelfer report, which concluded Hussein had no WMDs and no active WMD programs. Kerry explained once more that he had indeed considered Hussein a threat but that he would have allowed the inspections process to continue, would have attempted to form a larger multilateral alliance, would have planned more extensively for the aftermath before deciding to launch a war.
The Bush campaign has succeeded in making Kerry’s alleged flip-floppery an issue in the campaign, in this debate–as in the first–Kerry pushed back hard, defending his own stance and blasting Bush for blundering in Iraq. And in one of his best shots of the night, Kerry said to the crowd,
I believe the president made a huge mistake, a catastrophic mistake, not to live up to his own standard, which was: build a true global coalition, give the inspectors time to finish their job and go through the UN process to its end and go to war as a last resort.
I ask each of you just to look into your hearts, look into your guts. Gut-check time. Was this really going to war as a last resort? The president rushed our nation to war without a plan to win the peace.
And when Bush tried to rewrite history by claiming that the war was justified because the “sanctions were not working; the United Nations was not effective at removing Saddam Hussein,” Kerry sharply retorted,
The goal of the sanctions was not to remove Saddam Hussein, it was to remove the weapons of mass destruction. And, Mr. President, just yesterday the Duelfer report told you and the whole world they worked. He didn’t have weapons of mass destruction, Mr. President. That was the objective. And if we’d used smart diplomacy, we could have saved $200 billion and an invasion of Iraq. And right now, Osama bin Laden might be in jail or dead. That’s the war against terror.
Kerry delivered an even more vigorous critique of Bush’s decision to launch the war in Iraq than he did in the first debate. At times, this seemed to piss off Bush, and he did scowl. By relentlessly returning to the point that Bush rushed to war and did not plan adequately for the post-invasion period, Kerry placed his foe on the defensive–perhaps slightly more so than Bush was able to do to by accusing Kerry of being an unsteady and indecisive pol. But Kerry had fresh ammo: the Duelfer report. Bush was recycling the material he had already deployed numerous times. When Bush attacked Kerry for having denigrated the coalition in Iraq, declaring that “there are 30 countries there,” Kerry replied, “Mr. President, countries are leaving the coalition, not join. Eight countries have left it.”
Kerry did say too many times “I have a plan” for Iraq. He also told the crowd he had a plan for health care, for middle-class tax cuts, for education, and to create jobs. He probably has to do all this plan pitching–swing voters tend to say they want more information on what the candidates will do if elected–but repeating this claim so often, in all its variations, gave the I-have-a-plan line a hollow feel.
The two clashed on plenty of issues beyond the war. Kerry repeatedly assailed Bush for giving tax cuts to the wealthy and corporations like Enron rather than using the revenue to balance the budget or fund homeland security measures. Bush talked about the portions of his tax cuts that were applied to middle-class taxpayers but did not dwell on those provisions that benefited the well-to-do. He accused Kerry of having an undeclared plan to raise taxes on the middle class. IN response to a request from a questioner, Kerry looked straight into the television camera and vowed not to raise taxes on families earning less than $200,000 a year. He pointed to his decades-long support for balanced budgets. (He did break with his party in the mid-1980s to support a measure that would compel the federal government to balance its books.) Bush replied by exclaiming, “he’s just not credible…he’s just not credible.” Which was not all that “credible” an argument. Kerry criticized Bush’s jobs record. Bush claimed that in the past 13 months, 1.9 million jobs have been created–but that has been just enough jobs to keep up with population growth and not enough to make up for the jobs lost in the first years of the Bush II administration.
Bush maintained he has been “a good steward of the land” and cited his so-called Clean Skies initiatives. Kerry assailed Bush’s environmental policies and noted that that the official in charge of air quality enforcement at the EPA had resigned in protest. Kerry excoriated Bush for blocking the reimportation of drugs. Bush claimed–not so convincingly–that he was on the case. And Kerry seized this as another occasion to press his argument that he, far more than Bush, is on the side of the middle class:
The president blocked [the reimportation of drugs]….You know what he did? He made it illegal, illegal for Medicare to do what the [Veterans Administration] does, which is bulk purchase drugs so that you can lower the price and get them out to you lower. He put $139 billion of windfall profit into the pockets of the drug companies right out of your pockets. That’s the difference between us. The president sides with the power companies, the oil companies, the drug companies. And I’m fighting to let you get those drugs from Canada, and I’m fighting to let Medicare survive. I’m fighting for the middle class. That is the difference.
Bush tried to counter that Kerry had done nothing in all his years in the Senate regarding Medicare. Again, Kerry turned an attack into an opening:
Actually, Mr. President, in 1997 we fixed Medicare, and I was one of the people involved in it. We not only fixed Medicare and took it way out into the future, we did something that you don’t know how to do: We balanced the budget. And we paid down the debt of our nation for two years in a row, and we created 23 million new jobs at the same time. And it’s the president’s fiscal policies that have driven up the biggest deficits in American history. He’s added more debt to the debt of the United States in four years than all the way from George Washington to Ronald Reagan put together. Go figure.
Kerry threw out facts and figures to support his health care proposal. Bush replied by calling Kerry a “liberal.” This is the fallback position for the Bush campaign. (It worked well enough for Daddy Bush in 1988 against Michael Dukakis.) And, no doubt, Bush will ramp up his use of the l-word in the remaining weeks. Shortly after the debate ended, the Republican National Committee sent out a mass email noting that in 1991 Kerry had said, “I’m a liberal and proud of it.” During the debate, Kerry signaled how he will defend himself on this front: “The president is just trying to scare everybody here with throwing labels around. I mean, ‘compassionate conservative,’ what does that mean? Cutting 500,000 kids from after-school programs, cutting 365,000 kids from health care, running up the biggest deficits in American history. Mr. President, you’re batting 0 for 2.”
As for the misrepresentations, Bush committed the usual fabrications. Assailing Kerry on Iraq, Bush said, “He keeps talking about, ‘Let the inspectors do their job.’ It’s naive and dangerous to say that. That’s what the Duelfer report showed. [Hussein] was deceiving the inspectors.” But the Duelfer report did demonstrate that while Hussein had tried to deceive the inspectors, the inspections process and the sanctions had worked. Hussein’s WMD programs were moribund and in decay. Bush also said that his administration, in pursuit of Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, had succeeded in killing or capturing “75 percent of his people.” This was an overstatement. The US government has killed or snagged three-quarters of the two dozen known al Qaeda leaders as of September 11. But there could be up to 18,000 members of al Qaeda and the size of its leadership is not fully known. Bush made it seem that he had gotten rid of most of al Qaeda; unfortunately, that is probably not so. Bush claimed Kerry’s health care plan would establish a government-run health care system–which is not true. Defending the PATRIOT Act–and wrongly accusing Kerry of flip-flopping on it–Bush said, “Every action being taken against terrorists requires court order, requires scrutiny.” But the Patriot Act loosened restriction on the FBI’s use of what’s known as “national security letters,” an administrative subpoena that does not require judicial review. (Using such a letter, the FBI could secretly demand information from an Internet service provider about a subscriber. Last month a federal judge found this portion of the Patriot Act unconstitutional.)
Bush asserted that 900,000 small businesses would be taxed under Kerry’s plan. But according to IRS, most of the taxpayers Bush counts as small businesses are not actually small businesses. Bush was referring to “Subchapter S corps or limited partnerships,” but these “small businesses” can be wealthy individuals who own an interest–big or small–in a large business (say a partner at a law firm). Kerry cited a Wall Street Journal article that noted that 96 percent of actual small businesses would not be affected by his tax plan. Explaining this complicated point further, Kerry said, “And you know why [Bush] gets that [900,000 figure]? The president got $84 from a timber company [he partly owns]..and he’s counted as a small business. Dick Cheney’s counted as a small business.” Bush replied by cracking a joke: “I own a timber company? That’s news to me. Need some wood?” But as Factchek.org notes, Bush did qualify as “small business owner” under his definition of small businesses because he reported $84 in business income from his part ownership of a timber enterprise.
Kerry muffed a few facts. He once again claimed that General Eric Shinseki, the Army chief of staff, was relieved of his duties after he testified before Congress prior to the Iraq war and said that it would take hundreds of thousands of troops to secure Iraq. He was already scheduled for retirement at the time of his testimony. And CNN knocked Kerry for using a partial statistic for the number of jobs lost under Bush. But Bush’s whoppers were more extensive.
After reading of the transcript of the debate–which I just did at 2:00 am–I would say that Kerry scored many more points than Bush. But on stage, the fight looked close to even. That is not bad news for Kerry. If he appears as presidential as Bush, as firm in his beliefs as Bush, as committed to a strong foreign policy as Bush, he should remain within striking distance. There are still structural hurdles for Kerry to overcome. With the United States stuck in Iraq, do swing voters want a told-you-so detractor instead of a can-do, let’s-kick-some-butt-and-prevail protector (even if he’s the one who created the fiasco)? Does a fellow without a track record as commander in chief (but who proclaims he has a plan) beat a guy who declares over and over he’s decisive and steadfast?
This debate showed yet again that the electorate has a choice between two rather different men with rather different approaches to the problems and challenges at hand. The contest, in a way, is a Rorschach test for the nation. And figuring out the ending may not become any easier after Episode III next week.
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