Saturday, October 02, 2004

The first debate

Look, the victor trails blood!

The undecided voters have a pretty clear choice between the two candidates. The visions on both sides were well stated, but many Bush pundits were disappointed because they expected Bush to deliver some deathblows to Kerry. In contrast, Kerry supporters were very happy that Kerry not only survived, but kept his cool and came about as close as he has come to planting his feet into something resembling a stance. The problem, though, for Kerry is that his stance is near the Howard Dean position. That’s about the same as ceding national security as an issue altogether. For a candidate that has concluded that the main issue is the war, what does he have left?

Kerry suffered some deep cuts from the debate. Both candidates headed back to the campaign trail. Kerry has some momentum and has temporarily pacified his base. But he doesn’t have much in the way of new ammunition to use against Bush. Meanwhile, he gave the president a couple of talking points that will haunt him for the next month:

KERRY: [referring to the decision to use force] But if and when you do it, Jim, you have to do it in a way that passes the test, that passes the global test where your countrymen, your people understand fully why you're doing what you're doing and you can prove to the world that you did it for legitimate reasons.

The global test…no matter how he wants to explain this, it’s a loser for the general electorate, though it doubtless shored up his base. It is consistent with his root message of allowing more time for the inspections and building the coalition. Nevermind how unrealistic that is.

KERRY: Right now the president is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to research bunker-busting nuclear weapons. The United States is pursuing a new set of nuclear weapons. It doesn't make sense. You talk about mixed messages. We're telling other people, "You can't have nuclear weapons," but we're pursuing a new nuclear weapon that we might even contemplate using. Not this president. I'm going to shut that program down, and we're going to make it clear to the world we're serious about containing nuclear proliferation.

Again, his core will agree to this, but the rest of us are scared stiff. What doesn’t make sense? Afghanistan showed a need and a use for bunker busting nukes. What happened to promising that our forces would be the best equipped in the world?

The exchange that led up to this point was also telling:

LEHRER: If you are elected president, what will you take to that office thinking is the single most serious threat to the national security to the United States?

Nuclear proliferation. Nuclear proliferation. There's some 600-plus tons of unsecured material still in the former Soviet Union and Russia. At the rate that the president is currently securing it, it'll take 13 years to get it…

BUSH: I agree with my opponent that the biggest threat facing this country is weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a terrorist network…

When asked to clarify, the difference became more apparent:

LEHRER: Just for this one-minute discussion here, just for whatever seconds it takes: So it's correct to say, that if somebody is listening to this, that both of you agree, if you're reelected, Mr. President, and if you are elected, the single most serious threat you believe, both of you believe, is nuclear proliferation?

BUSH: In the hands of a terrorist enemy.

KERRY: Weapons of mass destruction, nuclear proliferation.

So Bush is primarily concerned about keeping WMDs from the hands of terrorists. Kerry believes in eliminating the weapons so they will not be available to terrorists. Kerry thinks we should lead the way in disarming and voluntarily stop developing our own programs. Bush believes in maintaining an edge in nuclear forces while dealing with the terrorists. Kerry seems partial to a cold war stance, a few decades late.

Bush started the debate pretty strongly, but after about 30 minutes he had pretty much said what he had to say. He probably should have expanded his arguments. His circling attacks about Kerry dismissing the contributions of our allies and his mixed messages no doubt nauseated some, but those charges are going to stick to Kerry in a way that Kerry hasn’t been able to get anything to stick to Bush. Stubborness? Please. Most American’s I know pride themselves on being seen as stubborn. That’s not a trait you want lacking in your wartime president.

Kerry had to contort more awkwardly when changing from Iraq to N. Korea. When Kerry said he wanted both bilateral and 6-party talks, Bush nailed him:

BUSH: The minute we have bilateral talks, the six-party talks will unwind. That's exactly what Kim Jong Il wants.

There’s no real contradiction when Bush defends going into Iraq without France or Germany and then insists that we need six way talks including strong Chinese involvement, to deal with N. Korea. Kerry needed to show some innovative way in dealing with N. Korea that was better than what the Bush administration has. He didn’t do that.

On Iran, Kerry also showed weakness:

KERRY: I think the United States should have offered the opportunity to provide the nuclear fuel, test them, see whether or not they were actually looking for it for peaceful purposes. If they weren't willing to work a deal, then we could have put sanctions together. The president did nothing.

BUSH: … my opponent said where he worked to put sanctions on Iran -- we've already sanctioned Iran. We can't sanction them any more. There are sanctions in place on Iran.

Again, no preferrable option was offered. In fact, Kerry's plan is to provide nuclear fuel to the Iranians.

Kerry also seemed hazy on some stray facts (one of the few consistencies in his campaign):

KERRY:… And smart means not diverting your attention from the real war on terror in Afghanistan against Osama bin Laden and taking if off to Iraq where the 9/11 Commission confirms there was no connection to 9/11 itself and Saddam Hussein, and where the reason for going to war was weapons of mass destruction, not the removal of Saddam Hussein.

Bless his heart, he tried to be more accurate by specifying 9/11 instead of al Qaeda, but the statement is still untrue. The 9/11 Commission never confirmed there was no connection, it simply said the had no evidence to suggest direct connections. Also, there were more reasons than one for going to war with Iraq. The removal of Saddam was one of them.

Kerry later let his guard down regarding the distinction between Al Qaida and9/11:

Kerry: But what he has said is that, even knowing there were no weapons of mass destruction, even knowing there was no imminent threat, even knowing there was no connection with Al Qaida, he would still have done everything the same way. Those are his words.

No wonder Bush looks so annoyed in those reaction shots. What outlandish accusations. No imminent threat? That again? Bush never said Iraq was an imminent threat. We know Saddam had weapons programs that he wanted to resume. We know there was a connection between Al Qaida and Saddam. The nature of that connection can be argued over, but there was a connection. But how does Kerry characterize such a disingenuous remark:

So what I'm trying to do is just talk the truth to the American people and to the world.

That’s right, just talk the truth, keep it real! For the next month, Bush will be able to hammer Kerry on “global tests”, bunker busters and bilateral talks with N. Korea. Aside from a clever DNC video of Bush’s facial expressions, Kerry came away with nothing substantive from the debates.

Kerry may be happy now, but that's because he doesn't realize he's bleeding.


Dude said...

From the For What It's Worth Department: Bush's lead in the polls disappeared after his debate appearance.

mat said...

my friend said it best: "bush got served." kerry had him on the ropes the entire time. but aside from the sport of debate, kerry came across as solid for the american people.

i'm tired of my president trying to instill fear in me. i think i comprehend the threat of terrorists and it seems kerry understands that threat as well--especially on the nuclear materials issue.

my favorite part of the debate--from kerry: "But this issue of certainty. It's one thing to be certain, but you can be certain and be wrong."

bush's certainty about terrorists has spilled over in areas where certainty is a liability. he has painted himself into a corner. maxed missages are par for the course in a democratic society. may the best, most efficient, most effective idea win.