Thursday, September 30, 2004
Debate Wrap: Kerry failed essential question on national security
Tonight's Presidential debate was arguably one of the best seen, often featuring two candidates with diametrically opposing positions. At other times Bush stood straight by his convictions while Kerry straddled into Olympic caliber linguistic contortions, explaining at one point, for example, how he simultaneously supports both multinational and bilateral negotiations with North Korea or that the war in Iraq was actually both a mistake and yet not a mistake in his actual answers to succeeding questions.
Kerry supporters were no doubt pleased that no problems arose from his pre-debate manicure and while the Senator's make-up experts went a little heavy with his lipstick they were still able to correct much of the damage from the weekend's tanning fiasco, leaving only warpaint like wide highlights from the escapade protruding on his jowels, no doubt adding visual emphasis to his still perpetuating & often nauseating iterative references to his 3 month combat experience in Vietnam.
A number of pundits noticed President Bush's apparent facial irritations in side-by-side shots, obviously annoyed over Kerry's repeated "misleading" charges, Halliburton moore-onics & not so subtle “war for oil” conspiracy weaving, amidst the other standard DNC smear themes. For his part, President Bush refrained from responding in kind and maintained a proper speaking demeanor throughout, even providing some over gratuitously polite compliments for Kerry, his service and family, when offered the opportunity by moderator Jim Leher.
Kerry's demeanor, however, can in no way be seen as likely to sway more than the more dedicated and venomous amongst his base. At one point in the debate Kerry even lied about his history of saying “Bush lied”, to which the RNC promptly put out references to his prior statement regarding accusations he's repeatedly made on the stump in September of 2003 and again to the Boston Globe in December, 2003. His side-screen lip smacking and repeated eye shifting time after time was often Nixon-esque in its slighty appearance.
In another somewhat ungraceful manner, Kerry also dismissed, without comment, the still angered vets he smeared, as would have truly been appropriate, when Leher posed a question in the context of his 1971 Senate testimony, when Kerry likened fellow US soldiers to the army of Ghengis Kahn. He failed to address that in any way and that will undoubtedly continue to fuel the passion of the SwiftVets and other Vietnam Veterans who remain opposed against Kerry. Nor did he ingratiate himself with respect to our allies when he declined to apologize in any way for his campaign’s disgraceful treatment to Iraqi interim Prime Minister Allawi nor any reconciliation offered for calling our allies the "coerced and the bribed".
But among the most telling moments in this debate, and truly a moment, I believe, is worthy of historical recognition alongside Gerald R. Ford's east-european communist gaffe in 1976, combined with Bernard Shaw's 1988 death penalty question & verdict for Mike Dukais, was John Kerry's response to the real question at the heart of the debate, near the end, when Leher asked, "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?".
This was one of the biggest softballs tossed to Kerry by an obviously friendly Leher during the debate and Kerry botched the answer badly. The single most serious threat to the United States, in a post 9/11 world, is obviously Al Qaeda and all the other sympathetic, shadowy middle eastern Islamic terrorist groups and their allies who are bent on civilization's destruction. The next level threats are those who work or align themselves with those same terrorists and harbor them, or provide them with WMD, the thrust of the Bush doctrine and the underlying basis for the policy of pre-emption.
Kerry's answer, however, pointing to remaining unsecured former Soviet nuclear material was a rather curious one, and seemingly revealed deeply rooted liberal flaws in the Senator's decades of ill-fated policy thinking, from Vietnam to Nicaragua, through the Nuclear Freeze in the midst of the cold war and seeking cuts of $6 billion after the first bombing of the World Trade Center.
The first peculiarity about Kerry's response was that it was focused on Russia and suggests Kerry has not emerged from pre-9/11 cold war thinking. Obviously the WMD efforts focused on Libya and the A.Q. Khan network are more relevant and critical to the ongoing war with Islamic fascism originating from the middle east and, ton for ton, dollar for dollar, I'd much rather have materials procured from those sources than Putin (who has his own hands full as answers to a later question suggested). In other words, let’s get the stuff off the hands of the middle eastern extremists like Ghadaffi first, while we continue working alongside the Russians.
The second peculiarity about Kerry's response was the degree to which it focused on the weapons rather than the terrorists themselves and was eerily reminiscent of the Senator's often extreme - while also flip/flopping - positions on crime & gun control. In debating those issues, Kerry's focus is often on the guns and not the criminals, or, tonight, lamenting the passing of Clinton’s “100K cops” falsity, a history he shares as the former Lt. Governor for former Mass. presidential nominee Mike Dukakis. He then went on to complain that the US is pursuing new ways to improve our bunker buster level bombing stopping just shy of "blame America first" in words if not in reaction. Bush was right to reaffirm the true ultimate threat is the combination of terrorists and WMD.
Overall, Bush played it cool and played it smart. He reiterated his main themes effectively and wove them into varying responses to any number of questions covering the related topics. Thus, it's likely assured, the main message from each candidate reached their intended audience, whether they watched the entire debate or, as I suspect, many tuned in for certain parts or segments before their attention was warranted elsewhere.
Representing those who were paying the closest attention to Senator Kerry's performance, Sr. Kerry campaign advisor Joe Lockhart was overheard by C-SPAN telling fellow Kerry aide & former Clintonista Mike McCurry, “The consensus is it was a draw”, indicating their DNC focus groups were unable to detect any noticeable shift in momentum or position for the Kerry side, unlike the Senator's statements, himself.
Thus, to gauge the potential affect from this debate, it's likely few, if any, while undoubtedly some, minds were indeed changed by the night’s events. Kerry undoubtedly helped himself with a worthy performance that can only serve to revitalize his base. Bush lost no ground and showed moments of candor that will likely prove helpful in his prospecting amongst those who make up the vital middle in American politics. Kerry's shifting, derogatory and anti-war posturing, however, will not likely play well amongst many of those who're still trying to ascertain what the Senator's real position is on Iraq.
Those voters, still on the fence, are not likely anti-war or Bush-hating candidates at heart, lest they'd be on the fence between Kerry & Nader, as the only likely swayed by Kerry's latest positioning, and thus interesting that such is the path, tact, attack & tactic which Kerry’s debate prep folks chose to present. It might suggest, along with some of the recent rallies targeted by Kerry’s campaign events of late, that Kerry is indeed focusing on sustaining his (liberal / anti-war) base – not a position a general election candidate should want to be relegated to at this point approaching a major presidential election.
Meanwhile those in the middle who are undoubtedly troubled by his perpetual waffling are not likely to approve his defiant denial tonight that he's even engaged in such absurdities, claiming "I've had one position, one consistent position" (on Iraq). Plus it's clear Kerry didn't really get the whole message from Clinton to drop the Vietnam theme since, while he dropped his helmet-tank-ride-esque goofy convention salute and silly “Reporting for Duty”, he still closed with his now long ago over-abused "I defended this country as a young man at war, and I will defend it as president of the United States."
I'm personally betting that Kerry did nothing tonight that would further endanger us with that chance while Bush maintained his composure and the integrity of the office he should continue to hold. The major gaffe over "global test" will haunt him the rest of the campaign.