Sunday, October 03, 2004

The Great Debate: The Day After

As both a political junkie and a concerned citizen who believes this is an extremely important election, I was eagerly looking forward to the first presidential debate, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Despite all of the talk about how the rules were going to turn the debate into little more than soundbites and rehashed stump speeches, it was probably the best presidential debate of my adult life. It was succinct, moderated brilliantly by Jim Lehrer, and largely substantive.

It’s hard to encapsulate all of the major foreign policy issues facing the United States in 90 minutes, but the candidates hit on the major themes and clear differences emerged.

Many media spin-doctors are busy claiming that there were no “knock-out blows” or “gotcha” moments, but I disagree. When President Bush slipped and said Saddam instead of Osama, I winced; was he starting to believe his own misleading statements linking 9/11 to Hussein? And when Kerry plainly stated that Saddam was not the person who attacked us, that it was Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, I almost felt sorry for the President when his rejoinder was, “First of all, of course I know Osama Bin Laden attacked us. I know that.” The President and his fellow Republicans have gone to great lengths to avoid saying Osama’s name, never once mentioning it in the four days of their convention, and to see our commander-in-chief on the defensive about who actually attacked us on 9/11 was a breakthrough moment for me because it was the first time the President was forced to make the distinction between 9/11 and Saddam Hussein. Also, when at the end of the debate Bush tried to play Moses and said “We've climbed the mighty mountain. I see the valley below, and it's a valley of peace” I cringed, knowing that this was directed at the right-wing evangelicals, many of whom believe the Bible is the literal “word of God” and that Armageddon is going to transpire during their lifetime. I wish this were an exaggeration but take a look at some of these polls:

Putting aside matters of style, specific exchanges, or even the candidates’ positions on the issues, the “take-away” message is that John Kerry is fit to be president. Polls consistently show that the majority of Americans not only disapprove of almost all aspects of Bush’s leadership and agenda, but that his overall approval ratings are below 50% (according to Zogby). Never in U.S. presidential history has an incumbent won with these kinds of numbers. The reason that such negative job performance hasn’t translated into a lead for Kerry (at least since the Republican convention) is that even though people are wary of Bush, most did not have a good feeling about Kerry and were inclined not to trust him. Much of this was due to the GOP’s relentless and highly effective attacks on Kerry’s character and Vietnam service; although Kerry’s inability to mount a concerted counter-attack was also to blame. In 90 minutes Friday night, Kerry went a long way toward turning back those attacks and presenting himself as a straight-talking, steadfast leader who has a clear vision of how to protect America. Even someone who doesn’t like Kerry, or doesn’t plan to vote for him, now has to admit that he looks like he could be president and that he passed this crucial test.

Overcoming this hurdle and standing before the American people as a potential credible commander-in-chief was his aim, and he succeeded without a doubt. There is still a long way to go before he can seal the deal with swing voters, but he has accomplished the most important thing, which is to show that he is a viable alternative to the current President.

The consensus the day after the debate is that Kerry won. Although Bush’s surrogate news agency, Fox, is trying their best to downplay it, even claiming Bush won, there is little doubt that the debate was a great victory for Kerry. If he ends up winning this election, people will look to his performance on September 30th as the defining moment that set the stage for his victory. Part of his success was due to his ability to admit his mistakes (the voting for the $87 billion before he voted against it) while at the same time contrasting them with Bush’s much larger errors in judgment regarding the Iraq conflict. In addition, when he admitted that he had opposed the Vietnam War even though many had strongly disagreed with his position, he showed the nation that he sticks to his convictions even when they’re unpopular.

Foreign policy was supposed to be Bush’s strength. This is why the Bush people insisted that the first, most-watched debate cover this area. It’s hard to imagine Bush looking forward to the remaining two debates. The next is going to be “town hall-style” in which the candidates field questions from the audience, and these sort of impromptu exchanges do not play to Bush’s strengths; this is why his team threatened to back out of this debate until very recently. The third and final presidential debate covers domestic issues, and here the country solidly favors Kerry’s positions over Bush’s. This will be an opportunity for Kerry to make strong points about Bush’s environmental record, the lost jobs, the deficit, the rising costs of health care, and all of those other themes that can largely be summarized under the famous heading, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”

We also have Edwards going toe-to-toe against Cheney this upcoming Tuesday, and many are predicting a one-sided victory in favor of the Southern senator. Dick Cheney is one of the most disliked and distrusted political figures in the country (for recent polls on the VP see I expect Edwards to utter the word “Halliburton” at least a dozen times.

All of this bodes well for the Kerry-Edwards team. In a speech to supporters in Florida on the afternoon following the debate Kerry said all of the right things and made it clear that he wasn’t going to get over-confident and that he would fight every day until November 2nd. Although the recent polls have been making my prediction of a Kerry electoral landslide look like wishful thinking, I stand by my belief that the Kerry ticket will ultimately prevail on election day.

That is, unless there’s an October surprise and Osama’s perp walk blankets the front pages and the TV screens.



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