I love presidential debates. It’s a shame we have to go four years between them because they are such fine theater. Despite attempts by the Bush team to control every aspect of the debate it turned out that the candidates came through in all their resplendent humanity. Unfortunately for George W. Bush the American people got to see the real Bush, not the stage-managed Bush. For Bush prior to last Thursday the 2004 Presidential Campaign meant reading from prepared scripts to partisan crowds meticulously screened to ensure zero dissent. The picture presented was fundamentally false as is almost everything else about George W. Bush.
But last Thursday we got to see the real W. And it was not a pretty sight. It turned out that the real Bush was peevish. Scowling. Haughty. Sneering. Aloof. Detached. He looked like a man getting a high colonic. And he conveyed all this without evening opening his mouth. When he did open his mouth he was rambling, repetitious, bumbling and at times wholly incoherent. I actually felt sorry for my Republican friends on Thursday night. I’d hate to have to try to sell swing voters on the virtues of George W. Bush based on this performance, viewed by 62.5 million Americans.
Not that Kerry had a perfect performance. He started out a bit rough but he improved as the debate progressed. While he took notes as Bush spoke Kerry wore a very slight but noticeable “cat that ate the canary” smile on this face. But I would have looked smug too. It would be hard not to smile while watching your opponent make such an utter ass of himself. But unlike Bush at least Kerry could put together a sentence with some nuance to it. This is a skill that Bush simply does not possess. About all Bush could say was “It’s hard work” ad nauseam. How would he know? Bush has never known hard work. Yet even if he had known hard work, what’s the point of hard work if it doesn’t achieve results? Of course it’s hard work to try to turn a flawed strategy into something viable. It’s hard work because you are going against inertia.
But even if Bush had the gift of glibness that night Kerry had one other weapon in his arsenal for which there was no adequate response: the Bush Record. I thought Dick Gephardt was being charitable when during the primaries he called Bush “a miserable failure”. All Kerry had to do was articulate his failures so those who had spent the last four years detached from politics could hear them. It wasn’t so much Kerry who was devastating to Bush. It was Truth: pure, unadulterated and unembellished truth plainly articulated that really turned the tide for Kerry. You cannot BS the truth.
Yes, Kerry had W metaphorically pinned right down on the mat. How can Bush possibly claim that Saddam was a threat to the United States when there was no evidence to support it? No weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq despite pre-invasion claims that Saddam was reconstituting weapons of mass destruction. It turned out that in spite of complete assurances to the contrary that there was no connection at all between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. We have nine thousand troops in Afghanistan where the enemy of 9/11 still lurks and 115,000 troops in Iraq, which holds no national security interest to our country whatsoever.
It was a brilliant stroke for Kerry to quote back Bush’s own father on the dangers of trying to take over Iraq. It was also brilliant to quote Bush’s own Secretary of State on the “Pottery Barn Rule”: You break it (Iraq), you own it. Every time Kerry uttered yet another simple but obvious truth about Bush’s inept war on terror the fog cleared a little. By the end of the debate it had lifted entirely and Bush was naked. We could see George W. Bush for who he truly is: a pretty pathetic, fraudulent and spineless guy high on rhetoric but short on accomplishments.
And it will not get any better for either Bush or Cheney. I have little doubt that John Edwards will clean Dick Cheney’s clock in tomorrow night’s debate. It is certainly advantageous that Edwards is an ex trial lawyer and a maestro at debating. But again it won’t take much for him to show the fraud that is Dick Cheney either. There are too many quotes out of Dick Cheney’s mouth to possibly take him seriously as an authority to be trusted. As the leader of the neoconservative wing of his party and arguably the real power behind the presidency he has nothing good to show for it. All of his assertions have proven completely wrong.
The Bush team can only hope that prejudice and hubris will win them this election. That’s all they’ve got: their committed base. But it’s not enough to win. There are more Democrats than Republicans in this country, and the Independent vote is going to skew toward Kerry. Although it is hard to see a month before the election, only the most improbable of events or the most inept last month of campaigning by Kerry and Edwards will keep John Kerry from the presidency.