Last night’s presidential debate was better than I expected. John Kerry and George Bush debated the substance of the War in Iraq. They laid out two contrasting visions of the world. I thought the discussion was meaningful and well focused. Bush argued that the war was the right war and that the invasion could not be delayed. Saddam Hussein would have been “tougher, stronger” had the US waited. Kerry lamented Bush’s lack of “patience”. Bush insisted that he made the right decision (“that’s what you do when you’re president”) and all we need is to be resolute. He distorted Kerry’s positions far more than Kerry did Bush’s. Kerry’s questions and reservations about the war came across as sincere and consistent.
John Kerry stood his ground and made a strong case for himself. Kerry was Bush’s equal throughout. He never wilted. He was resolute. Kerry stood up for his anti-war actions, placing them in the context of keeping faith with the troops, and reminded Americans that he has had a substantive career in the US Senate and his command of information and detail was far better than Bush’s. Kerry spoke boldly and firmly: No long term US designs on Iraq; No new bunker busting nuclear weapons. Bush talked about core values but those values added up to little more than “Trust me. I know. Don’t question me.” Kerry, on the other hand did not speak about core values directly; his ideas and words illustrated his values, much to his advantage.
Kerry sounded false only one time. He refused to call the war a mistake as he did in 1971 speaking about Vietnam, although “mistake” was the logic of everything he had about Iraqup to that point. Instead of insisting that Iraq isn’t a mistake, Kerry should have said something like, “If we don’t get our act together, it may well be a mistake and if it is, another generation of veterans will be asking ‘Why?’ I know what that’s like”. As it was he stammered bit and didn’t sound convincing. The moment passed bit Kerry missed one of his best opportunities for a knockout punch. Will Saletan addresses this very well in Slate.com.
But the question of the war’s value and purpose was clearly in play. Bush said that a commander-in-chief who cannot say “wrong war, wrong place, wrong time” and retain any credibility with the troops. “What would they say?” he asked. Well, Mister President, the troops would say “We’re screwed” which is what they are saying now. They already know the real story. I think they would welcome a commander-in-chief who has a handle on reality. I think they would welcome a commander-in-chief who understands what is happening to them at the end of the “pipeline”. I know I would have welcomed that kind of honest leadership when I was in Vietnam during 1971. As it was, the only ones speaking the truth then were John Kerry and his fellow Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
Bush definitely looked under attack. He gripped the podium often and at times seemed to be ducking behind it. He paused and stammered often as he collected his thoughts. His uncertainty was especially apparent on nuclear proliferation as he tried to recall his administration’s policies and accomplishments in that area. It was clear that nuclear proliferation is not a subject that he spends much time thinking about. But despite his poor performance, Bush did not wilt. He stood his ground, although less convincingly, I thought, than Kerry. Where Kerry was articulate and thoughtful, Bush often fell back to his stump speech buzzwords: “offense”, “mixed messages”, “resolve”, “hard work”.
The debate presented two very different pictures of America in the world. Bush promised to lead America on “offense”, a word he used often. Bush’s America acts on its own for its own purposes, regardless of what the world thinks. Kerry offered a vision of America working with and through other nations, not relinquishing the option to take strong action when needed but recognizing that world opinion does count, especially when the issue is preemptive attacks. Bush dismissed the idea of a “global test” which he described as merely an attempt to court favor.
Kerry also looked and sounded very strong on nuclear proliferation as the most serious threat facing this nation and the world. Jim Leher barely finished his question before Kerry responded and began listing the danger of weapons grade materials loose in the world and the failures of the Bush administration to effectively control nuclear materials. Bush was left, not quite speechless, but certainly at a loss for words. His answer was “me too” but without a lot to show he means it.
The debate was significant for me because it demonstrated why John Kerry better represents my values and the kind of world I want my generation to pass on the future. He spoke America as part of a world community. He rejected any long term designs on Iraqi territory or resources. And he highlighted the hypocrisy of the US seeking to reduce weapons of mass destruction even as we develop a new generation of nuclear weapons. The debate was clearly the most substantive that I can recall. I wonder how Vietnam would have turned out had such a debate occurred in 1968 or 1972.
Kerry was clearly at his best last night. He’s back in the game but it’s far from over.