Strength or weakness?
Published October 4, 2004

The first debate of the Presidential campaign season turned out to be a lot more interesting than anyone was expecting. Perhaps this was because, when the debate actually got rolling, the carefully structured, sometimes silly rules agreed on by both sides were thrown out the window—mostly—and the event continued with a much more frank and exciting exchange of views. By the time I finished watching, I felt confident that Kerry had come away the better of the exchange. That’s why I was surprised to read a lot of headlines this morning around the globe claiming otherwise.

Most news outlets said that the outcome was a tie, ultimately favoring neither candidate over the other. A few came down in favor of President Bush, but only some international outlets—the UK’s definitely-liberal Guardian amongst them—came down firmly on the side of Kerry, despite polls immediately afterwards showing that a wide margin of viewers gave the challenger the edge.

The words in favor of President Bush focused on his supposed strength, his convictions and his refusal to deviate from the course he has chosen. Bush himself harped on this theme again and again, repeating himself so often that I could have pressed the “mute” button and filled in his words without much chance of being wrong. What sort of message, the President asked, does it send to our troops and the world to say that Iraq was the “wrong war at the wrong place at the wrong time?”

Kerry’s response? If you’ve made a mistake, you don’t make it better by continuing along the same way; you change course and correct the problem. The Senator put forward a strong plan for progress, based on reinvigorating our alliances and sharing the load in Iraq. He stood firm on the need to continue our presence there, but on minimizing the Arab and Muslim impression of an American imperialist venture. With a deft touch, he also refuted the President’s accusations of flip-flopping, not that Bush seemed to notice; he kept saying the same thing over and over, as though repetition was a sign of strength.

The most disappointing moments for me came when Bush spoke—again and again—about how hard it was to be President. Is there anyone out there who’s surprised by that revelation? More disturbing was when Bush spoke about talking to a widow of a soldier killed in Iraq; his conclusion? It was really hard for him to talk to her, knowing that he was responsible for her husband’s death. It appears that the President is asking us to reelect him because we feel sorry for the tough times he’s been through. I’m afraid I don’t.

Kerry did not complain about nor mention the difficulties he would certainly face as President. He presented plans and ideas for his potential administration, backed up by facts. He aimed cogent and hard-hitting criticisms at the administration, also backed by facts, pointing out serious weaknesses in domestic security, including issues related to ports and chemical plants that President Bush has largely ignored, despite his big talk about making America safer.

How did the President respond? “I wake up every day thinking about how best to protect America. That's my job. I work with Director Mueller of the F.B.I. He comes into my office when I'm in Washington every morning talking about how to protect us. There's a lot of really good people working hard to do so. It's hard work.” I almost couldn’t believe my ears. This was the best answer the President could come up with: It’s my job. Of course it is! The issue is how that job is being done: poorly.

Perhaps most ironic, however, was when Bush accused Kerry’s plan of carrying with it a “huge tax gap,” and wondered how a future President Kerry would pay for all of his shiny new plans. The President begs the question, “How are you paying for this war and your other, massive spending?” The answer is that the Bush administration is not paying for any of it—they’re running up an enormous, record-breaking debt instead, while continuing to talk of unaffordable tax cuts.

At no time did Bush offer a solid plan for the future, or even a reasonable defense of his past policies. The main thrust of his argument was that he knows best, that questioning his leadership is tantamount to a betrayal of America, and that he will continuing driving forward, regardless of past mistakes, regardless of not having any clear goals for the future, and regardless of the damage that happens along the way.

As John Kerry said, “We can do better.”