Back in the game

I’ve taken more than an hour to try to talk myself out of concluding that John Kerry won tonight’s debate. I haven’t succeeded. Senator Kerry, I think, edged President Bush on substance and, surprisingly, looked better throughout. Bush didn’t do badly. He committed no gaffes and spoke compellingly at times. He also landed some great shots, especially when he wondered how Kerry was going to get allies to join “the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time.” But Kerry was usually the aggressor without being too offensive, and he had more to say. Bush tended to repeat himself but, oddly, didn’t repeat some of his best material, such as Kerry’s vote against the $87 million.
I understand that the Bush campaign wanted to debate foreign policy first on the theory that this was the candidate’s strength, and that people would watch only this debate. I don’t think it worked out that way. Kerry gained ground in his weakest area and I think people will want to see at least one more debate. However, the sequencing may still help Bush. Tonight Kerry may have taken a real step towards convincing people that he can lead the war on terror and, possibly, even the war in Iraq. However, the Bush campaign has plenty of time to remind voters of Kerry’s record and especially of his flip-flops. Once the glow of this debate fades, I think people will return to their core conviction that Bush is the stronger leader and, as I will discuss shortly, there was much just below the surface of what Kerry said that supports that conviction. However, Bush must hold his own in the next two debates, and the domestic policy debate, in particular, could be a challenge for him.
The key for Kerry tonight was to hide his long history of opposition to a strong, proactive defense. I think he did a pretty good job of this. However, there were tell-tale signs. His basic theme was that we should not have attacked Iraq without more allies. He couched this in terms of working longer and waiting longer to enlist allies. At best, however, he was walking a fine line, and one that didn’t make him look like a decisive leader. Worse, Kerry referred a few times to the need to enlist more Arab help and to convince Arabs that we don’t have designs on Iraq. I question how this will “play in Peoria.”
Usually, candidates tend to reveal their true colors towards the end of a long debate. Tonight, Kerry did so at least three times. First, when asked to identify the most serious threat we face, he said it was nuclear proliferation, not terrorism. And he mentioned that he wrote a book about the subject, pre-9/11. This illustrates how, deep down, Kerry filters the war against terrorism through his lifelong “no nukes” leftist prism. Unfortunately, Bush didn’t do much better in his response to the same question, broadening Kerry’s answer to include all WMD in the hands of terrorists but not mentioning Islamofascism or Jihad. Kerry, who probably sensed his error, quickly endorsed Bush’s view, with an assist from Jim Lehrer (who tossed Kerry more softballs than a batter practice pitcher at a church picnic). But soon thereafter, Kerry committed a more acute version of the same error when he argued that we were sending “mixed messages” by developing new nuclear weapons of our own, while talking about how to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists. This was leftist “moral equivalence” at its worse, but again the president didn’t call him on it. Finally, let’s not forget Kerry’s insistence on passing the global test, and his claim that in order to regain the world’s respect we have “a lot of earning back to do.” If the debate had lasted another half hour, Kerry might have been speaking French. There, I’ve almost talked myself into thinking that Kerry didn’t win.
So what bounce, if any, does Kerry get? I have to think he’ll get some. Whether he gets a lot may depend on how much credibility he had left going into the debate. Kerry’s basic pitch was that he’ll do better on every front — kill more bad guys, win us more friends, win in Iraq through more effective training, etc. He sounded good saying this, but will swing voters believe these promises? To persuade them that they should, he referred several times to his service in Vietnam. But how much credibility does this give him, in light of the Swiftvet campaign? He kept saying he had only one position on Iraq, and Bush wasn’t terribly effective in showing otherwise. But has the prior work of the Bush campaign already established this conclusively?
We’ll have a good idea what the answers are after a few nerve-wracking days. My sense is that we have a horse race again.

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