I thought that Charles Gibson did a pretty good job of moderating Friday’s Bush-Kerry debate. My only complaint was the way he contrived to have the last question of the evening be Linda Grabel’s request that the president give three instances in which he came to realize he had made a wrong decision. The notion that Bush can’t admit a mistake is, of course, one of the Democrats’ major campaign riffs, and the Washington Post’s resident DNC mouth-piece E.J. Dionne uses Grabel’s question as the center-piece of his latest column. Dionne speculates that the question might even make Grabel famous.
The Dionne column makes it clear, however, that the question is phony. Bush answered it by stating that he had made some bad appointments. To the extent that he had people like Paul O’Neill in mind, that’s a pretty good answer. It didn’t satisfy Dionne (or Grabel, I suspect), but that’s because he’s not interested in what Bush thinks his three biggest mistakes are. Dionne simply wants to put Bush in the position where he must admit that the war in Iraq was a mistake or else give a different answer, any answer, so Dionne can argue that Bush refuses to acknowledge he made a mistake in Iraq even after no WMD were found. Dionne never explains why it was a mistake for Bush to act in accordance with the best intelligence our experts, and experts throughout Europe, could provide. Nor is he able to demonstrate that, even in the absence of WMD, the Iraqi action is detrimental to our interests, much less that Bush believes that it is detrimental, and is refusing to admit this due to some personality flaw.
More fundamentally, it is Kerry, not Bush, who has demonstrated an inability to adjust deeply held views in response to real world stimuli (other than short-term political developments). Bush often says that 9/11 changed everything. It certainly changed his foreign policy. By contrast, Kerry says that 9/11 had no real impact on his views except to convince that him was right to think the things he’d been thinking all along. As far as I can tell, these thoughts included the notion that money-laundering is bad, that diplomacy and multi-lateralism are good, that the U.S. should be less arrogant, and that, like North Korea, Iran and the terrorists, we should not develop nuclear weapon systems.
If President Bush is re-elected the best single explanation will be that he adapted his thinking in response to 9/11. If Bush is not re-elected it will be because the public concludes he made a major mistake in Iraq, not because he wouldn’t admit that he did.
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