Watching the debate with our Northern Alliance colleagues amid the raucous crowd of Bush supporters gathered at the downtown Minneapolis Hilton last night was probably not the best place to evaluate the candidates’ performances. President Bush elicited full-throated screams and applause in response to his best lines, while Senator Kerry provoked boisterous responses. I could barely hear the music; it was like trying to make out the lyrics at a Beatles concert in 1964.
I was struck by Kerry’s two overriding themes last night: 1.6 million jobs have been lost under President Bush, and the Bush tax cuts unfairly reduced taxes on the top 1 percent of income earners. Kerry’s point on job loss ignores every relevant fact, including job growth since the Bush tax cuts became effective. Preeminently (to my mind), Kerry’s point on job loss under the Bush administration ignores the devastating economic impact of 9/11. In that sense Kerry’s point is of a piece with Kerry’s critique of the Bush foreign policy and avowed goal of defeating terrorism — 9/10 all the way.
Kerry’s point on the Bush tax cuts ignores the fact that the top 1 percent of income earners pay approximately 30 percent of all income taxes. It would be nice to know what Kerry thinks the fair share of taxes paid by the top 1 percent should be. In any event, Kerry’s refrain regarding the top 1 percent hit the traditional Democratic theme of class envy. Is it a winner? I hope not.
Kerry’s recourse to unstated “plans” in answer to so many questions might be considered a theme by itself. When Kerry refers to his plans, I think of the classic example of the palindrome (words that read the same forward as backward) inspired by Theodore Roosevelt: A man, a plan, a canal — Panama. Kerry, however, is not exactly a (Theodore) Rooseveltian figure. He would undoubtedly fault Roosevelt for the unilateralism of his famous demand “Pedicaris alive or Raisuli dead.”
Kerry’s “plans” are a parody of democratic pandering: all things good at no cost, at least no cost to you. They recall the Band’s vision of paradise in “Up On Cripple Creek”: “A drunkard’s dream if I ever did see one.”
Kerry’s visible discomfort with the questions regarding homosexuality (and marriage), the Church (and abortion), and the relation of religion to politics were perhaps most telling. The one thing we learned with certainty from Kerry’s responses was that Dick Cheney has a lesbian daughter. Kerry’s vicious hypocrisy seems to suggest that the Democratic side of the culture war cannot be sustained if forced to show its hand. We shall see.
President Bush ably struck his own themes of fostering economic growth through reduced taxation and expanding freedom through ownership. On the other hand, Bush’s usual response to the most cutting of Kerry’s criticisms was his citation of the growth of federal spending in the areas under discussion. “Compassionate conservatism” seems to lack much principled ground on which to resist the demands made by Democratic advocates of the welfare state.
But among the points made by President Bush last night were those we had most wanted to hear him make on his own behalf in the face of Kerry’s efforts to square the circle presented by his public record, primarily Kerry’s 1990 vote against the Gulf War. Which of Kerry’s purported criteria for American military action did the Gulf War fail to meet? So far as I am aware, he has yet to be pressed on the question and we have yet to hear an answer.
My impression of Kerry was how synthetic he is; when he humorously acknowledged that he’d married up, I thought to myself that he’d married up not once, but twice. Where is Henry James now that we need him? Compared to President Bush’s relative ease and spontaneity, Kerry seemed almost Nixonian in his gesticulations and oddly robotic. I can’t reconcile what I saw and heard with the poll results that judge Kerry to have prevailed last night.
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