Second Thots

Sometimes one has to step back, take pause, and have some "second thots"

Thursday, September 30, 2004


Something a debate might finally do?

Political debates are like cotton candy to political watchers. It's one of the few times other people pay attention to something we pay attention to all the time. So we tend to relish every bite before the whole thing seemingly vanishes into thin air.

And there is nothing like the American presidential debates. The most important job in the world. Everyone is watching. It's one on one (Sorry, Messrs. Perot and Nader). There's a rich history going back to the famous Kennedy/Nixon landmark event in 1960. The Americans sure now how to put on a show. And, in politics, there's usually no greater show than the debates.

My mouth watering over the idea of discussing these events, there were different aspects of the debates I wanted to focus on. However, as I was pouring over all the different analyses in the media, and all the varying spins in the campaign war rooms, I was struck by a lightning bolt of clarity as to what might well be the most important thing to look for in these debates.

Yes, people will look for who they want to have a beer with. Yes, people will look for who makes the best overall impression on them as the two candidates jockey for a message and a persona that resonates with the voters.

But try to think of what the most unresolved issue is going into these three debates starting Thursday. Is it Iraq? Is it the economy? Is it John Kerry's flip-flopping? Is it George Bush's credibility? Well, actually, it's all of the above. The one strand connecting almost every point of dispute in this campaign is the one thing people will leave no stone unturned in search of. That's right. It's the truth. There are lots of things being said about almost everything in this hotly contested presidential race. The man who does a better job of sifting through fact from fiction might be the one who comes out of these crucibles one step ahead.

Here is a list of five general assertions being made in this campaign, as well as an assessment of each of them. The candidate who ends up with the most checks on their side of each issue might end up with the most votes on November 2nd. Thursday's debate is on foreign policy. So I'll stick to that topic in the following list:

1. George Bush lied about going to war. Indeed, no other single reality other than that of the missing WMD gives life to the accusation that President Bush's credibility disqualifies him as a trusted war-time president. His critics have even accused him of outright lying. John Kerry himself has claimed that the President misled America into war.

In fact, the danger here lies with Kerry and provides Bush with perhaps his greatest opportunity to grab hold of the facts. Kerry can try to hold Bush responsible for the missing WMD. That's a far cry from calling him a liar. Many quotes have already been made public on this matter. All Bush has to do is defend himself against these in order to take the high road on the truth. He also has historical facts to back him up, such as statements made by the Clinton administration, and John Kerry himself about Saddam's WMD threat to the rest of the world. It's easy to make accusations. It's harder to do so with the guy you're accusing standing right across from you.

2. John Kerry is a flip-flopper. Indeed, no other single perception other than that of taking all sides of an issue gives life to the accusation that John Kerry's credibility disqualifies him as a trusted war-time president. This was a major theme at the convention staged by the Republican Party. It's also the focus of Bush's ad campaign against Kerry. George Bush believes John Kerry is like a windsurfer blowing in the wind. Back and forth and back and forth. Kerry needs to defend himself against such characterizations.

And, again, the danger here lies with Kerry. It will be difficult for him to give an explanation on his views on Iraq without sounding as though he's flip-flopping again. He might try to throw the accusation back in Bush's direction, pointing out areas where the President has been inconsistent or has changed his mind. And Bush is not a pin-point communicator of precise ideas. Kerry might be able to float things out there without Bush being able to reply specifically. Kerry might also use the line that he, in fact, has been consistent all along. It's the President's policies that have made a mess of things. But I don't know if voters will buy it. So, Kerry will probably try and change the focus in order to try and avoid this specific charge against him. He might get lucky if Bush and/or the moderators can't pin him down on anything specific. The paper trail is thick, however.

3. The progress of the war in Iraq. John Kerry has made this a focus of the campaign. He has made the gamble that by portraying Iraq as a quagmire he can convince undecideds that a new direction is needed. He even brought Iraqi Prime Minister Allawi into the scrap by accusing him too of not seeing things for what they are in his own country. So, presumably, if Iraq is going in the wrong direction, Kerry wins. If it's headed for something more positive, Bush wins.

On this item, George Bush has his own paper trail to deal with, as well as the pummeling he's been getting in the news coverage for the better part of this entire year. There is the CIA assessment that warns of civil war as a distinct possibility. There is the spectacle of some prominent Republican Senators asking the President for a more realistic depiction of what's going on on the ground in Iraq. Prime Minister Allawi forcefully rebutted some of the naysaying floating around in political circles. So did Colin Powell - sort of. Therefore, Kerry might get the cynics, Bush might get the optimists. The problem for Bush, however, is that there isn't much optimism surrounding the war at the moment. He might try to change that. He might also risk coming across as the newest citizen of the dream-world the Democrats keep saying he's living in.

However, there is another factor at play regarding the status of the war which Kerry has to be very careful about. Which is why this tactic of his comes with so many risks. Yes, the war doesn't look good. But that is a far cry from it being the disaster so many on the left want it to be. He is trying to balance the need to offer an alternative vision to American voters while also telling them that things will work out for the better if he becomes president. If Bush risks being perceived as a crazy optimist, the risk for Kerry may be even graver. He might be perceived as someone who will send mixed signals in order to score political points, which falls right into the not-to-be-trusted flip-flopper image all over again. In an area where one would think Bush has the disadvantage, Kerry's 'you can have it both ways' routine might backfire on him once again.

4. America is safer today than it was on 9/11. The American people will always go back to 9/11. It's what this election is ultimately about. And they will get two conflicting versions of how America and the world is doing on the war on terrorism.

George Bush, of course, will argue that the world is safer. He will argue that the terrorists are in Iraq and not in New York. He will argue that Iraq is and has always been a part of the war on terrorism. He will argue that American needs to act swiftly against all threats as a show of strength in the world. He will argue that America can't afford to back away from a fight. He will argue that he is leading the country towards victory in the war on terror, despite some of the costs involved in achieving that victory. And I know I would like to see him argue that America is safer because it hasn't been attacked since 9/11.

John Kerry, on the other hand, has decided to make the exact opposite argument. And it's quite understandable given his need to offer an alternative to the current situation in which Americans find themselves. He will argue that Iraq has created more terrorists - in Iraq and everywhere else. He will argue that Iraq is a distraction from the war on terror and is now only part of the terrorism picture because Bush has screwed things up so badly. He will argue that Bush's rash actions have needlessly alienated allies and provided ammunition for the terrorists. He will argue that a new approach is vital to restoring America's good name in the world. He will argue that victory can only be achieved by doing things differently. He will ignore the fact that America has not been hit since 9/11, perhaps suggesting it will be hit again because of Bush's reckless policies.

Two different visions of what safety for America is. Many different voters out there. The intricacies of the arguments means different people will be swayed in different directions. So, on this specific argument, the candidate who actually makes the better case, comes across as the most sincere, and offers appeals and evidence to back up their positions can hope for the better score. For this one, there is no favorite. I'll actually have to watch in order to see who fares better. Can you imagine that?

5. I was going to leave it at that, but I do think there is one more assertion to be examined, which is this: we are better off without Saddam Hussein in charge of Iraq. We know what Bush's answer is. Kerry's answers might give him some problems once again. His fall-back position is the focus on the mess on the ground over there right now. But will he take his pessimism to the extreme and suggest, as he already has, that Iraq would be better off with a 'contained' Saddam rather than an non-contained insurgency occurring without a foreseeable end in sight? This is quite an argument for him to make in front of such an important audience at such an important time in the campaign. And what does it say about his intentions if he were to become president? Can a man who now says Saddam was wrongly ousted lead the charge towards democracy in the country the tyrant once brutalized? I don't think so. Which means Kerry will keep sending enough mixed signals in the hope that the doubt they sow will carry him to the White House. Bush will try his best to offer clarity in the push to keep Kerry out and keep himself in. I don't think I want to be Kerry at this time. We'll see how good he is at these kinds of debates.

Let the show begin. Pass the cotton candy.

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