Up until Thursday night, when John Kerry and George W. Bush met in debate at Coral Gables, the race for president had settled down, in one particular way, to a contest between Hemingway and Faulkner. Bush spoke in a fairly sparse prose, garbled, to be sure, but nothing hifalutin about it. Kerry was prolix, discursive and digressive. Imagine, for a moment, a stump speech by the Sage of Yoknapatawpha: Kerry at his worst wasn’t quite that ridiculous, but at times he seemed to aspire to a senatorial Faulknerese.
Not so in the first debate. Kerry remade himself — axing the adverbs, dropping his dependence on dependent clauses. What the nation saw was not the John Kerry of the Senate but Assistant D.A. Kerry pursuing his quarry in a withering cross-examination. And not a millisecond too soon.
John Kerry put himself back in the game, though I never thought he was so far down as a casual reading of some polls could lead you to think. First, as Guy Molyneux, vice president of the Peter Hart polling firm, has demonstrated, incumbent presidents seeking a second term never end up with more votes than their final polling numbers. A poll showing Bush leading Kerry by a 48 percent–to–45 percent margin, accordingly, is highly likely to mean that Bush will end up with 48 percent of the vote, with the undecideds breaking to Kerry.
Second, the voter registration numbers from swing states make clear that the Democrats have far outperformed the Republicans in signing up new voters. In Ohio, for instance, the Democrats and their independent but ancillary support groups have signed up roughly 450,000 new voters — chiefly African-Americans and single women — in a state of 12 million.
But Kerry still had to deliver in the debates if the field program was to pay off. And on Thursday, for the first time since the New Hampshire primary, the Kerry who’d defeated Bill Weld finally showed up. In clear declarative sentences — none of that fancy-talking Massachusetts man Thursday — he showed a command of facts and strategic implications that was far beyond Bush’s. He hammered home the absurdity of fighting terror by going after Saddam instead of Osama, and the nearly criminal negligence of sending soldiers into Iraq with no plan or capacity for dealing with Iraq on the day after Saddam fell — or any day since.
If Kerry had spent the months before the debate locked in a self-created prison of gratuitous complexity, Bush had sequestered himself in a world devoid of critics. Discouraging words are seldom if ever heard within the Bush cocoon. Aides willing to acknowledge reality — economic adviser Lawrence Lindsay, Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki — are cashiered. Only true-blue supporters are allowed into Bush’s rallies.
And it turns out that total insulation from critics is no way to do debate-prep. Bush was visibly angry and surprisingly defensive during the debate — the very image of John Powers’ sore winner. He seemed surprised that Kerry would accuse him of massive misdirection in going after Saddam rather than Osama as his way of responding to the terrorist threat; he felt compelled to assert that he knew it was Bin Laden who attacked us on 9/11. But why on earth did this line of attack so stun him? What does he think his critics have been saying for the past two years? It’s almost enough to make you believe his claim — in a moment of characteristic provincial bravado — that he doesn’t read the papers.
Bush was not without good arguments. His question to Kerry as to how he could persuade the powers of Old Europe to come into a war that Kerry has described as wrong was a good one, and Kerry didn’t really answer it. Kerry is endeavoring to show at the same time both resolve and the flexibility to get out, which is no little trick. And yet, he just about brought it off, stating that there were limits to our presence in Iraq. Besides, Bush is stuck implicitly defending the position that our presence in Iraq is essentially open-ended, and that’s not exactly a sure-fire winner come Election Day.
Above all, Kerry changed the focus of the national discussion from his own ostensible character flaws to the daily disaster that is Iraq, and the president’s responsibility for same. If that shift in the discourse takes hold — and we can be sure that the Republicans and their media goons will try to reverse it — then Bush is in major trouble. His record is the one thing he can’t let voters contemplate.
Besides, if a person had never seen Bush or Kerry before this debate, he or she would have surely concluded that the guy who needed to work on his character was that Bush fella. Snapping, blinking and seething under fire are not exactly presidential attributes, and if Bush directs any of that at the questioners in the audience in the upcoming Town Hall debate, he will truly seem out of control. Worse yet, the final debate is on domestic affairs — an area in which Bush’s record is the fattest of hanging curve balls, and where his policies come down to making individuals, rather than employers or the government, pick up the tab for their health expenses and college tuition. (Bush calls this the “ownership society,” though the ownership will be out of reach for most of his countrymen.) If this debate is any indication, Kerry will clobber Bush in the final debate.
It may be that the most important effect of this debate is to quell what was the growing panic in Democratic ranks. Since August, Democrats have been outraged and depressed by the success the Republicans have had at creating a fictional John Kerry and persuading Americans that this nightmarish figment posed a threat to the nation. But Kerry is not Michael Dukakis; on Thursday, he reclaimed his identity and changed the subject of the election back to the condition of the nation and the world. That wasn’t Al Gore you heard sighing Thursday; it was the Democrats, filled with relief.