The third and final presidential debate will be over by the time this column appears in print, so my apologies if it is overtaken by events.

If so, it would be a fitting metaphor for what has become of the final stretch of this presidential race. For this is not really a race between John Kerry and George W. Bush.

Instead it’s a race against time to see if scores of millions of dollars in Republican propaganda will destroy all public confidence in John Kerry before the news flow of real world events devours George W. Bush (barring his own self-destruction in the final debate).

Kerry has provided virtually no reason to back him other than that he is a more rational replacement for the incumbent.

The incumbent, for his part, is quickly losing any rationale for re-election. Just to rehearse the obvious: We now have his own Iraq Study Group reporting that not only was Saddam bereft of WMD, but he had a declining rather than “gathering” capacity to produce them. Former occupation proconsul L. Paul Bremer admits that the U.S. needed more troops to prevent chaos in post-invasion Iraq. And on the domestic front, Bush officially became the first president in seven decades on whose watch there was a net loss of jobs — somewhere between a half-million and a million and a half, depending on how you cut the numbers. This in spite of his radical intervention in the economy, having imposed the most sweeping redistribution of wealth upward in the history of the U.S. But instead of producing the 2 million to 5 million promised jobs, these tax gifts to the richest among us helped produce the opposite effect.

In the first two presidential debates, Bush could and would effectively defend any of these policies. Departing from prevailing conventional wisdom, I personally thought Bush did as poorly in the second debate as in the first. He revealed himself as capable of — at most — faithfully repeating canned messages and talking points, but completely unable to articulate even the most superficial of arguments to buttress his positions.

Nor did the “town-hall format” do much at all to highlight what are supposed to be his superior people skills. The onslaught of attack advertising so turned John Kerry’s already problematic persona into such an exaggerated caricature that when he showed up and performed within reasonable standards for a veteran politician, he came off as surprisingly appealing.

Bush, on the other hand, was stiff, brittle and angry. When the astute audience confronted him with difficult questions, he was more than likely to tell his questioners they were just wrong. When given the chance at the end of the debate to list major mistakes, Bush could think of none of significance (Clinton, by contrast, would have used that sort of opportunity to bite his lip and apologize for godknowswhat).

Hold your hate mail, but allow me to confess that at several points during that second debate, I actually felt sorry for Bush. I saw him as the pathetic Great Shrinking President — which is what I surmise he would have become anyway by mid-2001 had there not been the terrorist strikes and the ensuing rush of patriotism.

What does Bush have left to offer while pitching us the notion that only his leadership can keep us safe? His monstrous misjudgment of the threat — or lack of it — posed by Saddam is now public record, as are his administration’s erroneous calculations of the consequences of invasion. What makes anyone feel safer about an administration that has no capacity to discern between real and imaginary threats (or, worse, one that can make the distinction but deliberately distorts it for political advantage)?


Add all this up, and George W. Bush might actually be defeated on November 2. Let’s hope so. But I fear this election will still resolve little of the current malaise that debases our national politics. Even if Bush ultimately loses, he will attract roughly half the votes cast. That is cause for permanent worry.

A handsome chunk of a nation full of families that have an average total income of less than $50,000 will have voted for a man and a party that have lavished juicy tax breaks on billionaires in a time of war, that have rolled back consumer, labor and environmental regulations to the benefit of the investor class, that have run up a record deficit (compromising any real long-term economic recovery), that have helped expedite the flight of jobs from America’s heartland, and that are currently bleeding lives and treasure in a war of choice, not necessity.

In some better political universe — even after you factor in the support it might garner for its obscurantist positions on Guns, Gays and God — the GOP in modern America ought to top out at about 30 percent.

Of course, that would require a competing party (or parties) that spoke to the profound needs, desires and aspirations of the other two-thirds of the electorate. I have just enough faith in people to believe that, say, Southern white working-class men actually do have aspirations beyond gun ownership and the outlawing of gay marriage. But because no party (like the Democrats) speaks to those deeper impulses, then why not vote for Dubya?

Democrats and my fellow “progressives” are quick to whine about how it’s really the fault of everybody else: Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, right-wing media bias, Diebold, hidden body wires, yada yada yada.

Well, it ain’t beanbag, friends. One should always expect the opposition to fight as hard (and as dirty) as possible. But if there were candidates and a party out there that lit the American people on fire, then all of the above would be quickly lost in the smoke.

Indeed, Kerry might win. And I continue to believe he would be some slight improvement over the current guy. But we’re still in a world of trouble.

Kerry likes to say we could do better. No kidding, John.

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