Kerry Needed a Debate Home Run, But Only Got a Single

Joseph M. Knippenberg

October 1, 2004

While they’ll never admit it, the Kerry campaign has to be very disappointed with their candidate’s performance in Coral Gables Thursday night. With President Bush holding a steady lead in the polls, Kerry needed a solid—nay, spectacular—victory to change the momentum of the race. He didn’t get it. Charitable observers would call it a draw, at best. The Senator didn’t look (note I didn’t say “sound”) utterly out of place on stage with the President, but he offered us no compelling reason why the incumbent should be given the boot.

Much of what Kerry had to say was a predictable, albeit toned-down, version of his standard campaign rhetoric. Iraq is a diversion from the war on terror, but we can’t afford not to succeed there. That requires allies, so that we’re not suffering 90% of the casualties and paying 90% of the cost. Hence we need to hold “statesmanlike summits.” As to the run-up to the war, the President has “not been candid” with the American people. He didn’t engage in as much diplomacy as he said—or we expected—he would; he didn’t build the coalition he said—or we expected—he would; he didn’t plan as carefully as he said—or we expected—he would.

This is incredibly weak tea. It doesn’t energize the base, but, of course, that isn’t the point. This is the “kinder, gentler” version of the Democratic critique, intended to appeal to folks who would be put off by the rabid Michael Moore version. It has the added benefit of apparently not offering President Bush any easy targets. If you don’t actually say “Bush lied” about this and this and this, then he can’t pin you down in response. But then “lying” or “misleading” amounts to not being the delicate negotiator and assiduous planner that John Kerry says he would have been, had he been in the Oval Office. To which George Bush could respond: guilty as charged, and isn’t the world a better place because of it!

Of course, we did get a couple of hints that John Kerry has drunk deeply of the wells of Michael Moore’s wisdom. There were at least two references to the Ministry of Oil and one to Halliburton. But most of the fantasies in the debate bore the stamp of Kerry’s mind alone. Which allies, beyond the usual suspects, are going to share our human and financial burdens in Iraq? The Germans, who have said in no uncertain terms that their troops will not set foot in Iraq, regardless of who the U.S. President is? The French, who want to confer with the terrorists about a timetable for U.S. withdrawal? The Russians, who have their hands full in Chechnya?

And if you look carefully at the numbers Kerry constantly repeated, his dishonesty or lack of close contact with reality becomes even clearer. The $200 billion he says we’re expending in Iraq includes funds for Afghanistan, where he says we’re not doing enough. So we should do more in Iraq to get the job done, but spend less to do it. How? And, by implication, we should spend more in Afghanistan and more on homeland security. Then there’s the 90% figure, which doesn’t take into account the terrible losses suffered by Iraqis fighting (or volunteering to fight) the Baathist thugs and foreign jihadis. Despite the fact that we should train more of them more quickly, they don’t count as sharing our burden, at least not for the purpose of telling the American people the truth, as opposed to misleading them.

At this point, you, gentle reader, might be asking how some people might charitably rate the debate a draw. My answer: because George W. Bush doggedly stuck to his script, predictably pummeling Kerry for his inconsistency and inconstancy, he passed on some chances to fluster his opponent or pin him to the wall for his wishful thinking and misleading statements. Like Kerry, the President played it safe, choosing to reinforce the central message of his campaign: a man who surfs whichever way the wind blows does not inspire confidence in our troops or our allies, actual or putative. Perhaps there were a few viewers out there who hadn’t heard that before. Now they have.

The closest thing to a knockout blow landed by the President was his response to John Kerry’s rather surprising adoption of a version of preemption. It was Kerry’s most “presidential” moment, but he quickly blew it: “if and when you do it… you have to do it in a way that passes the test, that passes the global test where your countrymen, your people understand fully why you’re doing what you’re doing and you can prove to the world that you did it for legitimate reasons.” Now to Kerry this means more than announcing to a “candid world” your reasons; it seems to mean ultimately securing U.N. approval (or perhaps only that of the French—an unfortunate example, that). To which the President replies: “I’m not exactly sure what you mean, ’passes the global test,’ you take preemptive action if you pass a global test. My attitude is you take preemptive action in order to protect the American people, that you act in order to make this country secure.” You, Senator Kerry, are living in the 9-10 world; serious people are living in the days after 9-11.

Memo to the Bush campaign: if you can turn this exchange into the defining moment of the debate, then it wasn’t nearly a draw. Maybe I won’t lose much sleep this October.

Joseph M. Knippenberg is Professor of Politics and Associate Provost for Student Achievement at Oglethorpe University.