Sleep Well, Liam

Joseph M. Knippenberg

October 1, 2004

My son (who’ll be nine in less than two weeks) watched the first part of the debate with me. I sent him to bed when Bob Schieffer asked the President whether homosexuality is a choice. As his mother (a steadfast debate avoider) tucked him in, he said, "I’m afraid Kerry’s going to win. He’s making it look like Bush is wrong." Sleep well, Liam. Your fears are misplaced.

Yes, John Kerry was playing the role of prosecutor tonight, attacking President Bush at every opportunity. He’s good at it. He looks impressive and sounds plausible, especially to someone in the third grade. Playing president, he could give Martin Sheen a run for his money, though Sheen does the tortured Catholic bit better than Kerry does. (I have to confess that I’m actually looking forward to next Wednesday’s season premiere of "The West Wing." It’s a guilty pleasure, I know, but it’s far more entertaining than the debates and often offers a more substantive peek at the agenda and real arguments of the Democratic Left than do any number of John Kerry’s speeches. So I call it opposition research.)

Remember, this is the debate that Kerry was supposed to win, hands down. His domestic positions were supposed to be more appealing than Bush’s, and the President was saddled with a recession and an agonizingly slow economic recovery. But Kerry’s relentless negativism grated after a while and managed also to distract us from what should have been his positive and hopeful message. Bush hit the nail on the head when he said, in effect, that a plan is not a litany of complaints. Although Kerry had his moments, he and his handlers have to be disappointed. He didn’t articulate a clear and coherent domestic program and didn’t even effectively make some of the more attractive promises he’d made in the past.

Kerry’s best moment was his pitch for increasing the minimum wage, where he spoke of a widening gap between the rich and the poor and offered working women a $3,800/year raise. This is a constituency he needs to galvanize if he’s going to win the presidency. And while they’ve been moving in his direction, they’re not yet as solidly in his column as they were in Gore’s four years ago.

But Kerry’s flops and fumbles far outnumbered his zingers. This was especially true on social issues like abortion. He made clear what was never in doubt—that support for Roe v. Wade would be a litmus test for judicial appointees in a Kerry Administration. But his explanation of how his faith is or is not related to that or any other policy he favors was muddled and ultimately incoherent: he can’t impose his faith on anyone, but his faith leads him to promote social justice, but he and the President simply have a difference of opinion regarding how best to love our neighbors. This is a man who is very uncomfortable speaking about the relationship between religion and politics and who still hasn’t figured out how to go beyond John F. Kennedy’s disavowals of fealty to the Vatican.

Kerry also badly flubbed his response to Schieffer’s query on social security reform. We won’t change anything, he promised, unless we have to. So while Bush appeared forthright in contending that this is a big problem that will be a central focus of his next four years, Kerry quickly changed the subject, seeming to rely in the short run on creative accounting and avoidance—that is, the very maneuvers that created the problem to begin with.

By contrast, Bush was consistently better, speaking powerfully and sensitively about the important connection between education and competitiveness, offering detailed and "nuanced" healthcare cost containment proposals, and even dealing "presidentially" with an issue—the flu vaccine shortage—that Kerry simply took as an opportunity for demagoguery. In other words, he was better where everyone expected Kerry to be better.

Bush was predictably thoughtful and compelling on the very social issues regarding which Kerry floundered. He offered a vision, but not a litmus test, on abortion. The "culture of life," he argued, is something on which reasonable people could agree, not the imposition of one person’s faith on others. He struck a balance between toleration and commitment to common moral traditions on gay marriage. And he explained how faith could be central to his life—giving him strength and comfort—without necessarily prescribing policy positions to him.

Pundits tell us how smart and almost fatally thoughtful John Kerry is, and how much of an intellectual lightweight and shoot-from-the-hip cowboy George W. Bush is. I’ll give them this much: John Kerry is ponderous, but in a way that conveys more confusion than anything else. From where I sit, George W. Bush looks like the man of greater moral and spiritual depth. And he doesn’t have his father’s problem with the vision thing.

Over their three debates, Bush has gotten progressively better and Kerry progressively worse. It’s easy to criticize our situation in Iraq. It’s easy to complain about our economic difficulties. But when it comes to confronting and explaining hard choices—the kinds of choices that real leaders have to make—Kerry falters and Bush begins to shine. I wish he were as eloquent and well-spoken as his challenger. I wish he looked and sounded more like a president. For the moment, I’ll have to settle for the fact that he acts and thinks like one.

Sleep well, Liam.

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