Kerry Cakewalk: The Second of the 2004 US Presidential Debates
It's stunning to see the President think that's he's handily dealt with his opponent's charges when he's in fact just lit another one of his hallmark stupidity flares.
President George Bush will no doubt experience the numbing charity of the media this week as the spinning contortionists find ways to keep the photo finish horse race alive, despite two consecutive slaughtering routs by Senator John Kerry. In the media nowadays, balance refers to the practice of allowing Republican lies to go unchallenged and treating the truth like a necessary casualty of pseudo-objectivity. They love to tilt toward any change in a story that might allow their talking heads to switch up the refrains in their gassing conventional wisdom. Don't listen to any of it. The only way you could say Bush won this debate was by failing so utterly during the first debate, that voters were simply encouraged to see him walk without the assistance of the light-up sidewalk from the "Billie Jean" video.
Sure, Bush didn't have quite as many gaping fugue states as he did during the first debate (though there were a couple), and he sputtered less and didn't make as many nappy time faces, but the fact of the matter is that while he arguably lost the debate less decisively, he still clearly, completely and wholly got creamed into the carpet. Just take a look at the desperation intrinsic to the modifications he did make. Instead of crumpling pauses and squish-faced resentment, Bush compensated with volume, giving every answer with fed-up exasperation, in the hopes that the puffy-chested barking would convince voters that he is, in fact, awake somewhere in there. I want to meet the baboons who feel comforted because their leader walks like there's an ax handle connecting his ankles, rattles his neck like he's riding a mechanical bull, and chooses his phrases like every issue is just a matter of finding the right quip to smoke screen his intellectual paucity. He kept spreading his palm out against his chest, as if he had to hold himself back from pulling the tab on the can of whoop ass, like a Dixie David Banner warning: "Y'all won't like me when ahm angrah". He did everything but urinate on his side of the stage and flare his nostrils at that territorial interloper, Senator Pussy Boy.
Lately, I've been repeatedly struck by how easy it is to fake masculinity, a physical language that appears no more complicated than ferreting out the rules of paper, scissors, rocks. For Bush, I think his masculine gestures are a cloak for his fundamental cowardice when it comes to real live confrontation. What's so striking in reviewing the issues of this debate is how many charges against Bush remain unanswered, avoided, and parried only with Bush's stock appraisals of his unique abilities to fight terror with stubborn gumption . . . and a trail of prayer crumbs lovingly left for the war widows.
Bush has a paltry quiver of phrases to pull from. His Nerf arrows miss their mark mostly because they have no target in reality. "Iraqis love to be free", Bush says by way of not defending the incompetence with which we have delivered their freedom. No one has argued that Iraqis love slavery. Bush wants the debate to be reduced to him judging his own intentions and having the rest of us wholeheartedly swallow the tough medicine verdict. There's not one charge that he sufficiently answered, especially Kerry's attacks on Iraq as a diversion in the war on terror and the tax cuts as a diverting luxury that our homeland security could not afford. But it's not just because Bush is chimpishly ungifted with words that he refuses to deign the debate with responses; it's that he seems genuinely appalled by the presence of disagreement. That would certainly explain why, as Kerry notes during the debate, the President chucks any advisor who might not have fully comprehended that "Me Right Always" memo.
There were several moments when I believe Kerry wholly decimated the bumper sticker noose of the "flip-flopper" charge; most notably in the discussions of morality and ethics, a province usually ceded to the President by virtue of his rubber stamping tendency to use the words "right" and "wrong" to cut the crusts off the world. Kerry's compassionate complexity on stem cell research made the President seem glib and unprepared to deal with moral quandaries. "I made the decision to balance science and ethics". Bush says this as if he simply had to go out into the front yard and put one rock on the science side of the scale and then dig around in his bib overalls for all them there ethics pebbles to set it all square. In a time of acute fear, the President's Red Sea cleaver of a mind, brings false comfort to many, but Kerry showed time and time again just how false that comfort is, particularly when he said, "The President rushed our nation to war without a plan to win the peace. And simple things weren't done. That's why Senator Lugar says: incompetent in the delivery of services. That's why Senator Hagel, Republican, says, you know: beyond pitiful, beyond embarrassing, in the zone of dangerous". This helped reverse the implications of the "flip-flop" charge against Kerry, by showing how resolute error is just as dangerous, if not more, to our country's safety.
So many moments, tics, words, and gestures of the President during the debate filled me with shuddering loathing that it's difficult to pick out the most galling. So I'll just point to the moment that made me laugh the hardest. At one point, Kerry responded to a statistic the President cited that claimed to prove that Kerry's tax plan would end up crippling hundreds of thousands of "small businesses". Kerry was trying to explain how stockowners like the President, who owns some timber stock, get considered for tax purposes to be small businesses. Bush saw a ripe opening there, a chance to nail the smart kid right in the eye with a goobered wad of notebook paper. "I own a timber company? That's news to me. Need some wood?" Of course, Bush hadn't bothered to parse or process Kerry's answer, hearing only the mad lib distillation: me, timber company, business. He delivered his line in a one shot wad, standing there in silent pride to the sound of murdered time. It's stunning to see the President think that's he's handily dealt with his opponent's charges when he's in fact just lit another one of his hallmark stupidity flares. The President's lack of humility is never more apparent than when he's waiting to soak up laughter, like a puppy getting a good belly scratch. But like any canned comedian, the President has a total deafness to atmosphere, never knowing when his prewritten zings don't fit the occasion.
Kerry's shining moment for me came when he was asked "Senator Kerry, suppose you are speaking with a voter who believed abortion is murder and the voter asked for reassurance that his or her tax dollars would not go to support abortion, what would you say to that person? "Kerry began by respectfully acknowledging their difference in opinion before saying that he believed his own personal views against abortion as a Catholic should not cloud is job as President because religious beliefs should not be forced onto people who don't share them. He went on to say that he believed poor women deserved access to their constitutional rights. What a revealing difference between the two men, since the Playdoh knife of Bush's brain could never produce the separation between "I believe" and "Other people should be forced to believe".
Of course to a religious zealot, Kerry's formulation may as well have been put in some African click tongue dialect. Bush bolted from his chair, eager to throw his stubby jab, "I'm trying to decipher that", he said with the kind of bloated sarcasm that only a confident moron can truly pull off. Not imposing religious beliefs? Well hell, what are they for then? Bush goes on to counter with "Culture of life is really important for a country to have if it's going to be a hospitable society". Does this mean that abortion makes people rude? Why is the President too busy to use the word "the"? I sincerely believe that Kerry's measured cadence and ginger laying out of the issue will resonate with undecided voters who need something other than six shooting presumption.
Kerry did drop the ball a couple of times, but only insofar as he could have garnered a brutal rather than just a crushing victory. Kerry let his own peeving sensibilities block a golden opportunity to hoist the President upon his nefarious designs. When a questioner asked about Bush's handling of the environment, Kerry pitifully backtracked to Bush's schoolyard putdown that Kerry was a "liberal". Egads! Kerry responded with, "I supported welfare reform. I led the fight to put one hundred thousand cops on the streets of America. . . " spending far too much time defending himself from the label "liberal" rather than readily defending liberalism. That was unwise, because the momentum was so clearly in his corner and the President had spent the entire evening on the ropes, fantasizing about his aide, Karen Hughes, jumping out of the audience to beat Kerry with a folding chair. Kerry missed a chance to gut the President's environmental destruction record. Fortunately, his record will be just as abysmal next week.
Still, I cut Kerry plenty of slack; I'm not measuring him against the highest possible standard of winning, nor dubbing his every shortfall a massive loss. As a former debater myself, I remember the pitfalls of facing a linguistic cripple. There are too many weaknesses to exploit and prioritizing them becomes an embarrassing flood of riches which one must carefully avoid gorging on. Bad debaters actually destroy strategy because you then have to strike a balance against overkill, something to keep in mind with Bush, who frequently evokes sympathy from a media class that has been cowed into believing that intelligence is somehow elitist rather than active hard work. Face-to-face with intellect, Bush's folksy persona is actually just a collection of excuse-making crutches designed to make us feel cruel for poking fun at him.
For me, the defining moment of this match was the last question of the evening, directed to the President. The questioner asked: "President Bush, during the last four years, you have made thousands of decisions that have affected millions of lives. Please give three instances in which you came to realize you had made a wrong decision, and what you did to correct it." The question clearly struck a raw nerve, you could see it in the way his eyes narrowed into paper cuts. Bush huffed about accepting the verdict of historians, which is just another way of saying, "as I see things now, I'm perfect". He even balefully accused the questioner of having veiled motive, of trying to trap him into some admission about Iraq saying, "That's really what you're when they ask about the mistakes, that's what they're talking about. They're trying to say, "Did you make a mistake going into Iraq?" And the answer is, "Absolutely not." It was the right decision."
But I think the questioner was actually trying to induce the President into a moment of more general introspection on his own character. Eventually he reluctantly mentioned that he'd made appointments that were mistakes, which is to say, the mistakes were yet again external; the products of being disappointed by lesser men he has no control over. Any guesses that those appointments he had in mind were the people who disagreed with him (Richard Clarke? Paul O'Neill?). In short, it seems he thinks his only mistake was in appointing a choice few people who thought that he could be mistaken.
But that's just the truth about what happened. You'll have to tune into to MSNBC's Chris Matthews to find out which candidate most spackled his desperate need for a father figures, or try to catch Fox News' Bill O'Reilly and find out who'll have to suffer for his abusive childhood this week. The naked reality can't get any more naked. Bush can't win a debate he refuses to go to the trouble of creating arguments for his position. It's enough that he doesn't move once he's made a decision, because choosing a good President is like finding a good crash-test wall. It's enough to have faith that God is in the driver's seat, and to believe that the upcoming canyon is merely a dip in the road.