Our Man Weighs In On the Debates

10.14.2004 | David L. Steinhardt | National Affairs | 4 Comments
Let’s get this straight: the president has been revealed as a ventriloquist’s dummy repeating what is spoken to him via wireless connection. The Bush campaign only acknowledged the large walkie-talkie-looking bulge in the back of their man’s jacket at the first debate by trotting out the president’s tailor to assure us that box-with-an-antenna-shaped lump was the blazer’s intended cut.

Commentators proclaimed the second debate a draw that helped Bush (even while public opinion registered a blowout for Kerry), while mysteriously scrapping the instant polls that had confirmed Kerry’s win in the first debate.

It’s never good form to kvetch that the fix is in, especially since that’s become the right’s theme song, but the loading up of Bush partisans and right-leaning centrists on the postgame shows has been even more grotesque this year than usual: MSNBC’s token “lefty” following the second debate was Ron Reagan.

None of which is not to deny that both tickets are pretty heinous. From the incumbents we have deception and misdirection, fueled by greed and a Brobdingnagian sense of entitlement — two suckers on the teat of corporate welfare. From Kerry and Edwards — the gold digger and the ambulance chaser — we’ve seen indignant smugness, often eloquently argued, but blurred by the haze of opportunism that surrounds both men.

Still let’s try and straighten out the telepundits’ right-leaning narratives by revisiting all four debates.


The First Debate

This was the most boring of the candidates’ three encounters, as both men kept to their scripts (Bush, you could even say, kept repeating the same page of the same script), but revealing moments emerged nevertheless.

The president’s gaffes, intentional and not, haven’t generated the sort of ridicule that greeted, say, Gerald Ford’s refusal to acknowledge Poland’s membership in the Warsaw Pact in his debate with Jimmy Carter.  But they’re at least as shocking. To list but a few:

Gaffe One: “The A.Q. Khan network has been brought to justice.” If any nation meets the president’s own stated criteria for invasion, it’s Pakistan.  They harbor and train terrorists and they’ve provided North Korea with the wherewithal to build nuclear weapons. When that latter, most horrifying crime was revealed, Pakistan’s military dictator pardoned nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan, a devil worse than any America has killed or captured in Iraq.  Brought to justice how, exactly?

Gaffe Two: “The mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, is in prison.” The government claims not to know exactly where KSM is, but according to Ha’aretz, the CIA has him in a secret prison in Jordan especially designed to violate US and international law with lethal torture. “Take him out and shoot him” used to be a joke in comedies about the presidency like “Dave”. Now it’s policy.

Gaffe Three: “The best way to protect you is to stay on the offense.” This in response to Sen. Kerry’s accusation that the president has virtually ignored the possibility of attacks on the nation’s rail system, chemical and nuclear plants, and via cargo containers. Is attacking Fallujah so many times that we’re creating a generation of murderous America-haters the “offense” that protects us better than locked gates, modern equipment and trained guards at America’s most potentially lethal facilities?

The Vice-Presidential Debate

After the first presidential debate, when even the NY Post found itself declaring Kerry the winner, most major media retooled, getting rid of the instant polls that had shown a Kerry landslide in the first presidential debate, consequently ensuring that pundits, not citizens, would have the last word. Thus, Cheney got portrayed as having performed well against Sen. Edwards even as polls showed Americans believing, two-to-one, that Edwards had won. When Edwards lectured the Vice President on how the president has divided the country over gay marriage, Mr. Cheney had no response and indicated, nonverbally, that he agreed.

Both candidates dropped the ball when Gwen Ifill asked them to address the problem of AIDS among black women in America, without reference to the rest of the world. Edwards and Cheney both ignored her question and talked only about Africa. Disgusting.

In fact, the most revealing moments in the Cheney-Edwards matchup were (as I predicted last week) in exchanges with Ms. Ifill.

Think about it: the Vice President is, by all accounts, the most influential member of the administration, the man touted as having the experience and wisdom to see through to the essential issues and ideas. And yet he couldn’t quite pick up the pattern established in first presidential debate and the first half of his own debate that each question goes to the man who just finished a rebuttal.  When it was his turn to be asked a question by their mutually agreed moderator (a top New York Times correspondent before joining PBS’s Newshour), Cheney decided he had to correct her, by telling her that it was John Edwards turn to respond. He was wrong, but he corrected her. How often does that happen in cabinet meetings? In the National Security Council?

On the other hand, when Ms. Ifill was indeed wrong, and gave Sen. Edwards a question incorrectly, he tried to be gracious about it, then, apparently picking up on an untelevised cue from Ms. Ifill, stopped himself.

Who would I prefer a heartbeat away from the Oval Office, a man who assumes he’s right when he’s wrong, or one who graciously allows others to be wrong in his presence yet knows what’s right? My vote goes to Edwards.

The Town-Hall Debate

Give me voters’ questions over journalists’ any day of the week. It’s not that journalists can’t ask good questions; it’s that they so fear being out of favor that they simply won’t ask them. Kudos to Charles Gibson for selecting tough ones out of the stack he had to choose from.

I liked Kerry’s style in this forum, striding back to his seat after putting the president in his place.  I wish, however, he had properly defended himself against the “global test” slander. His wording in the first debate was straightforward, despite the willful misinterpretation of it by the president: He said any president has the right to act preemptively, but that any action has to pass the test of being understandable to his constituents, and the world.  Anyone have a problem with that?

The president dodged question after question, going out on a limb to oppose the Dred Scott decision (which is evidently a coded reference to the anti-abortion troops, understood only by true believers while leaving the rest of the nation scratching its collective head), until finally acting out-and-out paranoid in response to the debate’s final question, when he was asked to name three mistakes he had made. He babbled about what “they” mean when he’s asked versions of that question (which he never answers) before concluding, “History will look back and I’m fully prepared to accept any mistakes that history judges to my administration. Because the president makes the decisions, the president has to take the responsibility.” In other words, I’m accountable, after I’m no longer in office.

Equally scary is his declaration about foreign leaders, in the same exact words in each of the first two debates: “I know how these people think.” Mr. Bush, who’d never traveled abroad before becoming president, thinks of foreign leaders as “these people”? The Bigot-in-Chief has spoken.

In a perfect world, Sen. Kerry wouldn’t have been afraid to mention that his father was a diplomat and that he grew up with a deeper knowledge of diplomacy than Mr. Bush will ever have, but intelligence and experience are easily ridiculed in our body politic.

The Final Presidential Debate

Yes, both men are, in the end, rather repulsive. Sen. Kerry seeking to speak for Dick Cheney’s lesbian daughter? I could hear a nation’s skin crawl.

But it’s still not a close call on decency, intelligence, or honesty. President Bush’s call to privatize Social Security is dangerous nonsense, and Kerry quite properly called him on it.

The president lied when he claimed the Lewin Group calls Kerry’s healthcare plan a government takeoever. Larry Lewin, the head of the Lewin Group, calls Bush’s claim phony.

Another issue on which Kerry responded (almost) properly was when Bush made the outrageous claim that most of his tax cuts went to the middle class. Presumably Bush was eliding the huge percentage of the tax cut that went to the wealthiest 0.1% by arguing the majority of people who received some tax relief were middle class. But Kerry kept the focus where it belongs, on the huge gift the president dispensed to the nation’s wealthiest .1%.

Asked about faith, the president had the unmitigated gall to say that Christians, Jews and Muslims are equally American. If he actually believes that, then why are faith-based programs funded only for Christian groups, despite his bogus claims that Muslims get some too? They don’t; not one dollar. Why are Muslim Americans targeted by law enforcement for their faith alone, without regard to their involvement in illegal activity? Muslims didn’t blow up the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City. Christians did. Nor do Muslims assassinate abortion doctors. But such domestic terrorists are scrutinized too little, while law-abiding Muslim citizens are too often targeted for little or no reason at all.

The only tear-my-hair-out moment was when Kerry quite accurately quoted the president as saying he wasn’t much concerned about catching Osama bin Laden. Mr. Bush opened his eyes wide and exaggerated the word “exaggeration” to deny having said that. Fortunately, most of the fact-check followups had the March 2002 transcript of his shrugging off the nation’s most notorious enemy, smirking that “You know, I just don’t spend that much time on him” and “I truly am not that concerned about him.”


Senator Kerry isn’t much of a candidate, but he’s the only replacement available for the dangerous, deluded and incompetent president we’re stuck with otherwise

Not a particularly thoughtful or intelligent analysis. This is just a guy stumping. I expected more from New Partisan.
10.14.2004 | Jon
Dear Jon (the ultimate pseudonym),
I know he is, but what are you?
10.14.2004 | Paul
I certainly didn't know that "Dred Scott" was code for "Roe v. Wade" or that KSM has allegedly been "disappeared" by the administration.

For an article that's supposedly "stumping" for Kerry, it's pretty hard on him!

That "exaggeration" moment at the debate was indeed pretty bizarre. Think ol' W was having an Al Gore flashback??
10.14.2004 | George & Ringo
Check this, Jon: www.newifstone.com. Why is it only knowledgeable people have this information? This is a year for the people to make decisions. Whose job is it to tell us what we need to know?

10.16.2004 | stone

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