The second presidential debate is over and the primary accomplishment was to raise the stakes of the third and final debate, next Wednesday. Bush was excellent in this debate and did a great deal to put his initial performance behind him. Both candidates were so focused and engaged, that I assume that the typical Bush supporter would be sure that Bush won, the Kerry supporter would be confident that Kerry won, and the undecided voter would call it a draw.
Early this week, I watched a West Wing episode that featured a terrific line. Bartlett's staff was writing his announcement speech which would kick off his run for a second term. The speech was trying to make the point that there was much work left to be done by going through a litany of social ills: the number of children in poverty, the high unemployment rate, the number of families without healthcare, etc. One of the political consultants was exasperated. "Why don't we just stand up and say, Yes, my fellow Americans, it is midnight in America!"
I thought of that line each and every moment that Kerry spoke last night. Every presidential challenger has the task of convincing the voters that the country has problems and much needs to be done in order to ensure a bright future. Last night, however, I thought Kerry crossed the line from a problem solver to an incessently negative purveyor of doom (or, as Williams Safire once wrote during the Nixon days, nattering nabob of negativism). Kerry took every question as an opportunity to attack the president and paint a bleak picture of the current state of affairs, here at home or abroad. In fact, MSNBC's post-debate word count showed that he used "the president" 68 times, the most any phrase has been used in any debate. Americans are well-aware that the country faces challenges, but we're not naive enough to believe we are experiencing a second Great Depression admist the darkest days of WWII.
At some point, a candidate has to turn the corner and sell the voter on the bright days ahead. Even when both candidates were giving fairly calm and reasonable answers to the great dilemma that is stem cell research, Kerry used his follow-up to suddenly attack the president in a way that seemed almost uncivil under the circumstances ("Talk about a waffle line!").
Clinton was nearly perfect at this. When running against the first President Bush, he always balanced his view that the country was worse off than Bush thought with an optimistic, even hopeful, view of the future. Unfortunately, that view was relentlessly supported by a Fleetwood Mac song, but I digress.
The town hall debate began right where the last debate left off, with intense disagreements over Iraq. Kerry even introduced a new attack phrase in the first 90 seconds, weapon of mass deception. Both candidates were aggressive from the start, nearly shouting their answers. I was relieved when the focus changed to domestic issues and Bush finally became calm, lucid, and charming. I thought he thrived quite well in the town hall format. The audience asked excellent questions and seemed to respond better to Bush.
Kerry's worst moment was his statement, "I've never changed my mind on Iraq", something to cause even a fervent supporter to guffaw. Kerry almost relied far too much on constant name dropping; mentioning Senator Lugar, Senator Hagel, numerous generals, and Hollywood celebrities far more than his own running mate. And please tell me there are more eloquent reasons to support embryonic stem cell research than the fact that movie stars support it.
Bush still sounded far too defensive during the Iraq portion of the night, rather than strong and confident. He also had an odd moment when he admitted multiple times to being worried about another terrorist attack. Obviously, I understand the sentiment, but I can't think of too many times that a sitting president admits to worry, especially during war.
Lastly, Bush (and Cheney as well) continue to completely ignore two significant charges. First, that we had Osama Bin Laden cornered in the "mountains of Tora Bora" and left him escape. Second, that Bush inherited a $5 trillion surplus that is now a deficit. There may be truth in both of these charges, but they clearly require a political response. On the surplus question, Kerry is suggesting to the average voter that in January 2001, the Bank of the United States had $5 trillion dollars sitting in it, waiting for a grand national purpose, and now there sits an I.O.U. after tax cuts for the rich and a bad war. The $5 trillion was obviously the projected surplus over the next 10 years, a projection made before the stock market crash, recession, and terrorist attack.
One more to go!