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Friday, October 08, 2004

Meet Me In St. Louis

Bush and Kerry will spar at Washington University tonight in a "town hall" debate.

On the one hand, this format could hurt Bush, since he's much a better speaker when he has script that he can follow to the letter, and is used to speaking only in front of hand-picked audiences of devoted supporters.

On the other hand, Kerry has some definite tendencies toward veering into windbag territory. The format in the first debate, with its strict time limits and those memorable red lights, turned out to be very much in Kerry's favor.

This is Kerry's first chance since the Democratic National Convention to hit Bush in front of a national stage on the domestic policy record of the Bush administration. Topics that could come up that have received little attention up to now on which Bush may be vulernable include environmental issues, the funding of administration educational initiatives, Bush's energy policies, and stem cell research. And, of course, there's a new jobs report to discuss.

Kerry needs to keep Bush on the defensive, and to make Bush's mismangement of the country Topic 1. If Bush starts to outline a proposed policy that sounds good, Kerry needs to point out that essentially nothing has prevented Bush from doing whatever it is he proposes to do now over the last four years. There has been precious little in terms of checks and balances, with Republicans controlling both houses of Congress (not to mention the judiciary) during almost all of Bush's four years in office. Attack politics work. People may be turned off by ad hominem attacks, but there's nothing wrong with ripping Bush's administration up one side and down the other for, say, sitting on its hands while Enron and other similar companies largely manufactured a phony power "crisis" and robbed California (and other western states) blind, or does nothing about ending favorable domestic treatment for corporations that relocate their headquarters to tax havens.

When Iraq comes up again, note that Bush has come up with yet another post-hoc justification (allegations involving Saddam's misuse of funds derived from the oil-for-food program) for an costly and protracted war that was unnecessary and misguided. It now looks like there were no weapons of mass destruction, and no realistic plan for their manufacture anytime soon, so that this rationale belongs in the circular file next to justifications that centered around alleged connections with the 9/11 attacks and/or the al-Qaida network. The new administration talking points about the humanitarian benefits of the war, aside from representing the mother of all policy flip-flops, ring somewhat hollow considering how many Iraqis are being killed, not to mention the Abu Gharib scandal. None of the various explanations the administration has cooked up justify how many new enemies are being made, and how many new terrorists are being created.

Rather than refighting the Vietnam War and the parallel Culture vs. Counterculture clashes of the '60s and '70s over and over again, this election needs to be about who's looking out for the American public and who's mostly looking out for their well-connected and well-heeled friends. This time the other side has a record to defend, and it's not pretty. They're going to try to blame everything on someone else, anyone else. But, just like liberals are smugly told every day, voters don't like whiners or excuses. "It's hard work!" and "It's Clinton's fault!" sound suspiciously like whining and excuses from here.


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