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Friday, October 01, 2004

Reckoning Redux

Even conservative-leaning observers think Kerry "won" the debate.

This could have been the knockout blow for the Republicans, and it didn't happen. Foreign policy and national security issues are what would win Bush a second term if he were to prevail. That Bush looked to be on the defensive most of the evening on an issue set that played to his perceived strengths is an encouraging sign.

Kerry continues to explain the $87 billion dollar Iraq vote poorly. There are two grounds on which one can defend that unpopular vote - one, that tax cuts aren't appropriate for a time of war, and that the country is better off canceling some portion of them so that are troops are properly equipped, rather than have the money come from more borrowing from the likes of China; two, that too much of that money was going to come in the form of no-bid contracts for the likes of Halliburton. Admitting the vote or at least how he discussed it was a mistake only plays into the "flip-flop" meme, even if you're going to try to paint Bush as a man who's dangerous precisely because he won't own up to his mistakes.

The "global test" for pre-emptive war line, which Bush jumped right on. The right answer for Kerry would be that pre-emptive war should be the last resort to respond to an imminent or near-imminent threat. Kerry played into the hands of spinmeisters who will claim that Kerry would give other nations a veto over American use of power. He partly made up for it with a play to the base over our loss of international credibility, and delivered what I think was the best zinger of the night, about how Charles DeGaulle once said during the Cuban Missile Crisis "The word of the President of the United States is good enough for me" and contrasting that with what world leaders think of Bush and his credibility.

But I think these two blunders pale before Bush's gaffes.

The real "Did he really that?" moment last night was Bush's complaint
that there wasn't enough money do Homeland Security right without raising taxes. Not only was his complaint ("tax gap?") poorly and inarticulately phrased, it's exactly what people worried about domestic security don't want to hear. I have been insisting for a while that the lack of attention to certain points of vulnerability (railroads, seaports, chemical and nuclear plants) would be a winning issue for Democrats. Kerry hit a homer on that question.

And then there was "The enemy attacked us." At a GOP rally, or in a Fox News interview, this line might have worked. But Kerry jumped right on it, with references to Richard Clarke, the bipartisan 9/11 commision report, and to Colin Powell having to apologize to statements he gave to the UN laying out the case for the invasion of Iraq. And Kerry forced Bush to mention Osama bin Laden, a name that did not come up once in any major GOP Convention speech. (Democrats shouldn't be afraid of the bin Laden "October Surprise," since not much could be done about it if it were to surface in any event.) Almost no one who can be convinced that the Iraq war was in fact a distraction from the greater War on global terrorism will support Bush.

Bush couldn't find a way to nail Kerry down more on his plan for Iraq beyond internationalization. This is not entirely a fair question, seeing as it this is Bush's war and not Kerry's war, but it's one that would have taken the wind of Kerry's sails in the eyes of the media if had been posited and Kerry's response found wanting. Instead Bush had to defend his record, and the worse Iraq looks, the more his record of grand prouncements, gestures, and posturings (from the aircraft carrier stunt on down) look empty and silly. Obviously the Democrats have to tread carefully, not only to not be perceived as "rooting" for chaos in Iraq/Afghanistan, but also not to appear too dour and pessimistic.

For Kerry, the job was to look like a plausible Commander-in-Chief rather than the weak, spineless politician portrayed in Republican attack ads. People who are with the Democrats on the bread-and-butter issues but were leaning towards Bush on the basis of national security have more reason to come home now. That's no guarantee that Kerry will prevail by any means, but it's one step back from the ledge.

Yesterday afternoon, our side was down 3 runs after 6, but we came to bat in the top of the 7th and scored a run. Kerry's reputation is that of a strong closer.


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