This being my last column before the election, here’s my chance to make the Big Prediction (guaranteed to be wrong, or your money back). Will it be Kerry or Bush? Landslide or squeaker? If you have a coin to flip, your guess at this point is as good as mine. But one thing is for sure: The debates have greatly changed the landscape of the campaign, and the contender that is first to realize this will likely pull out the close win.
Before the debates, the campaigns had settled into caricatures that were, for the most part, richly deserved. Bush was the steward of an unpopular war but blessed with a lot of determination, while Kerry was a flip-flopper who wasn’t Bush. The balance of the equation was leaning toward Bush because even those who weren’t big on Bush’s policies liked the idea of having a strong leader in the White House.
But it seems that the debates have refashioned the candidates into new images, each with new weaknesses for the other side to exploit. Bush’s leadership strength has been recast as a habit of bumbling–Bush starts something but then fails to finish it well. Kerry has largely side-stepped his flip-flopping image for something I would call the “magic wand” approach: Simply promise that you’ll do things better, as if by magic, without having to actually prove that it can be done.
Rewind to the first debate. The first question, when Kerry was asked if he’d do a better job as president than Bush in protecting America from terrorism, resulted in a stream of promises. “I have a better plan for homeland security. I have a better plan to be able to fight the war on terror by strengthening our military, strengthening our intelligence, by going after the financing more authoritatively, by doing what we need to do to rebuild the alliances . . . [w]e can do a better job of training the Iraqi forces to defend themselves, and I know that we can do a better job of preparing for elections,” he said.
Oh really? How? Let’s take the training example. When Bush was later asked about his criteria for bringing home American troops from Iraq, he responded, “[T]he best way for Iraq to be safe and secure is for Iraqi citizens to be trained to do the job. And that’s what we’re doing. We’ve got 100,000 trained now, 125,000 by the end of this year, 200,000 by the end of next year.” Alright, so one would expect Kerry to retort about how these numbers are inadequate, right?
Nope. Kerry instead argued that “our troops have been left on these extraordinarily difficult missions” without enough backup, leaving “a sense of American occupation” that may never end. Bush laid out the numbers as to what was going on in the training area, and Kerry could have shown us what a “better job” entails. But he didn’t.
Perhaps that was an opportunity wasted, but it’s more likely that Kerry didn’t have a big point to make. When asked about homeland security, Kerry asked in reply, “[W]hat kind of mixed message does it send when you have $500 million going over to Iraq to put police officers in the streets of Iraq, and the president is cutting the COPS program in America?” So the president is pushing the training of Iraqis satisfactorily after all. But Kerry can claim “we can do a better job” because, magically, he says he can do it. More Iraqi forces will fall from the sky or something. Ta-da!
In fact, Saturday Night Live parodied Kerry’s approach by having the SNL Kerry repeatedly announce, “And I have a plan,” at the end of his answer, and then sitting down.
But while Kerry and Edwards have been making good use of the general malaise that Americans have been feeling towards the situation in Iraq, in the debates Bush has done most of the damage to himself by managing a woefully weak defense for his decisions. His explanation for the recent difficulties and possible missteps has been to remind everyone that this is “hard work.” That’s not good enough.
When dealing with the Duelfer report that concluded that there was no evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, Bush argued that “what Saddam Hussein was doing was trying to get rid of sanctions so he could reconstitute a weapons program.” But that also means that continued sanctions could have worked, too.
With any complicated mission like Iraq, there are a million decisions that can always be second-guessed with the benefit of hindsight. When those questions arise, it is imperative for those in charge to be able to articulate why a particular decision was made and how the information at the time compelled that decision. If the other side thinks another decision was better, it behooves them to make that case from the same vantage point. But Bush’s mantra that America needs a strong, steady president to win the war on terror doesn’t help him if he’s not adequately defending the decisions he’s made. It’s enough to make a supporter of the war, like me, wonder whether Bush has the insight and leadership to make things work out.
The result has been that Bush looks like a bumbler, and that gives Kerry a free pass with his magic wand. When you aren’t doing a good job defending your own policies, the other side doesn’t need to offer much more than promises to attract voters.
That means that, right now, Kerry has the edge. So long as Bush is kept on the defensive about his policies, Kerry could pull ahead. But if Bush manages to pull back the curtain on what Kerry is offering, the tide will turn back in Bush’s favor. Something–even a not-so-great something–beats nothing.
James N. Markels is an attorney and a regular columnist for Brainwash.