Thursday night was a draw. But given how badly Kerry has been doing in the polls recently, a draw equals a Kerry win. Expect the polls to narrow in favor of Kerry, especially in critical swing states.
President Bush did land some impressive blows, though. He reminded Americans of several critical points:
Seventy-five percent of al Qaeda leaders have been brought to justice;
Saddam Hussein and most of his senior leaders have been brought to justice;
the A. Q. Khan nuclear-proliferation network has been broken up; and
Libya has given up its weapons of mass destruction.
The president also hammered Kerry relentlessly on three devastating flip-flops:
Before the Iraq war, Kerry said Saddam Hussein was a “grave threat” who possessed weapons of mass destruction. He had access to the same intelligence the president had. But now he acts as though Saddam was never a serious threat to the American people.
Kerry voted for war with Iraq, but now calls the war a “massive diversion” and “the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Kerry says he could build a stronger, larger alliance, but he constantly denigrates our current coalition of 30 allies (for example, calling them a coalition of the “coerced and bribed”) and he questioned the integrity and judgment of Iraqi President Allawi during Allawi’s recent visit to express his gratitude to the American people. (The president was particularly effective in explaining the damage Kerry was doing by attacking our allies–conduct unbecoming of one who wants to be a wartime president.)
None of these, however, were knockout blows, and the president pulled some punches that would have been enormously effective. Only once, for example, did he point out that Kerry voted for the war in Iraq but against the $87 billion to fund the troops. And only once did the president refer to Kerry’s approach as a September 10 mentality. That was a great line (even if he bungled it just a little bit).
“Saddam Hussein had no intention of disarming,” said the president. “Why should he? He had 16 other resolutions and nothing took place. As a matter of fact, my opponent talks about inspectors. The facts are that he was systematically deceiving the inspectors. That wasn’t going to work. That’s kind of a pre-September 10th mentality, the hope that somehow resolutions and failed inspections would make this world a more peaceful place.” Why did he say it only once?
I believe the difference between Bush’s forward-thinking, post-September 11 mindset and Kerry’s September 10 mindset is the most important divide in this campaign. The president should have been relentless about it, and he should hammer it home from now to the election.
The American people viscerally understand that the world changed radically on September 11. They understand that we can no longer wait for perfect intelligence but must rather connect the dots as best we can. They understand that our president has to use his best judgment to determine whether we can wait for sanctions, international pressure, or any other means short of war to pan out or strike first without hesitation, albeit with heavy hearts.
What’s so dangerous is that Kerry is stuck in the past. He opposed the Vietnam War and is obsessed with reliving that fight. He never understood the global Communist threat. He voted against most of the major weapons systems that Reagan and Bush 41 pushed for to win the Cold War and keep us safe. He voted to cut intelligence funding in the 80s and 90s. He voted against going to war against Iraq in 1991. He never fully understood the threat Saddam Hussein posed to the U.S., the Middle East, Israel, and the free world. We know enough about his past to know that he is highly unlikely to understand the threats we will face in the future.
Kerry doesn’t it get. He has a September 10 mentality (or a “pre-September 10 mentality,” as the president put it). Bush should sear that into the minds of swing voters–and all Americans–in the days he has left to November 2.
–Joel C. Rosenberg served as Steve Forbes’s deputy campaign manager in 2000 and is the author of The Last Jihad and The Last Days.