Watching President George W. Bush in his second debate against Senator John Kerry revived me after a long day of travel. As Friday’s match-up began, I felt as tired as the president looked late in his first debate in Miami. By the time the St. Louis face-off ended, I felt refreshed and invigorated.
Overall, Bush won by being more energetic, engaged, and aggressive, than in his reserved performance in Miami. Bush’s biggest problem as a politician is that he is too nice. He aims away from the jugular, and too often turns the other cheek–while his critics pound him with clubs. Bush suffered in the first debate by avoiding repeated opportunities to slam Kerry, as if Bush were enjoying a light exchange of views at a political-science seminar. It took at least 20 minutes, for instance, for Bush to respond to Kerry’s complaint about U.S. soldiers fighting without body armor. Several questions later, Bush finally reminded voters that Kerry opposed sending our troops body armor when he voted against the famous $87 billion in support for the Iraq War effort (after he voted for it).
Friday, however, Bush moved far more quickly on issue after issue to throw Kerry’s Senate record and his contradictory statements back in Kerry’s face. Bush replied to Kerry’s shaky, caveat-filled pledge not to raise taxes on families making less than $200,000 by reminding viewers that Kerry voted 98 times to raise taxes and recently skipped a vote to extend middle-class tax relief.
Kerry’s nuanced, evasive, theology seminar of an answer on whether he would provide federal funding for abortion (“I’m not going to take what is an article of faith for me and legislate it for someone who doesn’t share that article of faith”) encountered this simple Bush response: “I’m trying to decipher that. My answer is, we’re not going to spend taxpayers’ money on abortion.”
Far more energetically than in Miami, Bush responded to the ceaseless insults Kerry has hurled at the more than 30 nations plus NATO that are in Iraq fighting (and sometimes dying) along side our troops.
“We’re not going to go alone like this president did,” said Kerry, curiously enough, the son of an American diplomat.
“Tell Tony Blair we’re going alone. Tell Silvio Berlusconi we’re going alone. Tell Alexander Kwasniewski of Poland we’re going alone. There are 30 countries there. It denigrates an alliance to say we’re going alone, to discount their sacrifices. You cannot lead an alliance if you say…you’re going alone.”
That said, Bush could have sharpened his answer a bit by these individuals’ job titles. NRO readers know who Silvio Berlusconi is. Alexander Kwasniewski’s name might be harder to place. There certainly are voters who cannot identify these people. Bush should explain more clearly who they are, and how they have supported America in Iraq.
Meanwhile, Kerry’s flip-flop du jour garnered even the Washington Post’s scorn.
“Mr. Kerry seemed unable, even at this late date, to articulate one clear position,” the Post said in an editorial on Saturday. ‘I do believe Saddam Hussein was a threat,’ he said, but only minutes later he criticized the president for being ‘preoccupied with Iraq, where there wasn’t a threat.’” Perhaps this is what Kerry meant when he said Friday: “I’ve never changed my mind about Iraq.”
It was fascinating to watch Kerry react to Bush’s statement that National Journal this spring rated Kerry the U.S. Senate’s #1 liberal. He accused Bush of “throwing labels around.” Why does Kerry run from the word “liberal?” Is it wrong to be liberal? Kerry could have said, “That’s right. I am a liberal, but I’m a thrifty liberal who hates deficits. I’m a tough liberal who will keep America safe. And I’m a smart liberal who will get allied help whenever I can.” That answer would not have satisfied a Bush supporter like me, but even I would have been impressed to see Kerry stand up and embrace the philosophy that has guided his public life rather than run from it with his tail between his custom-tailored trousers.
Bush did manage to disappoint with his answer to a well-asked, intelligent question on reimportation of drugs from Canada. (The audience members asked direct, intelligent, pertinent, and gloriously concise questions.) Bush was correct to cite legitimate safety concerns about some drugs that have reached America from third-world laboratories via unscrupulous on-line Canadian pharmacies. But safety issues aside, Bush advanced the entire idea that prescription drugs should be cheap. This answer revealed an apparent lack of understanding of the incredibly high cost of the drug companies’ years-long process of trials and errors that on extremely rare occasions yield marketable pharmaceuticals. Of these, fewer still ever generate profits.
Those test tubes full of disappointing compounds and wonder drugs that fail when exposed to humans rather than rats somehow have to be financed. Unfortunately, sometimes the high prices for drugs that reach consumers sustain the pharmaceutical sector’s miracle factories. If Bush understands this, he should explain it. If not, he should spend a few hours at a pharmaceutical research lab and see the tremendous physical and intellectual infrastructure required to produce those amazing little pills. Draining the drug companies’ wallets by importing Canadian pharmaceutical price controls is a splendid way to dim the lights at the scientific outposts that literally are helping growing numbers of Americans live to age 100.
That answer aside, Bush’s far superior St. Louis performance likely reassured his supporters as well as swing voters that he merely had an off night in the first debate and that nothing much more was amiss. People accuse President Bush of being stubborn. He showed Friday night that he is adroit and flexible enough to learn from his errors, adjust, and do what it takes to be effective.