Politics & Policy

Killer Debate Ahead

The prospects for Bush v. Kerry I.

Richard Reeves, who knows politics the way Webster knew words, has predicted that the debate on Thursday will be “bloody and dirty, demeaning to all concerned.” On the eve of the encounter the odds have stabilized: Bush is ahead, Kerry is alert to this and is groping for riveting means by which to reannounce himself as an alternative to the incumbent.

We can imagine the coaching sessions being given to the principals. The Commission on Presidential Debates has announced the rules, which were finally agreed upon by representatives of the two parties. Two provisions stand out. The first limits the debaters’ time for a response to two minutes. That doesn’t mean “approximately two minutes.” Nor is this unprecedented. In one of his debates, Ronald Reagan, soaring forward in his two minutes, arrived at a rhetorical coda that launched him toward his regular trinitarian affirmation of God, country, and family — when the bell rang, and he was left without the pitiful two seconds he needed to complete his oath.

For Thursday’s debate, we are told that at the end of two minutes exactly, bells will ring, the studio will shake, and a fresh hurricane will bring down the roof in Coral Gables. There are those who believe that this will hurt Kerry more than it will hurt Bush, on the grounds that Bush tends to succinctness, Kerry to orotundity, but no doubt Mr. Kerry will have prepared himself to abide by the rule.

A second rule, again not novel, but deeply inhibiting, is the provision that denies to the debaters the right directly to question each other.

“Senator Kerry, in April, May, and December, you came out in favor of the Iraq enterprise; now, in June and September, you assail it. . .”

Such a question will of course be put by the panel of questioners, but it isn’t the same as vivid cross examination, person-to-person. Under this formula, a debater can’t directly force his opponent to dwell on an inconsistency or a question evaded.

But here again there are the two approaches. Mr. Bush is best off being simultaneously vague and principled. Mr. Kerry is best at picking holes in the President’s answers and in past speeches and deepening them in an attempt to catch George Bush in the unforgiving noose of historical particularities. Whatever is left to be done on the matter of the misreading of Iraq’s aggressive potential, Mr. Kerry will attempt to do. And there is no way in which Bush with predictable success can simply plead that there is no final difference between weapons in hand, and weapons prospectively in hand.

The President has ultimately to rely on perspectives. David Ignatius of the Washington Post, explicitly influenced by the recent publication in France of a report by an anti-Bush jihad expert, wrote, “The Taliban regime in Afghanistan has been toppled; the fence-sitting, semi-Islamist regime in Saudi Arabia has taken sides more strongly with the West; Islamists in Sudan and Libya are in retreat; and the plight of the Palestinians has never been more dire. And Baghdad, the traditional seat of the Muslim caliphs, is under foreign occupation. . . . Perhaps it takes an outsider — a Frenchman, even — to help Americans see the war on terrorism in perspective. Saturated in terrorism alerts and images of violence from Iraq, Americans may miss the essential fact that the terrorists are losing.”

To plant such perspectives is very difficult. In the dark winter of 1941-42, any comfortable thoughts about the attenuating strength of Hirohito and Hitler would have been difficult to swallow. And to counter any attempt at perspective, Mr. Kerry is certain to describe dramatically an American life lost that very day.

Well, John Kerry is a skillful debater. In his column, Richard Reeves writes, “Kerry was called the ’second-best’ debater he handled by the distinguished and revered Yale debate coach, Rollin Osterweis. The best, said Osterweis, was William F. Buckley.”

Well, Mr. Kerry should be satisfied to continue in his career as runner-up.


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