Politics & Policy

The Comeback Kids

Old man Kerry is back...

Two candidates made strong comebacks in Wednesday night’s presidential debate, but with starkly different results.

#ad#President George W. Bush clearly roared back–scoring his best performance of the three debates. John Kerry “came back” as well–but the old John Kerry returned, one that had a hard time with crisp, concise answers and one that at times seemed aloof and sanctimonious.

The president was more energized than his opponent and hit just about every point he needed to make.

‐Bush was even able to bring up some effective foreign-policy points in a domestic-policy debate, like highlighting Kerry’s vote against the first Gulf War and his silly line about the “global test.”

Like the last debate, this one witnessed a reversal of fortune. Kerry clearly was supposed to dominate the domestic-policy-agenda questions and he did not. As for Bush, this was supposed to be the president’s “weaker” area and his performance again Wednesday night–like the second debate–was very strong.

President Bush clearly had enough facts down to sound substantively credible, but he usually laced his answers with strong critiques of Kerry’s position as well. Health care was a good example. The president ticked off a series of proposals aimed at lowering costs, like medical-malpractice reform, more consumer-driven health care and greater use of technology–all very sound answers.

Kerry seemed defensive, stiff, and tentative–never sure if he was on offense or defense. He also rambled a great deal and mentioned too many policy buzzwords. There was certain crispness in his language in the first debate lacking Wednesday night. My general impression was that the boring policy wonk so many Democratic activists I’ve talked to over the past year feared–complete with facts, figures, and ice water running through his veins–made a come back Wednesday night, big time.

He gets the award for “legislative ghostwriter of the year” because of all the bills that passed that he happened to cosponsor–a lame response to Bush’s charge that he has a vacuous 20-year Senate record. I also thought Kerry’s comments about working with Senator McCain on campaign-finance reform as his best example of what he would do to restore bipartisanship and civility was ludicrous. How about Social Security, health care, or education?

Kerry also must have lost the pages from his briefing book on values and manners. His values were about as wobbly as a ship in a storm in Boston Harbor, and I’m not sure after listening whether his theological pedigree is based more on St. Timothy or Timothy Leary. He’s Catholic, an alter boy, in favor of marriage, but he can’t vote to protect it. And raising the issue about the vice president’s daughter was a corrupt, below-the-belt tactic we’ve come to expect from Democrats with a tradition linked to machine politics and organized labor like Senators Kerry and Edwards.

Yes, this debate welcomed back two “comeback kids.” The president’s comeback should buoy his supporters and convince undecided voters to support him. The senator’s supporters probably were probably not real happy to have the old John Kerry return.

Gary Andres is vice chairman of research and policy at the Dutko Group Companies and a frequent NRO contributor.

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