While Sen. John Kerry was cutting a bella figura, President Bush was looking like a dog being washed.
That was the gleeful instant analysis of last week’s presidential debate by the chattering classes. In fact, the establishment media needed less than a week to spin vague perceptions about style and body language into a new urban legend starring a self-assured and smooth-talking challenger running rings around a hapless and tongue-tied incumbent.
Never mind that Kerry’s innumerable positions on Iraq and on the broader war against Islamist terror–the most pressing challenge of our time–were revealed as incoherent, opportunistic, and ultimately unserious. And never mind that subsequent polling strongly suggests that the electorate is less impressionable and more focused on substance than the liberal commentariat.
In fact, neither candidate performed as well or as poorly as conventional wisdom now maintains. But it’s also a fact the president turned in an uncharacteristically weak performance in presenting his strongest suit, foreign policy. He seemed visibly fatigued, falling back on repetition (“hard work…hard work”), and missing far too many opportunities to call his opponent on his sorry record of serial flip-flops and simultaneous straddles. Despite having the facts on his side, Bush appeared beleaguered and slow on his feet, bringing to mind an elder contemporary’s wrong assessment of the young Churchill’s debating skills–namely, that his artillery was indeed powerful, but not very mobile.
Perceptions matter, especially at this late stage of a hard-fought campaign. The stakes couldn’t be higher for tonight’s debate in St. Louis, which was originally slated to focus on the economy and domestic issues.
To prevail tonight, the president must above all draw the sharpest possible contrast between his record, vision, and skills and those of his opponent. That’s exactly the approach the president took in a major speech this Tuesday in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Its success can be measured by the New York Times’s reluctant acknowledgment that it was “a highly combative” and “scathing, point-by-point critique” of Kerry’s various positions, meaning that it was–from the Times’s partisan viewpoint–regrettably effective.
So what is the president’s best approach tonight? Here are a few suggestions.
Context is critical. “It’s the war, stupid.” Right from the outset, Bush needs above all to frame the debate by putting everything in the broader, necessary context of the ongoing war. Existential threats to the American way of life, in the shape of another catastrophic attack on the American homeland, put all other issues in proper perspective.
One effective way to make this clear is to tally up the massive direct and indirect costs of the 9/11 attacks, over and above the grievous loss of innocent life. According to the Government Accounting Office, these losses may total at least $80 billion for New York City alone. Whatever the actual figures for the economy as a whole–bearing in mind, for instance, 1 million job losses in the immediate aftermath and huge, continuing public and private-sector security costs–this order of magnitude is the proper yardstick for measuring all other priorities.
“We find ourselves in the midst of a conflict unlike any other we have ever known, faced with the possibility that terrorists could smuggle a deadly biological agent or a nuclear weapon into the middle of one of our cities.” That’s the threat Vice President Cheney properly raised earlier this week. It’s also the proverbial elephant in the room, as Americans are reminded whenever they enter an airport, school, or even a downtown office building. And it’s a sure bet that the candidate who ignores or plays down this threat will lose tonight’s debate.
Properly framed, the Democrats’ entire tax-and-spend domestic agenda sinks to the level of school uniforms and midnight basketball.
“Weapons of mass corruption.” The president should seize every opportunity to turn to his advantage this week’s report by the Iraq Survey Group, now being spun against the administration by the mainstream media (“War’s Rationales are Undermined One More Time; Revelations May Hurt Bush’s Image,” according to the Washington Post). Now there’s no point in rehashing–certainly not at length–the tired controversy over pre-war intelligence estimates, except to point out that Kerry fully accepted them at the time, for all his characteristic second-guessing from the politically safe position of hindsight. What matters is that the report lays out the unanswerable case that Kerry’s preferred coalition partners–France, Russia, and China above all–are the real “coalition of the coerced and bribed,” and that the entire sanctions regime–which supposedly kept Saddam “in his box”–was in fact on the point of collapse. Thursday’s Daily Telegraph headline gets it exactly right: “Weapons of Mass Corruption.”
Oil-for-Food. An untenable strategic situation owing to failed sanctions. Fresh confirmation of French and German unwillingness to deploy troops to Iraq under any circumstances. Seems like the challenger–not the incumbent–has some explaining to do.
The vision thing. No less critical is for the president to frame the election as the choice between an opportunity society and the nanny state. Again, Bush’s task is sharpen the contrast between empowerment and dependency, which happens to be one of his favorite themes, one that he’s consistently argued with conviction and flair since entering public life.
Values. Howard Dean famously dismissed the values most Americans hold as no more than “God, gays, and guns.” Here Bush enjoys a clear edge over his challenger, which he needs to press at every opportunity. As with Oil-for-Food, stressing mainstream values offers Bush the chance to kill more than one bird with one stone. Take Supreme Court appointments. Would a President Kerry fill expected vacancies with judges like those on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, who imposed gay marriage by judicial fiat after discerning a hitherto unnoticed constitutional right to the same in the nation’s oldest state constitution? For that matter, how can Kerry support limiting marriage to the union of one man and one woman while voting against the federal Defense of Marriage Act?
Talkers vs. doers. Bush needs to turn Kerry’s vacuous glibness to his own advantage. He might respond to a Kerry answer (about, say, national security,) as follows:
My opponent talks a good game. But Americans are looking for leadership–for doers, not talkers. And national security isn’t a game. It’s a matter of life and death. Now I’m a doer and I’ve got a record I’m proud to run on. But my opponent’s running away from his.
Bush needs to point out over and over again that he’s run enterprises far bigger and more complex than a 60-person Senate staff. And to emphasize that he’s not a lawyer, perhaps the only profession the public holds in less esteem than journalism.
Let Kerry be Kerry. And, if the challenger won’t oblige, it’s up to the incumbent to manufacture a suitable provocation. John Kerry was on his best behavior in the first debate, but his notoriously thin skin and short fuse are no secret; and any perceived slight to his image as perfect brings out his arrogance and self-importance. (Just ask the unlucky Secret Service agent who made Kerry fall down while snowboarding for the cameras.) Nothing would provoke Kerry more than pointed references to his utter lack of any relevant executive experience (including his long-ago stint as Mike Dukakis’s lieutenant governor, an office lacking any constitutional responsibilities). And nothing’s more likely to put on display the least attractive aspects of Kerry’s persona, namely his bottomless narcissism and sense of entitlement.
Charm. Bush has it; Kerry doesn’t. Unlike Kerry, who is truly humorless, Bush can tell a joke at his own expense, as he did on Tuesday in poking fun at his own evident exasperation during the first debate. Kerry, on the other hand, can’t tell a joke that doesn’t reek of calculation, his every utterance palpably the product of polls and focus groups. But life isn’t fair–c’est dommage, as Kerry’s French supporters might say.
Prediction. By 11 P.M. some liberal commentator will claim to have suspected all along that the president’s sub-par performance in the first debate was really a ploy engineered by that dark genius Karl Rove to mislead the Kerry camp into overconfidence–and misunderestimation.
In any case, the outcome is likely to confirm the literally proverbial wisdom that the words of a fool make a rod for his own back (Prov. 10:13).
–Unlike fellow Yalies John F. Kerry ‘66 and George W. Bush ‘68–not to mention William F. Buckley Jr. ‘50–NRO contributor John F. Cullinan ‘80 was not a star pupil of the late Rollin Osterweis, who is fondly remembered as an outstanding professor of history and rhetoric, debate coach, and kindly mentor by several generations of Yale alumni.