That’s my boy. That’s my Bush. He a hoss–a debatin’ hoss. Last night, he was flat-out marvelous in debate. I said, following the second debate, that he had done well, but not his best. (Who does his best all the time? That’s why we call it “best.”) Last night, he did his best–and his best is superb. And I say this as an analyst, not a Bush partisan.
Regular readers will trust me on this, I believe.
The president was relaxed, informed, commanding, thoughtful, forceful, humorous–the whole array. Sometimes people ask me, “What do you see in him?” (They particularly ask this after a stumbling performance.) Well, that’s what I see in him–the Bush who fully emerged on October 13 is what I see.
Look, if the country saw him last night and still wants to fire him–they really don’t want him. What a lot of us have asked is that Bush give it his best shot. This was his best shot. I have kind of an absurd pride in him. I’m sort of bursting. If he loses, it won’t be his shame; it’ll be the country’s.
(It’s so great not to be a politician–you can say what you think.)
Friends, I’m going to give you some notes, in the order–rough order–in which I wrote them. Then I’ll be back (so to speak) for some general comments.
‐Kerry looks relaxed. Glad to be there. Eager to get going. Uh-oh.
‐His thank-yous, to everyone and his brother, are a little too confident. A little smug. Almost cocky. You know: “I got all the time in the world, I’m going to clean up in this debate, let me just thank for about five minutes.”
‐Kerry still hasn’t backed off his “alliances” thrust–good for him. There’s consistency. He actually believes in this French-German nonsense.
‐Has either of our guys ever nailed Kerry and Edwards on this “rush to war” business? It was the slowest rush to war in history.
‐As Kerry is speaking (this is the first answer), Bush seems unusually alert–ready to respond, ready to rebut.
‐Arrgh–Kerry has invoked Reagan again, positively. Kerry really hated Reagan. Said so–and acted like it–at every turn. Will Bush call him on it? This is the third debate in which Kerry has done this.
‐Bush is doing his “spreading liberty” shtick–excellent.
‐”Ridding the Taliban out of Afghanistan”–well, that’s Bush’s English. I like it. (As long as he rids Afghanistan of the Taliban.)
‐Bush hits Kerry on terrorism as a “nuisance.” Good. Using recent info. Cool.
‐Kerry’s smile looks botoxicated. I’m not saying this to be mean or snarky–or fashionable. No, I really mean that his smile looks botoxicated. Whether he uses the stuff, I have no idea.
‐Bush has found a new look to replace his peevish pout. It’s a strange look–but I like it. It works. How he can sustain it is kind of a miracle. The look says, in part, “What are you saying now? I can scarcely believe it.”
‐Kerry’s talking again–for the third debate–about “outsourcing” the task of hunting down Osama bin Laden to “Afghan warlords.” Is Bush going to answer this? For once? Can he?
‐I know what Bush has meant in the past, about not worrying about bin Laden: Destroying al Qaeda, and winning the War on Terror, is the main thing; getting bin Laden, personally, would be gravy.
‐The flu-shot question: I’m amazed at how well prepared Bush is. Amazed. He handles it deftly.
‐When he talks about not getting a flu shot–not getting one himself–he reminds me a little of Carter: sacrificin’. Turning down the thermostat. Wearing his sweater.
WIN! (No, that was Ford.)
‐Kerry: “This president has turned his back on the wellness of America.” Wouldn’t you be embarrassed to say that? I mean, if you were the most partisan Democrat alive, wouldn’t you be embarrassed to let those words come out of your mouth? Wouldn’t you choke on those words? Do Republicans say the equivalent? (I suppose they do, but I can’t think of an example.)
‐I must admit that Kerry, personally–in his affect–repulses me. I don’t say, however, that I’m typical. I’m certainly not typical of the Massachusetts electorate.
How many times has he been reelected?
‐Bush: “A plan is not a litany of complaints.” Marvelous. And Bush is certainly spouting statistics tonight. I’m kind of surprised. Hope they’re right!
‐Kerry: “unaffordable tax cut.” Clever phrase.
But don’t they think all tax cuts are “unaffordable”?
‐”McCain-Kerry Commission.” (This is Kerry talking.) Linking himself to the popular Arizona senator–smart.
‐Here is a problem I have as a debate critic, certainly by this third presidential debate: I expect Kerry to perform well, and therefore discount it. I mean, he’ll always be able to talk.
‐Bush: “I sent up my budget man . . .” My budget man. Don’t you love the way Bush talks? Maybe it’s just me. Hope it’s 51 percent.
‐Bush is right to link jobs and education. Edwards mocked Cheney for this, but Bush and Cheney are right. They “get it,” to use today’s parlance.
‐”We’re spending money, but let’s raise the standards.” Sort of compassionate conservatism in a nutshell (no matter what you think of it).
‐”Guess what, America?” When Kerry says that, he sounds a little condescending to me–a little off-putting.
‐Kerry: “I have not shied from talking about outsourcing in union halls–saying we’ll never eliminate it.” (I paraphrase.) Excellent answer.
‐Bush talks unabashedly about “money in your pocket.” I doubt Kerry, or a similar Dem, ever would. They’d be embarrassed. Sounds so grubby–”money in your pocket.” But Bush doesn’t think it’s grubby. Bush thinks it’s cool.
‐Bush’s demeanor is excellent, IMO. Not too hot, not too limp. Just right. (Sorry to sound like The Three Bears.)
‐”We treat federal money as your money–not the government’s.” (Again, I paraphrase.) That’s an oldie, from Bush–from all of us right types–but a goodie.
‐Ted Kennedy as the conservative senator from Massachusetts–very nice, W. Very. ‘Bout time (for that particular line).
‐His answer on gay marriage is beautiful–absolutely out of the park. Schieffer asks, “Is homosexuality a choice?” I say to the television, “I don’t know. That’s the answer. I don’t know.” Bush says, “I don’t know.” Whew. Then he goes on, “But I do know that we have a choice to make in America”–for tolerance, etc. Fantastic. A free society, consenting adults, but principles, sanctity of marriage–fantastic.
And he defends the constitutional amendment, and the democracy that entails. At last–a cogent defense of the FMA. Again, fantastic.
‐Kerry and Mary Cheney. Edwards did it, and I wrote that I had “dark” suspicions about why. I don’t have suspicions anymore–twice is deliberate.
‐Bush is amazingly disciplined tonight–in control of his thoughts, his emotions. His words! If he had been this way on Sept. 30 . . .
But such thinking will send you to the funny farm.
‐Kerry is smart to invoke JFK (a president we don’t mind him invoking).
‐Bush is excellent–practically moving–on a “culture of life,” a “welcoming society” (or whatever it is). And the “brutal”–”brutal”!–practice of partial-birth abortion. He might have cited Moynihan, re infanticide.
When he talks about adoption, I think, “That was his dad’s answer.” Bush 41 would always go to adoption when the question of abortion came up–justly, too.
‐Schieffer says, “Is it the fault of [something], [something], [something], or the administration?” Bush cracks–I knew he would, as soon as I heard the question–”Gosh, I sure hope it’s not the administration.” That’s a risky joke. But Bush is not tightly political, which is one of the reasons so many of us love him.
‐Kerry keeps addressing the television audience as “America.” That can’t be good. Can it?
I wish he’d say “Mr. and Mrs. America”!
‐Kerry cites “national news networks” as supporting him. Well, of course they do! That is a truthful answer.
‐Bush makes exactly that point–nice.
‐Bush gives an incredibly tough-minded, factual answer on Medicaid and small business. Geez, it could have come from a white paper out of NCPA or something.
I’ve told people that Bush can be incredibly wonky (I’ve heard him). They never believe me. They ought to.
‐Neat of Bush to talk about other countries and their failure with socialized medicine–and not to name them. Very presidential. Half candidate, half president.
Hey, Britain and Canada: That means you (for two)!
‐On Social Security, he first addresses seniors, to reassure them. Just as he did in 2000. And he mentions the dirty Social Security politics of 2000.
A little later, he says, “If we don’t act today . . .”–so true. Then, “We need to have a different strategy”–great way of putting it.
‐Ah, now he quotes Moynihan! (But not on partial-birth.)
‐At last, Mr. Ownership Society comes out. (Talking about W.)
‐Bush refers to himself as “George W.” Endearing, as I hear it.
‐Sorry to sound so rah-rah tonight–but I’m just saying what I think. As usual. Is it my fault that Bush performed so well? He fired on all cylinders. A first-rate forensic performance.
‐Bush pledges to make a big deal of Social Security reform in a second term. “It’s an issue I’m willing to take on.” Wonderful way of putting it. There will be costs, true–but there will be “costs of doing nothing.” Magnificent. (Sounds like Iraq-invasion reasoning, too.)
‐His defense of the tax cuts is crystal-clear. Crystal. I mean, the Friedmans couldn’t do much better.
‐I believe he did poorly in the first debate in part because it was the first debate. His poor performance in 2000 came in the first debate. He hadn’t gotten comfortable. But with one debate out of the way–he improves, by leaps and bounds. If there were a fourth debate this year, he might reach Lincolnesque proportions (I exaggerate, a little).
We all have some of this in our own lives. I do television only sporadically, and I’m a little clumsy when I do it for the first time in a while. Do it three times in a week, and it’s like falling off a log.
‐A very, very crisp answer on immigration. The governor-of-Texas stuff–good. “To mate up”–a wonderful Bush expression! (“To mate up willing employee and willing employer.”)
Have I said in the last ten seconds I like the way Bush talks?
‐We–NR–may oppose Bush’s immigration policy, but seldom has he defended it so well.
‐Kerry stresses “iris” testing and “thumb” testing (I think). Wonder how his friends feel about that–I mean the scarifiers about Ashcroft.
‐Kerry continues to address the audience as “America.” Gosh, I hope others dislike that as much as I do.
‐Says Kerry, “This is one of those issues that separates the president and myself.” Let me tell you how literate people say that (note two changes): “This is one of those issues that separate the president and me.”
‐Friends, I’ve got no stats. But when Kerry says that women make 76 cents for every dollar a man makes at the same work–I don’t believe it. I may be full of it, Joe Uninformed. But I don’t believe it. Sounds like it came out of Eleanor Smeal’s purse or something, and is wrong.
‐Kerry has just equated reversing Roe v. Wade with taking away amendments in the Bill of Rights.
And remember: According to all the smarties, our guy is the stupid one. Gimme an effin’ break.
‐Bush: “The best way to take pressure off our troops is to succeed in Iraq.” Marvelous answer, mainly because true.
‐At long last–at long, long last! Bush nails Kerry for his opposition to the first Gulf War. And he does it in a quite artful way: If Bush 41 didn’t pass the senator’s global test, who could?
‐Friends, I had no complaints about the first three moderators (I’m counting the vice-presidential one). None. But, is it my Bozellian imagination, or are the questions tonight all liberal-slanted?
‐Kerry says “America,” I say “Friends.” Sorry. Which is worse (as Kerry might ask, $87 billion-wise)?
‐Kerry blasts Bush for not meeting with the NAACP, the Congressional Black Caucus, the “civil-rights leadership.” I wish Bush would say something like, “There’s more to black America than the NAACP. There’s more to black America than a lot of sour left-wingers. And why should John Kerry be allowed to define the ‘civil-rights leadership’? I meet with a lot of Americans–not just with approved ones.”
‐Funny that Bush, in his answer on religion (top-notch, by the way), feels the need to defend his tolerance. I love that Bush says “pray for me and my family.” Kerry would undoubtedly say “myself.”
‐Bush relates reliance on religion to principles in government–superb.
‐On the question of “America divided,” would be so nice if Bush mentioned Michael Moore, MoveOn.org, the Deaniacs, the Internet (Internets) . . .
CBS’s fake memos!
‐Schieffer says, “Each of us have two daughters.” Remember–please remember–that Bush is the dumb one here.
‐Bush: “She [Laura] speaks English a lot better than I do.” Marvelous. (Sorry I have turned this debate-analysis column into a language column.)
‐Ah, Michael P. Keaton is sitting next to Teresa! Of course! This is a Christopher Reeve thing. A stem-cell thing. Kerry was supposed to point to Keaton–but stem cells don’t come up (as they did in the second debate).
‐Oh, sorry: I guess I cooked a mélange of Alex P. Keaton, Michael Keaton, and Michael J. Fox.
‐Twice in his closing statement, Kerry pronounces “idea” with an “er” at the end. Where the hell did that come from? He has never talked Massachusetts before, that I’ve noticed.
‐Kerry pledges to make us “safer forever.” What utopian tripe. Reminds me of Congressman Greg Meeks at the Democratic convention: Under Kerry, we won’t be just “safer” but “safe.”
‐Oh, yes, I remember this painting, that Bush is talking about. I think that that painting–about the mountain and the sunrise–figured in the 2000 convention speech.
‐Wouldn’t it be amazing if Bush, our war president–serving when an hombre is needed–won on the soft stuff? The stuff of this third debate?
‐In his closing statement, Bush says, “I’m asking for your vote.” Very important. That is the O’Neill rule. Remember when Tip would talk about that? After an early election, which he lost, O’Neill met an old teacher of his on the street. They lamented the loss, and then Tip said, “Well, at least you voted for me.” And the teacher said, “I didn’t, Tom.” He said, “Why?” She answered, “Because you never asked me.” So O’Neill formed this rule: Always ask ‘em for your vote.
‐After 41 did his absolute best against Dukakis–I can’t remember which debate that was–I said, “He hit a very, very long ball.” I believe W. has done that tonight.
‐All right, some closing general statements. (I sound like a debatehead.) After the first debate, some of us said, “Any of us could have done better–with no preparation. Just drag us out of bed and throw us out there.” On Wednesday night, none of us could have done better. I don’t think anyone could have spoken better for this administration, or this presidency, than the president himself. I’m not sure I would have substituted anyone for him.
‐Had lunch with a liberal friend the other day. I said–to his disbelief, I think–”The Bush of the first debate is not the real Bush. He is extraordinarily smart and competent, and he’ll do much better in the next two debates.” “I hope not,” said my friend.
Now, that was a bit of a joke–but still: The whole country should be comforted by what W. showed last night.
‐Some of our critics are taunting us with, “Bush is going to lose, ha, ha, ha. Face up to reality, NRO boys, Kool-Aid drinkers.” All that. Frankly, I don’t talk much about who will win. I talk about who should win. What the people do is their business. I’m not all that worshipful of the people, frankly. This is part of the joy of not being a politician. This is the people that voted for Clinton twice; that excused him and reviled Ken Starr; that howled for Elián González to be shipped back to Cuba; that gave Al Gore more votes; that has tolerated abortion on demand for 30 years; that embraces a popular culture of raw sewage.
I don’t know what the American people will do on Nov. 2. But I know what I’ll do. I’ll pull the lever for George W., with a full and grateful heart.