It’s My Party and I’ll Cry If I Want To
Tonight’s debate has put me in a tough spot. While I don’t want this to be a partisan polemic in support of John Kerry, it’s difficult for it to be anything else. Tonight’s debate was a continuation of last Thursday’s performance in which, by any reasonable analysis, Kerry destroyed George Bush.
With that in mind, I won’t talk much about Kerry’s strengths because I think they’re apparent to any rational human being who watched tonight’s debate. His performance was perhaps best defined by the moment when an audience member asked him to look into the camera and promise not to raise taxes for middle-class Americans. He did it without hesitation, and was powerfully convincing in so doing.
Like the majority of Canadians and an overwhelming majority of social democrats, I’m sympathetic to Kerry’s cause and antagonistic towards both Bush’s record and the man himself. But since Bush has shrewdly fashioned an image as a down home country lovin’ Texan, I’ll discuss his performance using a Clint Eastwood styled analysis of tonight’s debate: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
First, the good for Bush. Americans are, judging by the post-debate coverage, very, very stupid people. Both CNN and CBS polled their audiences for commentary, and unless they handpicked their audience from Jerry Falwell’s immediate family – a possibility, considering that the debate took place in Missouri – Americans actually seemed to prefer Bush’s performance.
Next, the bad, and there was in my estimation a fair amount to choose from. Bush returned to one of his favourite hobby-horses from the first debate, the participation of Poland in his supposedly grand alliance in Iraq. John Kerry deftly pointed out that since the last debate, Poland announced plans for a full withdrawal of its troops by the end of 2005. Kerry also observed that if the troops enlisted in the United States army from Missouri were a nation unto themselves, they would be the third largest partner in the coalition behind the United States and Great Britain.
Bush noted that he was “disappointed” that they didn’t find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. I was disappointed that Kerry didn’t pick up on this significant admission on Bush’s part, because it would have gone a long way towards demonstrating that Bush’s priority was not the elimination of weapons of mass destruction but rather the elimination of Saddam Hussein. He once again revealed his true priorities when asked by an audience member for three decisions that he believed in retrospect were mistakes: rather than actually answering the question, he bumbled on about how we was convinced that “taking out” Saddam Hussein was the right thing to do.
His response to questions about healthcare was reminiscent of his father’s response to questions about the economy in 1992. Like his father, who insisted that the American economy was fine because Americans were refinancing their homes in large numbers, Bush made the laughable assertion that the key to fixing medicare was to reduce the number of medial liability lawsuits. Not increasing funding, not approving bulk drug purchases – which he himself made illegal – or allowing cheaper Canadian drugs to cross the border – because, as he said, “I wanna’ make sure that they cure ‘ya, not kill ‘ya” – and not trading tax cuts to the wealthiest one percent of Americans for healthcare for the other 99. Nope, the key, according to Bush, was to prevent lawyers from filing lawsuits against negligent doctors who amputate your legs instead of taking your appendix.
Finally, the ugly. There were more “Bushims” in play tonight than any reasonable person should be asked to endure: “internets” and “unaccounted judges” (as opposed to, say, the unaccountable ones that most republicans dislike) are but two of his worst violations of the English language. Uglier still was the economic picture than John Kerry painted for Americans, and a few highlights – or lowlights, as the case may be – should suffice here. In three and a half years Bush added more debt than every President from George Washington to Ronald Reagan put together, turning a 5.6 trillion dollar surplus left behind by Bill Clinton into a 2.6 trillion dollar deficit. Bush is the first President in 74 years to lose jobs while in office and the first to cut taxes during a war, although the highest 1% of income earners got more from that cut than the other 99% below them.
But the ugliest moments of this debate weren’t Bush’s linguistic missteps or even his monstrous economic incompetence, but rather the vision that he presented for the future. He essentially admitted that Iraq had become the Vietnam-like quagmire that most Democrats predicted, asserting that “it will be a long, long war” and that “I will spend whatever it takes to win the war.” So much for an early exit and that free and prosperous Iraq he promised. He spelled it out for Americans by explaining that the task of the 21st century is “finding and killing terrorists, at home and abroad.”
Where Kerry was inspirational and presented a vision of hope, clearly articulated and supported by actual facts, Bush resorted to his well-worn scare tactics. Where Kerry was nuanced and thoughtful, Bush was painfully simplistic. Bush’s remarks sounded more like schoolyard bullying than the remarks of an American President, highlighted by “that’s just reality”, “they just are”, “it’s a fact”, and ”that’s just the way it is.” As the title of this review indicates, it reminds me more of a child throwing an immature temper-tantrum than the supposed leader of the free world.
I came away from the debate convinced that even the most skeptical conservative would see tonight’s event as a victory for Kerry. The two men didn’t look like they belonged in the same room – one was polished, educated, compassionate, and thoughtful, and the other was a wise-cracking ignoramus who looked, at the best of times, lost. But, as I mentioned earlier, the American punditocracy declared it a draw, with some even declaring it a victory for Bush.
In my review of the first debate I compared it to the legendary 1974 fight between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali, postulating that we might be seeing the political equivalent of Ali’s famous rope-a-dope technique. Allow me to nuance that analogy with tonight’s performance and post-debate analyses in mind. George Bush has outdone himself in his own dopiness, and Kerry has lived up to the Foreman analogy in fitting fashion, pounding the daylights out of his opponent. The knockout punch may well come from the American electorate in less than four weeks who, in spite of two convincing performances by Kerry and two comically bad ones by Bush, are still poised to re-elect Bush by a comfortable margin. I desperately hope that they come to their senses and, as Bush himself implored, look at their records. But the decision ultimately rests in the hands of the American public and that, more than anything else, makes me worry.
Ottawa, October 8 – 1157 w.