The American Presidential Election isn’t over just yet.
Like most people I had written John Kerry’s presidential aspirations off, due both to his own inability to connect with the American public and his opponent’s skilful manipulation of them. While I personally detest George W. Bush, I recognize political talent when I see it and he is one of the best politicians that I’ve ever laid eyes on. He has managed to transform himself from a wealthy oil baron and privileged Connecticut blue-blood with a drug problem, a DUI conviction, an IQ that isn’t much higher than room temperature, and the ignominy of having traded Sammy Sosa for a bag of balls while he was the owner of the Texas Rangers, into the political equivalent of John Wayne: tough, rugged, but always packing heat and unafraid to use it to save the day. John Kerry, until tonight’s first debate in a series that promises to be much more interesting than anyone could have imagined, was widely perceived as a snooty easterner with too much money and too little sense of what “average” Americans wanted. That changed tonight, and in a big way.
It became clear almost immediately after the start of the 90 minute debate that it wasn’t going to be a pleasant evening for Bush II. He stands almost six inches shorter than Kerry, and in order to equalize the height difference the television cameras shot Bush from a shorter distance than they did Kerry. The end result was that when Kerry was on screen the picture was all Kerry, when it turned to Bush almost half the screen was filled with the bottom of his podium. It made him look like a combination of a ten year old child and a pet monkey. It made Kerry look “presidential”, one the most coveted attributes in American politics. The television cameras also showed the response of one candidate to the remarks of the other, and while Bush looked either terribly confused or moments away from punching Kerry in the mouth, Kerry looked as though he was trying hard not to laugh at Bush. It was a very telling indication of how the night would go for both men.
Remember, this wasn’t supposed to be John Kerry’s evening. The first debate focused on foreign policy and Iraq, an area in which Bush was widely perceived as being dominant, while the last two are about domestic policy, a stronger suit for Kerry. But Kerry got his hooks into Bush almost immediately and didn’t let up. Bush stumbled and fumbled to repeat his message that Kerry was indecisive – his favourite lines were that a commander-in-chief can’t send mixed messages (although in a typical Bush moment he once described them “mexed missages”) and that he was determined to “see it through”.
In contrast, Kerry provided an articulate rejection of Bush’s ham-handed approach to international relations and presented an alternative that was considered, reasonable, and very appealing. He noted that Americans were suffering 90% of the casualties and spending 90% of the money in Iraq, that the supposed “coalition of the willing” wasn’t much of a coalition at all, and that when the Americans first invaded Iraq they sent troops to defend the oil fields but left the museums, nuclear facilities, and palaces unguarded.
When the debate moved onto broader issues of foreign policy, Kerry was even more convincing. He mentioned an incident during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1963 in which Robert Kennedy was dispatched to France to meet with Charles De Gaulle and secure his support. Kennedy offered to show De Gaulle pictures of the missiles in Cuba but he declined, assuring Kennedy that “the word of the President of the United States is all that I need.” Kerry then jolted Bush by asserting that such a scenario would be unlikely today, and that more broadly America needs to do a much better job of making friends internationally. He even extended an olive branch to the Muslim world, arguing that the American invasion of Iraq was creating more recruits for Osama Bin Laden than he could shake a stick at. Bush responded weakly that “Osama Bin Laden doesn’t decide for us, we do.” The results of this approach in Iraq, with more people killed in July than June, in August than July, in September than August, and so forth, would seem to disagree.
Much to my delight, Kerry next went after Bush about his desire to build a missile shield (aside: has anyone bothered to ask why we’re building shields when the nukes that terrorist or other “rogue states” would use are packed in suitcases instead of attached to ICBM’s?) Bush spun Kerry’s position on foreign policy as weakness that would send the wrong message to America’s “enemies” and embolden them. Kerry, as he did throughout the debate, had a response that made Bush look silly. He noted that the Bush government is building “nuclear bunker busters” and asked rhetorically whether that sends “the right message”.
The defining moment of the debate, and one that will be replayed in the next few days, is a moment near the end where Bush justifies his attack because, in his words, “we were attacked.” You could see Kerry furiously writing while Bush rambled on, and when it was his turn to speak he hammered Bush. It was Bin Laden, not Saddam Hussein, that attacked the United States, and the 9/11 Commission couldn’t find a shred of evidence to support the idea that Hussein was behind the attacks on the World Trade Centre. Meanwhile, Bush pulled troops and resources away from Afghanistan, where they had Bin Laden trapped in the mountains, and sent them to Iraq instead. The job of capturing Bin Laden was contracted out to Afghan warlords who would rather terrorize each other in order to control the opium trade. And, not surprisingly, that’s precisely what they did.
Part of me has always thought that Bush’s ignorance was deliberate and calculated. Nobody could possibly be this stupid, I tell myself. But his stupidity found a new gear tonight. For example – and believe me, there are plenty of them – Bush frequently referred to the Iranian mullahs as “moolahs”, made his familiar “nooklear” pronunciation blunder, and sat stone-faced for five or six seconds at a time accompanied by an audible sound of wheels turning more than once. At times, Kerry seemed flabbergasted by Bush and his stupidity, and perhaps by the third debate he will crack and call Bush an idiot or some equally deadly mistake.
Maybe it’s the political equivalent of Muhammad Ali’s famous “Rope-a-Dope” technique that he used to knockout the bigger and stronger George Foreman in Zaire in 1974. Bush wasn’t supposed to defeat Al Gore and he did in 2000 (well, not really, but that battle’s already been lost). But if this fight goes the full twelve rounds, I can’t imagine John Kerry not winning on points. Bush’s performance was best captured by a sign carried by a few of his more exuberant supporters that was hoisted behind the podium that held CNN’s post-debate coverage – it read, very simply, “POO”. Where Bush looked weak and outclassed in this debate, Kerry looked articulate, thoughtful, and almost Kennedy-esque in his grace and elegance. We can only hope both as Canadians and as human beings that the American public sees these two for what they really are.
Ottawa, October 1 – 1232 w.