With the first Presidential debate a thing of the past, I am left overwhelmingly unsatisfied. Thursday’s event is universally thought as the most important face-off of the race. With only a few weeks until ballots are cast, the spotlight was squarely focused on the candidates, providing equal opportunity for each to shine. While I think it can safely be said that John Kerry had the better showing; will it be enough to win an election? Kerry missed a number of opportunities to press the advantage, essentially letting Bush off the hook.
Although journalistic sports metaphors reign aplenty, this event had the build-up of a heavy-weight championship fight. I expected to see the Q-tipped cranium of Don King. I cannot count the number of times I have heard, “This is the most important election of our lifetime.” Expectations were on the brink and it was crucial for the Senator from Massachusetts to snatch a victory to have any hope of November success. Yet like so many King promoted title bouts, this one didn’t quite match the hype.
It was a good but not great debate. To John Kerry’s credit, he handled himself with exceptional poise on a stage grander than any he had performed. He maintained a dignified manner and followed the rules of engagement, which are a sham by the way. The candidates negotiated a thirty-five page contract on the minutiae of how the debate was to be conducted. According to that recipe, there was to be neither addresses nor responses directed from one candidate to the other. No questions could be posed by anyone but the moderator, Jim Lehrer. I’m sorry, but two these men are vying for the most powerful position in the world. If they can’t handle the heat of tough interrogations from one another or the American people, which they espouse to be leading, we have much more serious problems as a nation. That was not a debate. It was not even a dialogue. It was little more than a charade, packaged as though it contained some material difference. At times, they could have been infomercial salesman, reading from cue cards.
Despite being heralded as a strong debater, Kerry’s showing was strong but not a knock-out. As the challenger, he had to strike a decisive blow against the President, not win on points. For all his tailored talk, his rhetoric never truly took sharp aim at Bush. Instead, he settled for platitudes, focusing on abstract messages of global focus. Both men feebly tried to personalize issues with “I was talking to John Patriot last month…” As for the President, he managed to repeat the same “flip-flop” mantra, explicitly, no less than eight times. Beyond that, his patent smug implications of “I am not going to hold it against my opponent that he said…” were also repeated countless times. It amounted to a slightly more sophisticated game of name-calling. While Kerry presented more substantive issues, why he never got after the President I’ll never know.
I am sure each team’s handlers prepped their man with pleas of “Don’t go negative.” Every election presupposes that the American people despise negative attacks by politicians. Yet, experts routinely expose the fact these tactics work. The race is getting down to the wire and there are no points for second. All one has to do is head to Tennessee and ask Al Gore. For Kerry to win the election, the gloves must come off. Now, I am not suggesting that the Senator set out on a path of nothing but malicious muckraking, but how about demanding some real accountability. His debate victory basically preached to the “Anyone-but-Bush” crowd, in which I certainly include myself. He did little to seize the moment, differentiate himself, or convince undecided voters. All the while, Bush continued baiting the hook with his redundancy.
Dear Mister President
I only wish that Kerry would have pressed the advantages he gleaned. Why not go on the attack and take the opportunity to drop a series of open questions and accusations and let them linger?
How about returning Bush’s “flip-flop” accusations back at him? I’ve always been under the impression that changing one’s mind is often a product of deeper knowledge and understanding on a particular issue. Frequently, it is a demonstration of growth and wisdom, not a de facto disclosure of soft values. Apparently, the President only understands entrenched, inflexible dogma, which sounds distinctly Middle Eastern to me. Furthermore, the President stated, “Every American life is precious.” Yet, while Governor of Texas, he endorsed the executions of more people than any other state in the union. So which is it, Mr. President?
He also claimed, “My opponent had the same intelligence I did, when he said Saddam Hussein was a great threat.” The notion that the Senate and the President looked at identical intelligence reports is ludicrous. If the President of the United States is not privy to the most classified intelligence, gathered for his eyes only, then we are not nearly as safe as Bush would suggest. Anyone who believed that rubbish is plain silly. Still, our invasion of Iraq was built on faulty intelligence. Aren’t leaders supposed to take ultimate responsibility for their decisions? Didn’t Tony Blair take it on the chin recently? Nevertheless, Iraq was on the verge of becoming a nuclear threat and supposedly developing weapons of mass destruction. Dealing with this new reality is declared priority for preserving the safety of America. So, why not hammer the fact that stable nations such as North Korea, Pakistan, India, and Iran either have already developed or are currently developing nuclear programs with the potential to produce weapons of mass destruction? Dangerous proliferation of these means was primary motivation for a US invasion. Rather than mentioning this as a sidebar, why not reiterate the point until a remotely adequate response is even attempted?
The whole “War on Terror” coupling with Iraq is a farce that has alienated most of our strongest allies. Instead Kerry focused on this. The only retort is that the world is better off with Hussein in prison. No one is going to argue the global benefits of some murderous despot ruling with tyranny. All the same, now that the jig is up what justification does the President have for billions of dollars, thousands of lives, and the incalculable strategic and intelligence miscalculations that precipitated a pre-emptive attack? Exactly what were we preventing? Or what kind of prevention are we engaged in now that we are there, with seemingly no exit strategy. Take your pick answering! There was no shortage of people across the globe that hated this country before, now what reason do they have to feel differently?
Finally, Kerry wins no favor harping about Bin Laden. Osama has become little more than a figurehead. For the walls of terrorist’s hovels, his image is the equivalent of a David Beckham poster adorning a teenager’s bedroom. However, the Al-Quiada leader was supposedly in Afghanistan, which we also invaded. Yet, Bin Laden and most of the men involved in the 9/11 attacks hailed from Saudi Arabia. Interestingly, the administration was in no rush to send bombers to that patch of oil and sand. Why is that? Along that line of thinking, Mr. President could you explain a little bit about the personal and professional relationship the Bush family has with the House of Saud? I think the American people have a right to know a few more details about that.
Had the esteemed Senator from Massachusetts firmly stated any of these questions, the debate would have proved to be vastly more interesting and potentially yielded dramatically different results. I can only hope that Kerry will muster more genuine courage, before it is too late. Leaving the spotlight with your song still in you is surely the path to defeat. Furthermore, demanding answers to tough questions and presenting plausible alternatives is a greater demonstration leadership and steadfast convictions than the Kerry has yet to openly express.