Wednesday, October 13, 2004

The Last Debate, Gearing Up

I never posted any comments here on the Presidential town-hall debates a week ago, but one moments in it was, in my opinion, crucial. As far as I can tell, nobody noticed it, or at least, nobody noticed who was paying any attention. It came when a questioner asked Bush whether he could name three mistakes he had made while he had been in office and what he would do differently.

A lot of pundits took note of the first part of Bush's answer -- that when people ask if he's made any mistakes, it's about the major decisions and events of his presidency: not paying close enough attention to Al-Qaeda before September 11, invading Afghanistan, cutting taxes, passing the Medicare extension, pulling out of the Kyoto treaty and the ICC, bypassing diplomatic solutions to the problem in Iraq, the invasion, the post-invasion, Abu Ghraib, Ahmed Chalabi, passing but not funding No Child Left Behind, failing to extend unemployment benefits during the recession, more tax cuts, etc., etc. Here, Bush says, I stand by my decisions.

This was a strong, effective answer. It has the air of demystification: "this is what people mean when they talk about mistakes." And it firmly demonstrates Bush's resolve on the core issues of his presidency and his major differences with the Democratic party. Really, Bush should have said it and shut up. But when he kept talking, he said something remarkable: that if he had to name any mistakes he had made, it had been in his appointments -- but that he didn't want to name the people involved, so as to embarass them on national television.

Lucky for Bush, nobody really noticed it. Of course, he's not talking about the appointments most Bush opponents would have seen as mistakes -- Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleeza Rice, John Ashcroft -- or, in all likelhood, sending secret messages to Colin Powell -- but rather referring to people appointed by Bush who are no longer with the administration. That means -- if we're picking three of Bush's "mistakes" -- Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, EPA head Christine Todd Whitman, and then a wild card of either CIA director George Tenet or head of counterterrorism Richard Clarke.

In other words, the only mistakes Bush's administration is willing to publicly admit is that at one time, some of its members admitted publicly that the administration has made mistakes.

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