Thursday, October 14, 2004

The Last Debate, Hazily Recollected

As with the first, I watched the third and final Presidential Debate at a bar. Chaucer's Tabard Inn, a trusty round-the-corner-and-up-the-street literary pub that's now under new ownership, was hosting a bluegrass music night, so a few of my friends and I met up at The Happy Rooster, a similar if smaller Center City bar, not too far from City Hall.

The environs were much less comforting. Half the crowd didn't want to watch the debate at all, including one drunken, Bush-supporting woman sitting right by the television screen. They wanted to drink and eat their dinner. It was hard to hear, and they only had bottled beer, no draught, so I quickly determined that I could do better at home. So I missed a few good chunks of the debate, and was surprised at the end to hear pundits declaring it a draw: with the volume down, Bush seemed to me to be the clear winner. (Of course, I could and should have consulted the full debate transcripts at the Commission on Presidential Debates website here.)

Bush's strategy was simple, physical, and effective: to take away Kerry's advantage at a podium debate by making himself appear to be as dynamic as possible. Bush has a hard time sitting still. This is why he appeared so increasingly uncomfortable in the first debate, and did much better in the second. This isn't about style over substance: Bush thinks and speaks better when he's in motion. When he's sitting still at a desk or podium and fumbles over a thought or phrase, he gets frustrated and begins to look a little bit like a high school student trying to remember the answers to the tests. When he can coordinate his thoughts with physical actions, both his mouth and memory work better. As a noted pacer, fidgeter, and hands-talker, I can empathize.

It's astonishing, too, to realize that another reason Bush did so much better in the second and third debates is because he's actually much more effective than Kerry on domestic issues rather than foreign policy. Bush's rhetoric on foreign affairs doesn't pass the smell test. Nobody really believes that life is peachy in Iraq and Afghanistan, and even W's noble sentiments about the power of spreading peace and freedom throughout the world don't really connect with an middle-American electorate that's isolationist, cynical, or both. Kerry's managed to outflank Bush on this issue with right-leaning moderates since his plan reduces spending and brings more troops home. For these people, it doesn't matter whether the war was a good idea or not.

On domestic issues, however, Bush has the luxury of clarity, while Kerry does not. Faced with questions about religion, abortion, and gay marriage, Kerry is politically and compelled to say one version or another of "it's complicated," while Bush is able to say, "no, it's not." With respect to taxes, Kerry is compelled to balance his promises for new programs and tax cuts with his ability to pay for them, while Bush hasn't been compelled to balance anything. Nobody believes that Bush will balance the budget, but very few people really care, since he's credible when he says that he won't raise taxes. (He'll cut programs instead, but again -- few people really care, so long as it isn't social security.) Kerry is not credible in promising not to raise taxes on the middle class, and with our daily deepening debt, may not even be credible in promising to work to balance the budget. (Howard Dean made this point especially effectively in the primaries.) If most money-minded American people believe, rightly or wrongly, that the employment is going to continue to go up at the slow but steady rate it has been, and that the deficits will remain deficits regardless who is in office, then they're probably more likely to vote for the candidate who they believe will not raise their taxes. Unless they really are paying attention to their health care, property tax, and college tuition bills, and connect this to the federal government's newfound austerity towards the states and generosity towards insurance and drug companies, in which case, the trial lawyers make a handy villain. Nobody likes lawyers anyway.

I know that on this election, I've waffled between optimism and pessimism for the Kerry campaign and his chances of reaching the White House. Now my pessimism has begun to take the long view. Suppose Kerry does become the first Senator (and northern Democrat) to be elected President since John F. Kennedy. One question is whether his presidency will be a Carter presidency or a Clinton presidency. Carter, too, was a smart, tough-minded guy who emerged out of a period of economic depression and deep dissatisfaction with the party in power, but he was ultimately ineffective in turning around the country's domestic and foreign slump, and was neither liked nor trusted by the American people. The country went Republican (and eventually grew much more conservative) immediately following his watch. Clinton, on the other hand, despite his very public failures and surprisingly private successes, was a remarkably effective steward of the country during his eight years in office, and oversaw a rebirth and revitalization of his party that has, unfortunately, fizzled out in his absence.

Kerry, of course, is neither Carter nor Clinton, nor Kennedy, Johnson, Truman, or FDR, Gore, Dukakis, Mondale, or any other Democrat in Presidential politics you can name. In some ways he's closer to 41, George H.W. Bush, than his own son is. But Bush, too, promised not to raise taxes, and eventually -- despite his international successes -- it murdered him.

1 comment:

Gavin said...

Of course, H.W. did raise taxes, and it was hard to recover from that "read my lips" line, but do we that that the dynamic Mr. C. would ever have reached office in the first place if he hadn't had that crazy little man, Mr. Perot, siphoning off votes on the conservative side?