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The Debate: Jim Lehrer vs. President Bush
OR John Kerry vs. John Kerry

By Andrew L. Jaffee, October 1, 2004
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The pundits are already prognosticating about last night’s presidential debates. Many say John Kerry “won,” but that’s not yet entirely clear. Am I the only person who noticed Kerry’s constant smirking, nodding, head-shaking, and general smugness while the President answered questions? Didn’t anyone else notice Jim Lehrer’s loaded questions directed at President Bush? Maybe Kerry scored a few points for debating, but he certainly didn’t win the November election early.

A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll of 615 registered voters who viewed the debate showed that Kerry “fared better” than Bush, but also revealed that those same voters still preferred President Bush overall. 54% said Bush would handle Iraq better than Kerry before the debate, and that percentage remained the same after the debate. 55% said the President would make a better commander in chief before the debate, and 54% felt the same afterwards. While polls can be misleading, my gut tells me this one’s right. Bush was himself. He is his own best ally, while Kerry is his own worst enemy. The President was successful in staying on message, displaying a thorough knowledge of the issues, and reminding Americans of Kerry’s constant flip-flopping.

President Bush certainly did look uptight a few times -- even irritated -- but Americans know him well and shouldn’t be surprised. Of course the left-wing will jump on this, but we know who they’re voting for already. Americans don’t know Senator Kerry as well, and his body language last night spoke volumes about his character. Bush couldn’t say a word without Kerry smirking or shaking his head. During one exchange, Bush asked the moderator for time for a brief rebuttal and was granted permission. Kerry almost blew a fuse:


MR. LEHRER: New -- all right, go ahead. Yes, sir?

PRESIDENT BUSH: I think it's worthy for a follow, if you don't mind?

SEN. KERRY: Sure, fine. Happy to.


SEN. KERRY: Sure, let's change the rules, we can have a whole --

MR. LEHRER: We can do 30 seconds each here.

This was Al Gore 2000 all over again. I don’t see Americans rushing out to vote for another arrogant, pseudo-intellectual.

While the pundits didn’t notice Jim Lehrer’s loaded questions, I’m sure some Americans did. Lehrer claimed “the specific subjects were chosen by me, the questions were composed by me.” I suppose he chose to give Kerry a free pass while “composing” questions for Bush which were embedded with accusations. Here’s one sample:

MR. LEHRER: New question. Mr. President, two minutes. Do you believe the election of Senator Kerry on November the 2nd would increase the chances of the U.S. being hit by another 9/11-type terrorist attack?

Is this a responsible question from a “moderator?” Remember all the blame-game acrimony surrounding the 9/11 Commission? This was a trap to get Bush to tread on tertium non datur: attack your opponent in an unacceptable manner. Bush didn’t take the bait.

Then Lehrer prompted Kerry to attack the President’s supposedly soft underbelly:

MR. LEHRER: New question. Two minutes, Senator Kerry. Colossal misjudgments. What colossal misjudgments, in your opinion, has President Bush made in these areas?

This sophistry presupposes that there were “colossal misjudgments.” Of course Bush should be asked tough questions about Iraq, but Lehrer was being irresponsible. He followed with another question which opened the attack door wide open for Kerry:

MR. LEHRER: New question. Mr. President, two minutes. What about Senator Kerry's point, the comparison he drew between the priorities of going after Osama bin Laden and going after Saddam Hussein?

Again, the question presupposes that Bush is ignoring Bin Laden. What about this one:

You've just -- you have repeatedly accused President Bush -- not here tonight, but elsewhere before -- of not telling the truth about Iraq, essentially of lying to the American people about Iraq. Give us some examples of what you consider to be his not telling the truth.

Overtly, it looks like Lehrer was putting the onus on Kerry to defend his “lies” accusation. Implicitly, I see the assumption, though veiled, that Bush did mislead. And here’s Lehrer again setting a bear trap for the President:

MR. LEHRER: New -- new question, President Bush. There are clearly, as we have heard, major policy differences between the two of you. Are there also underlying character issues that you believe -- that you believe -- are serious enough to deny Senator Kerry the job as commander in chief of the United States?

Try to get the President to say something the media would eviscerate him for saying. We all know how touchy people are about political character assassination, especially in attack advertising. The media talking heads, while wallowing in it for the ratings, constantly point out that negativity “turns voters off” – and here’s a “moderator” trying to instigate it.

Did Lehrer ask Kerry one tough question? Did he challenge Kerry’s questionable Vietnam record? His flip-flopping on Iraq? Kerry’s infatuation with foreign leaders over his own electorate? Not a chance. I was young when Reagan was president, but now I understand the term “hostile media.”

Despite all this nonsense last night, Kerry was unable to overcome the inconsistency cloud hanging over him. According to Time Magazine writer John Dickerson,

Kerry seemed to say the Iraq war was a mistake but then said that soldiers there were not dying for a mistake. …

It does also seem hard to square how Kerry can say the war was a mistake but then make promises about bringing other countries in to help solve that mistake.

Bush artfully egged the senator into further reaffirming his waffling on Iraq:

As well, help is on the way, but it's certainly hard to tell it when he voted against the $87 billion supplemental to provide equipment for our troops, and then said he actually did vote for it before he voted against it. That's not what commander-in-chiefs does when you're trying to lead troops.

To this, Kerry stuffed his foot into his Frankenstein-sized mouth:

SEN. KERRY: Well, you know, when I talked about the $87 billion, I made a mistake in how I talk about the war. But the president made a mistake in invading Iraq. Which is worse?

The senator completely evaded the core issue of his vote against funding our troops. “I made a mistake in how I talk about the war?” Sir, you voted against funding our troops. We know all too well about your waffling talk. It’s your own record we’re interested in. (What scares me is that Kerry actually believes his own double-speak and double-think.)

Kerry did his best last night to remind voters where his priorities lay (or do not lay), vis-à-vis protecting America forcefully or begging cap-in-hand to the “international community” for permission first:

No president, through all of American history, has ever ceded, and nor would I, the right to preempt in any way necessary to protect the United States of America. But if and when you do it, Jim, you've got to do it in a way that passes the test, that passes the global test where your countrymen, your people understand fully why you're doing what you're doing, and you can prove to the world that you did it for legitimate reasons.

Kerry here proposes paralysis and confusion. How can you successfully “preempt” and “pass the global test” in a world controlled by weasels and/or dictatorships? We already know the U.N. is toothless on every issue, whether it be Sudan, Saddam, Rwanda, etc. The President successfully pounced on Kerry:

PRESIDENT BUSH: Let me -- I'm not exactly sure what you mean passes the global test. You take preemptive action if you pass a global test? My attitude is, you take preemptive action in order to protect the American people, that you act in order to make this country secure.

Before the debate, Kerry probably thought he’d be able to embarrass President Bush on the supposed lack of international support for the Iraq war. Kerry mentioned several times that he’d solve all of Iraq’s problems with a “summit.” Though Bush didn’t do it very eloquently, he countered Kerry with hard facts:

And finally, he says we ought to have a summit. Well, there are summits being held. Japan is going to have a summit for the donors. Ah -- $14 billion pledged, and Prime Minister Koizumi is going to call countries to account to get them to contribute. And there's going to be an Arab summit of the neighborhood countries. And Colin Powell have set -- helped set up that summit.

While Senator Kerry keeps trying to emphasize coalition building, Bush drove home Kerry’s contradictory and very undiplomatic stance on the issue:

What's he say to Tony Blair? What's he say to Alexander Kwasniewski of Poland? I mean, you can't expect to build an alliance when you denigrate the contributions of those who are serving side by side with American troops in Iraq. …

So what's the message going to be? Please join us in Iraq for a grand diversion? Join us for a war that is the wrong war at the wrong place at the wrong time?

Well, actually, you forgot Poland. And now there are 30 nations involved, standing side by side with our American troops. And I honor their sacrifices, and I don't appreciate it when a candidate for president denigrates the contributions of these brave -- brave soldiers. It -- it -- you cannot lead the world if you, ah, do not honor the contributions of those who are with us. You call them the cohearsed (sic) bribed. That's not how you bring people together. …

One of his campaign people alleged that [Iraqi] Prime Minister Allawi was like a puppet. That's no way to treat somebody who's courageous and brave that is trying to lead his country forward.

During the rest of the debate, Kerry tried to differentiate his positions on things like nuclear arms proliferation and North Korea from those of President Bush. He failed. His platform on these issues are tactically identical to Bush’s. Will voters believe he’ll do a better job? I doubt it.

After watching the debate twice, reading the entire text twice, and reading all the post-game analysis, I won’t grant that Kerry “won” this debate. His body language was atrocious, belying his absolute arrogance. He failed to overcome his flip-flopping character flaw.

I will grant the President Bush could’ve done better but, after all, this was just Bush being Bush -- probably his greatest asset. Uptight or not, he held toe to toe with Kerry on the issues and even the details. Four years of polls show that people tend to take Bush at face value. They like his earthiness and moral certainty. In a war against Islamist terrorist, I’m certain that Americans will stick by Bush, and reject Kerry’s pseudo-intellectual, internationalist, vacillation.

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