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Kerry was convincing to the uninformed

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted October 4, 2004

Sen. John Kerry, Democratic presidential candidate, left, with Republican President George W. Bush at the first debate of the 2004 White House race in Coral Gables, Fla. on September 30I reluctantly agree with overnight polls that suggest that, by a plurality, voters believe that Senator John Kerry won his debate with President Bush last Thursday night. Both candidates did well. But Senator Kerry got away with murder and that is why it is frustrating. To believe that Bush won you would need some knowledge about the issue of terrorism and the war in Iraq.

If you knew very little about the issues of the day, Kerry sounded convincing. George Bush created this mess in Iraq, said Kerry, and Kerry has a four-point plan to get us out of it. If only the President had made the Senator's voting record the focus of his rebuttals to Senator Kerry, he could have put Kerry's statement in context. Yes, Bush did say over and over that Kerry has changed his positions, but other than the $87 billion to support the war that Kerry voted against, after having voted to authorize the war, the other flip-flops were not highlighted. Kerry has had at least ten positions on Iraq. If the President had ticked off a few of those contradictions, and linked them to shifting politics in the USA, he might have blown Kerry away.

Kerry began with the assumption that voters watching knew little or nothing about the issues of terrorism and Iraq. Thus, he painted his own picture of what he is about. I wanted to scream when Kerry said he has had only one consistent view of Iraq that has never changed. That clearly is not so. Yet he was not challenged on that assertion.

President Bush began with the assumption that the American people have followed these issues and thus knew what he was talking about when he made assertions about Senator Kerry. I wish we had an informed electorate. If we did, liberals would be blown out of the water.

In addition to Kerry's having a plurality of those who watched the debate, the spin on the day after was predictable. The establishment media hawked the Kerry "victory." Much of talk radio has pushed the idea that Bush did well. We shall see now the power of the establishment media versus the alternative media. If Kerry's campaign really picks up momentum as the result of this debate then we will know that the establishment media has the upper hand. If, on the other hand, the Kerry campaign is not able to significantly capitalize on this "win," then we will know that the alternative media is doing very well indeed.

My own view is that because of this debate the race will tighten. The small but steady lead the President enjoyed through September will evaporate. We historically would expect subsequent debates to be watched by fewer people. This debate may cause more people to tune into the next debate. That is why the President in the next two debates has to be totally on the offensive with a focus on Senator Kerry's ultra-liberal voting record. If he hits the fact that the Senator, according to the non-partisan National Journal, is the most liberal Senator in the Congress, he just might get the spin going his way. It will be his only chance to regain the lead.

I had suggested that if there were a clear-cut victory by Senator Kerry in this first debate, he would go on to be the next President. There were no body blows in that debate. Kerry's victory was with a plurality, not a clear-cut majority. I said, on the other hand, if the President scored a clear-cut victory, he could put the election away. Clearly that did not happen. I said if the debate were a tie, the race would tighten with Bush's narrow lead virtually evaporating. That is close to what happened Thursday night. Bush was not blown away. If the electorate understood what he was talking about, Bush pretty much held his own. But Kerry managed to be someone other than himself and that someone was rather decisive. That is what will make for a tight race.

Kerry had a tall order. He had to reintroduce himself to the American people. He managed to do that only because the format allowed him to get away with bald-faced lies. He had to look Presidential. Again, it pains me to say this but he looked more Presidential than did the President. The President looked tired, especially in the second half of the debate. In fact, in the last 15 minutes of the debate, I kept looking at the clock. Bush's articulation became less clear. I was worried about the President. We have a President who goes to bed early and who gets up very early and is ready for work. This debate went to a later time than the President is used to. It showed. Probably Kerry's mother made him stand up straight, because he looked authoritative. Bush looked as if he were slouching at times. Kerry had to show a more human side. I am not sure he accomplished that. I understand he practiced smiling and he did smile a lot, albeit inappropriately as Bush was making a serious point. He was careful in how he attacked the President but I don't know that he came across as more human. Jim Lehrer threw the President a curve ball by asking him if there was anything in Senator Kerry's character that should be of concern. Bush correctly identified this as a loaded question and went on to say nice things about Kerry which, coupled with the answer to the question about whether the war has been worth it, showed Bush's human side. I don't think Kerry took a similar opportunity.

I had hoped against hope that the President would have been able to dominate this debate and thus would have increased his margin. My major concern isn't just the Presidential race, but the U.S. Senate races as well. With an extremely close Presidential race (or if Kerry is able to turn this debate into a clear lead), it will affect the Senate and very possibly either President Bush or John Kerry will be looking at a Democratic Senate.

The worst outcome on election night would be a squeaker Bush victory with a Democratic Senate. He would have such a miserable second term he might well wish he didn't win. If Kerry wins and the Senate goes Democrat it will give the President real leverage in doing away with tax cuts. And of course, a President Kerry would then be able to name and get confirmed the worst liberal activists to the federal judiciary.

In summary, Bush is a nice guy. He doesn't have it in him to go for the jugular. He could have hung Kerry's record around his neck. He didn't. His performance didn't hurt him with his base. He was hurt with voters who are not locked in. I know that some people may expect me to claim that Bush was the big winner of the debate. I can't do that. I hope I am wrong but it may be possible we are now looking at a renewed Kerry lead. If I am right on this, it would be hard for the President to regain the lead again, unless there is some event which occurs that would cause the voters to turn to the President. It will be a tough Fall.

Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.

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