Bush, Kerry, and Clark debate the State of the Union.

Bush, Kerry, and Clark debate the State of the Union.

Bush, Kerry, and Clark debate the State of the Union.

Politics and policy.
Jan. 21 2004 8:35 AM

State of the Campaign

Bush, Kerry, and Clark debate the State of the Union.

Monday night, John Kerry won the Iowa caucuses and departed for New Hampshire to face Wes Clark. Tuesday night, President Bush delivered his State of the Union address, followed by rebuttals from Kerry and Clark. Here's a review of how the incumbent and his challengers performed.

1. Forward/backward. Bush's speech opened with a series of juxtapositions between going "forward" on the issue at hand (i.e., Bush's way) or going "backward" (i.e., any other way). This is the basic Bush/Rove strategy: to ruthlessly suppress alternatives so that anyone who opposes Bush's prescription drug bill appears to be against prescription drug coverage, and anyone who opposes Bush's homeland security bill appears to be against homeland security.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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2. Split personality. Bush's tone was discordant. On terrorism, he cautioned against the "illusion" that the worst was over. "That hope is understandable, comforting—and false," he said. But on the economy, he promised, based on thin evidence, that the worst was over. Evidently we're supposed to be optimistic in some areas and pessimistic in others, depending on which outlook justifies Bush's policies.

3. Stat games. In situations where the data didn't bear out Bush's claims of success, he resorted to less relevant but more agreeable measurements. In Iraq, for example, he talked not about U.S. troop casualties (which have continued unabated since Saddam Hussein's capture) but about patrols and raids: "Our forces are on the offensive, leading over 1,600 patrols a day and conducting an average of 180 raids a week." In a rebuttal on NBC, Kerry complained that Bush had touted a net increase in education funding under the No Child Left Behind Act in order to duck the administration's failure to fund the bill at the level it had promised.

4. Sliding standards. Bush's pre-emptive war doctrine gets more and more slippery. In this speech, he said the U.S. would confront regimes that "could" supply terrorists with weapons of mass destruction. "We refuse to live in the shadow of this ultimate danger," he declared. How big or close would that shadow have to be to trigger war? Bush didn't say. Meanwhile, he continued to stretch the definition of WMD possession to justify the Iraq war. "Already, the Kay report identified dozens of weapons of mass destruction-related program activities and significant amounts of equipment that Iraq concealed from the United Nations," said Bush. Not WMD, mind you, but "related program activities," whatever that means.

5. Credibility. Bush suggested that Libya had submitted to weapons inspections because the U.S. had invaded Iraq for refusing to do the same. I think Bush is right. But on the larger principle he cited, he has been a disaster. "For diplomacy to be effective, words must be credible," said Bush. "And no one can now doubt the word of America." Are you kidding? Even Republican foreign policy experts concede that the still-unsubstantiated Iraqi WMD claims the administration tried to foist on the world have undermined our credibility. A day before Bush's speech, the Washington Post observed, "Already, in the crisis over North Korea's nuclear ambitions, China has rejected U.S. intelligence that North Korea has a secret program to enrich uranium for use in weapons."

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Bush followed that whopper with another: "Some critics have said our duties in Iraq must be internationalized. This particular criticism is hard to explain to our partners in Britain, Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Italy, Spain ..." Really? Is it hard to explain to the Japanese, South Koreans, and Spaniards why it might be a good idea for somebody else's troops to step in and start taking the bombs and bullets? Only if the person doing the explaining is Bush.

6. Values. Bush delivered, as advertised, his virtual endorsement of a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. But he softened that statement by surrounding it with less divisive moral issues: drugs, abstinence, faith-based charities, and steroids in pro sports. Part of the Bush/Rove genius is the substitution of such unconventional, broadly appealing moral issues for conventional, controversial moral issues. Bush even couched the gay marriage issue in procedural terms, so that moderates uncomfortable with an assault on gays could interpret Bush's position merely as an assault on "activist judges."

7. The official Democratic response. The words, delivered by House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle, were right: lots of talk about an "opportunity society" (without apologies to Newt Gingrich) and the Democrats' commitment to fight terrorism and protect the country. The presentation, however, was horrendous. With her bugged-out eyes and her embalmed grimace of a smile, Pelosi came across as a Stepford Wife, a Saturday Night Live caricature of herself. She needs to study old tapes of Fred Thompson delivering the Republican response to President Clinton.

8. The unofficial Democratic response. ABC and NBC interviewed Kerry, effectively anointing him the party's true spokesman. His debut was unpromising. With a face devoid of energy and passion, he pledged to campaign "with all the energy and all the passion that I have." He reeled off platitudes from his stump speech. When pressed to clarify his positions on the Iraq war, the Partriot Act, and gay marriage, he descended into endless nuance, going on for so long (and ending up somehow talking about race and judicial nominations) that Peter Jennings blinked with fatigue. The best line Kerry came up with was, "There are just two Americas: the America of the special interests and the lobbyists the president defends, and the America [in which] other people ... are living." It's such a good line, in fact, that John Edwards has been using it for more than a month.

9. The unofficial Democratic response to the unofficial Democratic response. Clark ran ads on at least two networks after the speech. He also did an interview on NBC, illustrating the difference between his virtues and Kerry's. Clark's appearance was perfectly staged: Behind him stood a flag and an audience of New Hampshire voters. Kerry, meanwhile, sat alone in a kitchen belonging to a family that for some reason wasn't there. But when it came time to talk, Kerry was the one who stuck to his lines, and Clark was the one who blew his cool, raising his voice in anger and interrupting Tom Brokaw. That's the difficult choice Clark and Kerry are offering Democrats in New Hampshire: If you want a nominee with military credentials, you can have the animation or the discipline, but not both.