My favorite moment was Bush's answer to a question about partisanship. Fifteen minutes in, he joked, "When you're a senator from Massachusetts, when you're a colleague of Ted Kennedy, 'pay-go' means you [the taxpayer] pay, and he goes ahead and spends." Later, Bush told Kerry, "Your record is such that Ted Kennedy, your colleague, is the conservative senator from Massachusetts." A bit later, Bush scoffed, "Only a liberal senator from Massachusetts would say that a 49 percent increase in funding for education was not enough." Finally, Schieffer asked the candidates what they would do "to bring the nation back together." Bush replied, "My biggest disappointment in Washington is how partisan the town is. ... The No Child Left Behind Act, incredibly enough, was good work between me and my administration and people like Sen. Ted Kennedy." Pose with Kennedy, punch Kennedy, pose with Kennedy again. Two presidential campaigns—the uniter of 2000 and the steady, principled leader of 2004—self-discredited in 90 minutes.
I lost count of Bush's goofs—his unexplained allusion to "pay-go," his recollection of "the buggy and horse days," and his dead-end, mumbling defense that "Mitch McConnell had a minimum-wage plan that I supported." When Schieffer asked whether the Bush administration was responsible for the rising cost and declining availability of health care, Bush blurted out, "Gosh, I sure hope it's not the administration." And after Kerry observed that "two leading national news networks have both said the president's characterization of my health care plan is incorrect," Bush replied, "I'm not so sure it's credible to quote leading news organizations about—oh, never mind."
Really. The president of the United States said that.
All the strengths and themes Kerry had failed to clarify in two years of campaigning, he clarified tonight. He spoke frankly and comfortably about his faith. "We're all God's children," he said as he defended the right of gays and lesbians "to live [as] who they were, who they felt God had made them." He defended his Catholicism against bishops who opposed him. "My faith affects everything that I do," he said, but "faith without works is dead. ... That's why I fight against poverty. That's why I fight to clean up the environment and protect this earth. That's why I fight for equality and justice. ... God's work must truly be our own." He spoke about family values and rewarding those who "play by the rules." "Five hundred thousand kids lost after-school programs because of your budget," he told Bush. "That's not in my gut. That's not in my value system."
After the last debate, I chided Kerry for expressing his abortion position poorly. Not this time. "It's between a woman, God, and her doctor," he said. "I will not allow somebody to come in and change Roe v. Wade. The president has never said whether or not he would do that. But we know from the people he's tried to appoint to the court [that] he wants to." Kerry went on: "I'm not going to appoint a judge to the [Supreme] Court who's going to undo a constitutional right, whether it's the First Amendment or the Fifth Amendment or some other right. ... The right of choice is a constitutional right."
Kerry patched up his troubles with women voters, noting his efforts to get them equal pay for equal work. But his most important assurance to them—and to men—came in his answer to the debate's sole question about national security. He spoke fluidly of the military's overextension and the additional special forces and active-duty divisions necessary to alleviate it. He described how he would deploy the National Guard to protect the homeland. He reminded the audience that he was a gun owner and former prosecutor. He paraphrased a terrorism handbook captured from al-Qaida. Everything he said, and the facility with which he said it, conveyed a man ready to assume the presidency in wartime.
By the time the clock had ticked down to 15 minutes, the balance of power onstage had shifted. Kerry was the one talking like a president. He complimented his opponent as a leader and father, pledged to work across the aisle, admitted with a twinkle that "I can sometimes take myself too seriously," and joked to Schieffer, "The president and you and I are three examples of lucky people who married up." The audience laughed, and Kerry, growing looser by the minute, took another poke at himself: "And some would say maybe me more so than others." The audience laughed again, and Kerry relaxed into the smile of a man who has been humbled by the toughest campaign of his life and believes that despite it all, he is about to win. "But I can take it," he shrugged, beaming through a goofy grin. Bush, sensing that everyone else was having a good time, tried to smile along, but all he could do was twist up one corner of his mouth. His eyes darted around the room as though trying to make sense of a nightmare.
The closing statements confirmed the tide of the race. Kerry spoke like a man closing a deal. He recalled his service to his country, promised "tested, strong leadership that can calm the waters of the troubled world," and vowed to protect the nation in the tradition of FDR, JFK, and Reagan. Bush spoke like a man pleading for a second chance. He fumbled his opening sentence. He talked about the hard times we'd been through and the good things he'd do in a second term that he hadn't done in his first. He called for faith and optimism. Kerry ended with the words of a president: "Thank you, goodnight, and God bless the United States of America." Bush ended with a plea: "I'm asking for your vote. God bless you."
I wasn't surprised when the instant polls showed Kerry winning the debate handily. I bet Bush wasn't, either. All night long he looked like a pitcher who knew his stuff wasn't working and was stuck out there, alone on the mound in front of millions of people, with no idea what to do next. Now he's given up four runs and the lead. But he's still got the home field. And he's got half an inning—the bottom of the ninth—to turn things around.