A week ago, I compared the debates to the final inning of a postseason baseball game. The Democrats trailed entering the ninth. John Kerry led off with a single. John Edwards singled him to third. I'll need a couple of pinch runners to keep the metaphor going, since Kerry came to the plate again Friday and struck out, leaving runners at the corners. The Bush campaign liked my headline so much—"Strikeout"—that they sent it around to the rest of the press corps.
They won't be sending this one around. Because tonight President Bush walked the bases full, and Kerry hit a grand slam.
I counted one exchange that Bush won tonight and another that Kerry lost. The topic Bush aced was Social Security. His answer was brave and thoughtful. He pointed out that "the cost of doing nothing, the cost of saying the current system is OK, far exceeds the costs" of taking painful steps to fix it. Kerry responded with a shameful dodge: "If, later on, after a period of time, we find that Social Security is in trouble, we'll pull together the top experts ... and we'll make whatever adjustment is necessary." Bush promptly nailed him: "I didn't hear any plan to fix Social Security. I heard more of the same."
The exchange Kerry lost was on affirmative action. He chose to defend its worst form—minority-owned business set-asides, which compensate the wealthiest blacks and Latinos for wrongs suffered primarily by the poorest. He also falsely accused Bush of never having met with the Congressional Black Caucus. When Bush corrected him, Kerry stared down at his podium with an expression of fear that he might well have screwed up.
If you're one of those Bush supporters who just want the good news, you'd better stop here, because the rest of the night was Kerry's. Let's start with body language. Kerry's was excellent. He has improved on this score in every debate. I don't know why it took him 20 years in office and two years on the presidential campaign trail to look into the camera. Maybe that guy with the tax question in the second debate got him over the hump. Whatever the reason, Kerry is now doing it in the debates and in his ads, and he turns out to be damned good at it. Tonight he explained in simple terms the good things he would do and the bad things he wouldn't. "Medicare belongs to you," he told the viewer. "I don't force you to do anything. ... You choose your doctor." I caught him shaking his head just once. Another time, he grinned inappropriately when Bush was talking about abortion. The rest of his performance was flawless. His answers were crisp. His smiles recalled the good-natured confidence of Ronald Reagan.
Half an hour into the debate, as Kerry spoke about respecting gay people, a look of sincere attention passed across Bush's face. I remember that look, because it was the only time I saw it. The rest of the night, Bush labored unconvincingly to look as though he was listening. He seemed to be trying to rectify his listless, annoyed performance in the first debate. Eventually, he confirmed that his wife had told him "to stand up straight and not scowl." But tonight he overcompensated, as Al Gore did after getting bad reviews in the first debate of 2000. Bush blinked, bubbled, giggled, and blurted at odd moments. He grinned strangely as he talked about tax increases, entrenched special interests, defeat in Iraq, and contaminated flu vaccines. He held his chin up and tried to smile each time Kerry rebuked him, but the expression on his face was that of a fraternity pledge struggling to look like he was having a good time in the midst of a spanking. The picture of the senior and junior Bonesmen cried out for the caption: "Thank you, Sir, may I have another?"
The sound bites both men brought were awful. Bush's snort about Kerry being on the "far left bank" was dumb; Kerry's analogy of Bush to Tony Soprano was dumber. Bush hammered tax relief, tort reform, government-run health care, and No Child Left Behind. I could swear he said 277 times that Kerry voted to bust the budget 277 times. But Kerry got in more licks, repeating that five million people had lost health insurance, that Bush was the first president in 72 years to lose jobs, that he had turned a huge surplus into a huge deficit, that he had blocked prescription drug imports from Canada and bulk drug purchasing for Medicare, and that Democrats would cut taxes for the middle class and raise the minimum wage. Kerry also invoked John McCain three times.
After the last debate, I chided Kerry for failing to rebut Bush's attacks effectively. Not this time. Bush said Kerry would raise taxes; Kerry made clear that he would raise them only for the rich and would cut them for the middle class. Bush said Kerry's health care plan was government-controlled and would deprive patients of choices; Kerry made clear that it wasn't and wouldn't. Bush said Kerry would let other countries veto American security decisions; Kerry made clear that he wouldn't and that the "global test" he had embraced was simply the "truth standard." The more Kerry explained himself, the more I came to understand his recovery in the polls. For seven months, Bush buried Kerry under negative ads. Now tens of millions of people who saw those ads are seeing Kerry for themselves. The debates are washing out the ads.
After the last debate, I chided Kerry for failing to point out Bush's evasive answers. Not this time. Three times tonight, Bush ducked tough questions—on unemployed workers, the minimum wage, and affirmative action—by changing the subject, absurdly, to educating children. Kerry nailed him: "I want you to notice how the president switched away from jobs and started talking about education." When Bush said young people should be allowed to shift their retirement contributions to "a personal savings account," Kerry replied, "You just heard the president say that young people ought to be able to take money out of Social Security." And when Bush dodged moderator Bob Schieffer's question as to "whether you would like to overturn Roe v. Wade," Kerry pointed out, "The president didn't answer the question. ... Clearly, the president wants to leave an ambivalence or intends to undo it."
Kerry also won the honesty contest. All politicians distort their opponents' views. The practical test is whether they're capable of shame and self-correction once their distortions are exposed. Tonight Bush repeated his widely debunked insinuation that Kerry considered terrorism no more serious than prostitution. In the evening's most revealing exchange, Kerry complained that "America now is paying already $120 billion—up to $200 billion before we're finished, and much more probably"—for the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Until now, Kerry has used the $200 billion figure to describe the war's current cost. He backed off because independent fact checkers calculated that only $120 billion had been spent so far, though $200 billion would probably have to be spent before our troops could get out. How did Bush respond to this concession? By repeating, contrary to the analysis of independent fact checkers, that in the first debate Kerry had said "in order to defend ourselves, we'd have to get international approval." One candidate yielded to the truth. The other did not.