Kerry blows the second debate.
The next question was about the looming nuclear threat from Iran. Bush ended his answer by recalling, "In my speech to the Congress, I said there's an axis of evil—Iraq, Iran, and North Korea—and we're paying attention to it." A shrewd debater would have brought up that quote at the next opportunity, scolding Bush for having squandered our credibility and firepower on the least dangerous member of the axis. Kerry, of course, did not.
Halfway through the debate, a questioner asked Kerry why he had picked a running mate who "has made millions of dollars successfully suing medical professionals." Here's how Edwards began his answer to a similar question Tuesday: "I'm proud of the work I did on behalf of kids and families against big insurance companies, big drug companies, and big HMOs." Here's how Kerry answered tonight: "John Edwards is the author of the Patients' Bill of Rights. He wanted to give people rights. John Edwards and I support tort reform." See the difference? Edwards reframes the question right away, goes on the offensive, and talks about people. Kerry accepts the way the question is framed, plays defense, and talks about legislation.
The next question was about spending. Moderator Charlie Gibson followed up by asking the candidates, "I have heard you both say during the campaign—I just heard you say it—that you're going to cut the deficit by a half in four years. But I didn't hear one thing in the last three and a half minutes that would indicate how either one of you do that." Bush evaded Gibson's question. Here was Kerry's opportunity to score points for candor and specificity by listing the campaign proposals he had already scaled back in view of the growing deficit. But Kerry didn't think of this until the debate had moved on.
Ten minutes from the end, a woman asked about "tax dollars" being used "to support abortion." Kerry said he was Catholic and respected her beliefs but couldn't "take what is an article of faith for me and legislate it for someone who doesn't" agree. He said he could "counsel people" about "life" and "making other choices," but "you don't deny a poor person the right to be able to have whatever the Constitution affords them."
I know something about abortion politics, so I can tell you how effective Kerry's answer was. It was awful. He defended public funding of abortion, which most Americans oppose, while at the same time he managed to convey ambivalence about the legal right to abortion, which most Americans support. Bush immediately punished him—"I'm trying to decipher that," the president joked—and blasted Kerry for opposing the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, and laws requiring parents to be notified when their minor daughters seek abortions. Kerry proceeded to defend his positions on these issues, each of which Bush had brought up precisely because it's a loser for Kerry. Not once did Kerry point out that Bush favors a wildly unpopular constitutional amendment to ban abortions.
Just when it looked as though Kerry would end the debate on a bad note, he got his biggest gift of the night. The final questioner asked Bush, "Please give three instances in which you came to realize you had made a wrong decision, and what you did to correct it." Amazing, incorrigibly, Bush refused yet again to concede any significant error. On "the big question about whether we should have removed somebody in Iraq, I'll stand by those decisions, because I think they're right," he said. "On the tax cut, it's a big decision. I did the right decision."
Gibson turned to Kerry. The pitch was hanging there, waiting to be smacked into the upper deck. All Kerry had to do was walk up to the questioner and say, "You just asked the president to name three mistakes. He couldn't name one. He can't correct his mistakes, because he can't see them, even when his own weapons inspector puts it on the front page of the newspaper. You can't change this president. You can only replace him."
Here's what Kerry said instead: "I believe the president made a huge mistake, a catastrophic mistake, not to live up to his own standard, which was [to] build a true global coalition, give the inspectors time to finish their job, and go through the U.N. process to its end and go to war as a last resort." Blah, blah, elaboration, prepositional phrase, caveat, whimper, end.
What's the point of taking notes if you don't use what the other guy says? Is Kerry really listening? Or is he just trying to look like a man who takes notes?
This wasn't a disaster for the Democrats. They've still got two men on base. And maybe, as some polls suggest, the game is already tied. Maybe Kerry can live to play another inning if he doesn't score here. But maybe other polls are more accurate, and Kerry still trails by a run. If so, he's got one more at-bat to save the season.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.