Kerry blows the second debate.

Politics and policy.
Oct. 9 2004 4:10 AM

Strikeout

Kerry blows the second debate.

In honor of the baseball playoffs, I've borrowed the metaphor of a ninth-inning rally to describe the Democrats' October comeback. In the first presidential debate, John Kerry got the lead-off hit. In the vice-presidential encounter Tuesday night, John Edwards singled him to third. I guess they substituted a pinch runner (that's the problem with metaphors), because tonight Kerry was back at the plate. It was a long at-bat, with lots of hanging sliders thrown by President Bush. Kerry fouled off a few, whiffed a couple, and struck out looking.

Bush did well. He botched a few answers—at one point, he said our military should be "more facile"—but he was well-prepared, energetic, and frequently incisive. Democrats thought he'd have trouble fielding hostile questions. They were wrong. Five minutes in, a questioner asked him why Saddam Hussein's theoretical ability to produce weapons of mass destruction was grounds for invasion, given that many other countries meet this standard. Bush tacked the question without hesitation. He said that 9/11 had changed the rules and that a new report from U.S. weapons inspector Charles Duelfer showed Saddam "was gaming the oil-for-food program to get rid of sanctions" and "restart his weapons programs." Later, a questioner told Bush that the Patriot Act "weakens American citizens' rights." Bush respectfully disagreed and explained why.

William Saletan William Saletan

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

Kerry, too, was well-prepared, energetic, and incisive. But he failed to do two things that Edwards did against Vice President Cheney. Edwards, like Bush, has message discipline. From the beginning to the end of Tuesday's debate, Edwards hammered one theme: "Mr. Vice President, you are still not being straight with the American people." At the same time, Edwards adapted to the flow of the debate, using Cheney's answers to reinforce the theme. Each time Cheney said something far-fetched, Edwards took that statement and beat it against the cement of reality.

Kerry did neither of those things tonight. The first questioner of the evening raised the charge that he was "wishy-washy." Kerry responded with a canned line about Bush turning his campaign into a "weapon of mass deception." The next questioner asked about Bush's response to the Duelfer report. Bush said the report showed Saddam had connived to restart his WMD programs. This was the first hanging slider of the night: It begged for Kerry to ask, "Is that what the president thinks this report showed? Did he not read it? Did he not see its overriding conclusion that Iraq didn't have the weapons he said it had when he misled this nation into war? His own chief weapons inspector says the rationale for the war was false—and the president still won't admit it?"

Kerry said none of this. He didn't even mention the report. In fact, he changed the subject to jobs, health care, and education. Incredibly, Bush set him up again, saying, "Saddam Hussein was a threat because he could have given weapons of mass destruction to terrorist enemies." Instead of repeating that quote and highlighting the gaffe—"What weapons of mass destruction?"—Kerry began talking about the sanctions.

Two questions later, Bush tossed another fat one over the plate. While arguing that it's better to be right than popular, he allowed, "I've made some decisions that have caused people to not understand the great values of our country." A politician who understood the language of values—Edwards, for example—would have pounced on that quote, saying something like this: "There is no excuse for failing to make clear to the world the values of our country. The way to make others understand our values is to live out those values. And that starts with telling the truth, so that other nations will believe us." But Kerry doesn't understand values. So, instead he called Bush's answer "more of the same" and repeated that Bush had screwed up Iraq.

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At this point, Bush uttered an amazing reply:

I remember sitting in the White House looking at those generals, saying, "Do you have what you need in this war? Do you have what it takes?" I remember going down to the basement of the White House the day we committed our troops as a last resort, looking at Tommy Franks and the generals on the ground, asking them, "Do we have the right plan with the right troop level?" And they looked me in the eye and said, "Yes, sir, Mr. President." Of course, I listen to our generals. That's what a president does. A president sets the strategy and relies upon good military people to execute that strategy.

The president of the United States had just blamed the military for screwing up the war. Surely Kerry would seize this chance, before tens of millions of people, to point out that Bush was refusing to reciprocate the loyalty of his troops. But no. Here's what Kerry said: "You rely on good military people to execute the military component of the strategy, but winning the peace is larger than just the military component."

Component? Who runs Kerry's debate prep? Michael Dukakis?

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