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?

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.

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