ST. LOUIS—Mike McCurry may have set a new standard in expectations-lowering when he predicted before Friday's debate that his candidate would actually lose in his face-off with President Bush. About a half-hour before Bush and John Kerry walked on stage at Washington University, McCurry made this prediction to a group of reporters in the media filing center: "I guarantee you the story will be"—putting on his best "Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!" announcer voice—"'Bush bounced back from a dismal performance and sets up the exciting showdown in Arizona ...' "
It sounded good, and in a sense it's true. Bush did bounce back. This wasn't "the Old Testament version of Bush," as McCurry called the bumbling caricature who showed up for the first debate. But it wasn't the return of the charmer of 2000, either. The consensus on the Bush press bus—I'll be traveling with the president between this debate and the finale Wednesday in Tempe—on the way back to our hotel was that Kerry had bested the president once again. Or perhaps it was a tie, but most reporters thought that a draw favors Kerry, because he's got the momentum, and he just has to convince people that he's not a vacillating weakling to get their votes.
Here's my predicted storyline: Before last week's debate, the speculation was whether Bush could knock Kerry out of the race with a decisive win. Heading into next week's debate, my guess is that the speculation will be about whether Kerry can put Bush away and end the campaign before the final three-week stretch begins. In particular, there will be a lot of focus on how the debate favors Kerry because the subject will be domestic policy.
But based on this debate, Bush may have the upper hand next week. Kerry had his foreign-policy answers nailed. He dominated the early portions that dealt with Iraq. But when the questions turned homeward it was Kerry, not Bush, who was on the defensive. A little of the meandering, incoherent Kerry returned, particularly in his answers to the questions on tort reform, stem-cell research, and federal funding for abortions. (But at least Kerry didn't bring up the Dred Scott decision. President Bush: Against chattel slavery.) Kerry may also just be easier to caricature, despite what the polls say, on domestic issues. Surely people are more apt to believe that Kerry will tax them to death than to believe the "global test" nonsense being peddled by the Bush campaign.
Though that wasn't the Bush spin Friday night. The Bush surrogates came into Spin Alley ready to sell the idea that Kerry failed to distance himself during the debate from the "global test" they call the "Kerry doctrine." Unfortunately, their decision highlighted one of the central flaws in Spin Alley: The spinners don't watch the end of the debates. By the time the candidates get to their closing remarks, the campaign staffers and surrogates have positioned themselves near the assembled press, and they're readying themselves for questions and TV appearances. So, maybe Bush campaign communications director Nicolle Devenish didn't hear Kerry say in his closing statement, "I will never cede the authority of our country or our security to any other nation. I'll never give a veto over American security to any other entity—not a nation, not a country, not an institution." Despite Kerry's clear renunciation of a foreign "permission slip," here was Devenish's spin as soon as the debate ended: "What was striking to me was that Kerry didn't even try to retract the global test. He has now accepted the Kerry doctrine as his own." Bush deputy campaign manager Mark Wallace said something similarly erroneous: "He affirmed the global test today, that would say there has to be permission from the world before you can take action." Actually, Kerry did the exact opposite.
Still, Devenish was the only Bush spinner I spoke to after the debate who didn't try to defend the president's strange assertion about the Duelfer report, that it shows that sanctions weren't working in Iraq. "I have to confess to being a campaign official and not an NSC spokesgal," she said. By contrast, here was Dan Bartlett: "Charlie Duelfer said both in the report and in his testimony that sanctions were unraveling, that the gaming of the system that Saddam Hussein was doing was doing just that. He was trying to game it by bribing people." But Saddam was trying to bribe people to get the sanctions lifted, and he wanted them lifted because they worked, because they prevented him from reconstituting his weapons programs. Here's Wallace: Saddam "was making a concerted effort to avoid sanctions," and "he had the means and the ability to reconstitute his WMD program." But, wait—the sanctions were precisely what were keeping Saddam from doing that. He had "the means and the ability" only if the sanctions had been lifted, and a Bush veto in the United Nations could have kept the sanctions in effect permanently. Ed Gillespie and Ken Mehlman cited the oil-for-food program as evidence that the sanctions didn't work. But again, Saddam's bribes were an attempt to get out of the sanctions that had stripped him of his chemical weapons, his biological weapons, and his nuclear program.
The defensible position for Bush would have been to argue that we had no way of knowing whether sanctions were working before we invaded. But instead he's resorted to this preposterous idea that because Saddam was trying to evade the sanctions, somehow that was evidence that the sanctions weren't working. Somehow the fact that Saddam has no weapons and no stockpiles was evidence that sanctions weren't working.
After Vice President Cheney's frequent difficulties with the truth on Tuesday, President Bush's veracity was under increased scrutiny in this debate. But that didn't stop his campaign from peddling another "global test" lie, nor did it stop Bush from misconstruing Kerry's health-care plan and willfully distorting the conclusions of the Duelfer report. (Let's call Bush's unwillingness to admit a mistake a self-deception, rather than a deception foisted upon the public.) If President Bush weren't running such a truth-stretching campaign, his strangest untruth of the night, denying that he received $84 in income from a timber company, wouldn't be a big deal. After all, it's only $84. Then again, maybe the president voted for the truth about the $84 before he decided against it.
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