What Bush and Kerry won't say at the debate.

Dispatches from Campaign 2004.
Oct. 8 2004 12:39 AM

What They Won't Say

Would these debate talking points help Bush and Kerry?

ST. LOUIS—Most debate previews tell readers what to expect when they tune in Friday night to the second presidential debate between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry. Or when they don't tune in: How many people in Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin will be watching high-school football games while the two candidates answer questions from voters on national television? Note to the Commission on Presidential Debates: 9 p.m. ET on a Friday is when you release bad news, not when you schedule events of historic importance.

But if you've been watching this campaign for a while, you already have a pretty good idea of what the two candidates are going to say. It's more interesting to ponder what they won't say, to try to come up with something each candidate could do that might break open a deadlocked race. The campaign is too close for either candidate to take much of a risk on Friday night, so you can be almost certain you won't hear either of the following:

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John Kerry: Yes, the world is safer because Saddam Hussein was removed from power. I thought Saddam Hussein was a threat, and that's why I supported President Bush's war. But the world, and America, would be even safer if the president had focused first on finishing the war against al-Qaida and rebuilding Afghanistan after our military's brilliant victory there. If the president had done that, we could now be turning the world's attention to the distant threat that Saddam Hussein posed. If we had waited, the world would have followed us, and I wouldn't be standing here today, because the president would be so popular that he wouldn't have been forced to agree to this Friday night debate that no one is watching. Of course the president has made us safer since 9/11. Any president would have made us safer. But he hasn't made us safe enough. And he's made it harder—by alienating our allies, by alienating moderate Muslims in the Middle East, and by not moving fast enough against al-Qaida—to make us as safe as we need to be.

I'll compare it to the baseball playoffs that are going on right now: President Bush hit a two-out single, and we thank him for it. We'd be far worse off if we had a president who struck out. But a single isn't the best that we can do. His father was born on third base and thought he hit a triple. This President Bush is on first base, and he thinks he hit a home run.

George Bush: Look, I made a mistake when I invaded Iraq. I thought they had weapons of mass destruction. So did the experts. We were wrong. But Sen. Kerry wants us to risk making an even bigger mistake. If we wait until we're certain that a country possesses weapons of mass destruction, we risk waiting too long. Hundreds of thousands of Americans—or Brits or Frenchmen or Iraqis—may die because we waited. I'm not going to risk making that mistake.

Instead, I'll take the risk of making more mistakes like the one I made in Iraq. I may make the same mistake in Iran, or Syria, or North Korea. I prefer my mistake, which liberated a country and toppled a dictator, to the mistake of waiting too long and running the risk of letting al-Qaida obtain weapons of mass destruction. No matter which one of us is elected on Nov. 2, we'll make mistakes. All presidents do.

So, yes; I made a mistake. Yes, I was wrong. But if we went Sen. Kerry's way and he made a mistake, what would the result be?

Chris Suellentrop is the deputy editor for blogs at Yahoo News and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He has reviewed video games for Slate, Rolling Stone, and NewYorker.com. Follow him on Twitter.