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Presidential debates refresh political process

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Despite the tirades of television pundits, the presidential campaign has in
its final weeks offered excellent views of the major arguments that tear
America in half. The debates (or direct encounters) of this campaign season
improved the national political process. Sizing up the two principal men
who are vying for the American presidency is most cleanly done this way.

George Bush and John Kerry, both scions of families and fortunes, are quite
different types of men. They coincide on some basic issues facing the
United States but approach the world in very different ways. Anyone
professing not to see real distinctions between the two parties and the
attitudes of their central leaders, is either posturing (ala Nader) or
blindly ignorant.

At this writing (shortly after the final debate), the race is dead even.
The president has the weight of incumbency on his side. The Democrats, goes
the widest buzz, have registered large numbers of new voters, likely to
cast their way in several key states. Truth is it's a toss up to the wire
on Nov. 2.

In the first debate (Florida, Sept. 30), President Bush crumbled under the
reality of a highly intelligent and tough experienced presence in Senator
Kerry. Used to adoration from his own aides and their perfectly-manicured
crowds, Bush mumbled, jeered, slumped and snarled. It was pitiful and it
cost him the 6-point lead he had following the GOP convention. It was
inevitable given the line of caricature the GOP operatives have put into
play about Kerry. In person, Kerry is resolute and solid enough to belie
the flip-flopper image created by the Republican campaign message machine.
Kerry did the cornering in Florida, and corralled Bush with a greater grasp
on reality.

In the second debate - the vice presidential bout - Senator John Edwards
was completely uncowed by Vice-President Cheney, who looms over a scene
like the senior war counselor that he is. The candidates traded hard
punches and neither man ducked. Edwards is an articulate and likable
politician with an engaging style. Some have said he is light on resume
(not more so than Bush during his first run for the office) but showed
quick reactions and a firm grasp of the issues. Cheney is all gravitas; he
is so heavy he tends to sink into his walrus-like frame. He is the great
unmovable presence ... unless Halliburton comes up. Neck and neck the vice
presidential candidates argued, contributing to the presidential race but
did not defining it.

Bush went back to lick his wounds from the first debate and got some good,
aggressive coaching. At the second debate, (Missouri, Oct. 8) he came out
punching. He hit a few, barked a bit much, threw a few wild ones that
weakened him, then held his own as Kerry parried and punched quite well
himself. Kerry outlasted Bush in this second bout, hit more soundly on the
major worries the electorate shows, notably Bush's handling of the economy
and the huge deficit, about health care and the sense of secular respect
for a multicultural America. Bush looked beat but went the distance. He
punched back hard on Iraq, but with pronouncements belied by the daily
news. (It continues: Six American soldiers reported killed Oct. 13).

Kerry stood up well in all three debates. Voters got to know him that much
more. The Karl Rove attack machine had painted Kerry as the "flip-flop"
candidate and far left liberal buffoon without core principles.
Name-calling nonsense to be sure. The actual man - his character and
personality - tells a different story. The truth as observable through live
TV is different from the lying attack machines of current political
campaigning. At slander and obfuscation of the truth, the GOP machine is
king. Perhaps it will pay the price as the electorate seems to be
increasingly educated about how media manipulation works.

Earlier, during the build-up to war, Republican pundits and politicians
went about impugning the patriotism of anyone who disagreed on the rush to
war, including actual combat veterans. Most of the media sheepishly
submitted to this trend. This was a bad omen to see in an administration
quickly polarizing the country, and where the phrases, "internal enemies"
and even "traitors" were being applied to even moderate Democrats.

The final debate before the election (Arizona, Oct. 13) was intended to
focus on domestic issues - the bread and butter of the election. Not much
resonated particularly, except perhaps the sense of Bush's failing economic
policy, which, Kerry pointed out, squandered a huge surplus to a horrendous
deficit and debt.

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Both candidates reiterated their main points on health care, education,
taxation, the debt, outsourcing of American jobs and social security. The
fact patterns were straight out of the stump speeches of each candidate.
Kerry was more thorough; Bush was more emotional. Like the second debate
Bush did improve on his first outing while Kerry was steady and secure.
Although no decisive single blow was struck by either man Kerry again
carried the day. (We highly recommend Americans go back and read the
transcripts of the final debate to fully appreciate the clarity and impact
of Kerry's responses as well as Bush's confusing reliance on the No Child
Left Behind initiative as answer to several different questions.) Certainly
each candidate activated his own base that much more. Both men - swaggering
Texan and stately Yankee - are pieces of the American character, playing
for huge portions of the American psyche. This week, they have the country
evenly divided behind them.

While huge policy questions hang in the balance, only one thing is certain
this election: Every vote will count. Many local and state elections will
be decided by just hundreds, maybe even by only dozens of votes.

One recent media estimate from the University of Wisconsin Advertising
Project and Nielsen Monitor Plus points to 10 battleground states where the
campaigns are advertising most heavily and where the project feels the
contest is closest: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, New
Mexico, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Five others, Arizona, Louisiana, Oregon, Washington and West Virginia
previously at play, have been de-emphasized by the campaigns. Missouri,
fully expected for Bush, has dropped from the Kerry radar.

Beyond Bush and Kerry themselves, of course, are the widely-polarized
organizations, money and talent pools of their respective movements. Among
Republicans this is represented by the ultra-conservative 25-year
revolution (presently in power). For the Republicans, all artillery and all
weaponry is in play. The Republicans have very formidable fronts. The
neo-con takeover has followed a decades-old cadre-building discipline -
accompanied by the accelerated accumulation of national communications
companies and public and private airwaves. That combined power paid off in
spades these past five years, although the aggressive and too often
slanderous approach might be wearing thin on those in the general public
able to discern the difference.

For the Democrats, win or lose this election, the anti-Bush political
season has refocused the party's unifying principles and messages. This
season, unexpectedly, the Democrats seem to be recovering their own
strategic center behind a steadfast, intelligent, articulate and principled
leader in Sen. John Kerry. This front is now striking back with clarity and
purpose. The Democrats are just re-surging now as a political movement, and
will gain new force beyond the present contest.

One memorable instance in the final debate:

In speaking about religious freedom in America, we found it encouraging for
Senator Kerry to mention American Indian traditional spirituality as he
also listed Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths to the audience.

"Everything is a gift from the Almighty," said Kerry, in response to Bush's
reference to his own spiritual belief. "And as I measure the words of the
Bible - and we all do; different people measure different things - the
Koran, the Torah, or, you know, Native Americans who gave me a blessing the
other day had their own special sense of connectedness to a higher being."

We respect Senator Kerry for his generous recognition of Native spiritual
beliefs while he seeks to express and shape national policies that maintain
the distinction and separation between church and state.