Jewish World Review Oct. 11, 2004 / 26 Tishrei, 5765
Kerry on points,
W on substance
For the past four years, I have been defending President Bush against critics who call him dumb. But in Friday's debate, he did sound dumb a lot of the time. And shrill. And inarticulate to the point of occasional incomprehensibility. His pledge to appoint Supreme Court justices who oppose slavery and will uphold the Dred Scott Decision of 1857 was a head-scratcher.
Kerry, by comparison, was smooth and strong. He kept the President on the defensive, explaining his positions cogently and speaking in complete sentences. Only when he invoked his days as a Catholic altar boy and his service in Vietnam as justifications for his pro-choice stance did he come across as unctuous and false.
So on debating points, the winner was Kerry. Will this tilt the election? Kerry's winning performance in the first debate seems to have given him a bump. This one probably will too. Bush, after all, was supposed to stage a comeback on Friday. For that, the President needed more than a draw; he got less.
Which is not the same as saying that Bush was wrong (or Kerry right) about the main issue: national security.
On Friday, Kerry made the cornerstone of his foreign policy clear. He fervently believes the U.S. shouldn't have acted in Iraq - or use military power elsewhere - without the support of allies, by which he means Germany, Russia, France and the UN secretariat. Kerry made this point at least half a dozen times, returning to it in his summation.
Bush, by contrast, thinks the U.S. should set its own course. He is glad to have the help of like-minded countries such as Great Britain, Italy and Poland, but he won't waste effort convening summits to broaden his coalition. The U.S., in his view, needn't fear being isolated in the world. It is the world.
This is a position the President has not been willing to articulate explicitly in the past, and he didn't again on Friday. Similarly, Bush wasn't candid about his real reason for invading Iraq. After 9/11, he had to strike back at the Arab axis to demonstrate that the age of American passivity in the face of aggression was over. Baghdad made sense because it is the heart of the Arab world. But until Bush explains this, the reason for the invasion will remain obscure.
The President may not be a smart man. Certainly he isn't as smart as Kerry. But he knows more about how the world really works than Kerry does, and that should count for something.
It won't, though, until Bush is ready to say who and what he is fighting. He didn't do that on Friday. And for that reason, more than any other, the score is now Kerry 2, Bush 0.
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JWR contributor Zev Chafets is a columnist for The New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.
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