WASHINGTON—Wednesday night’s debate was a downer. John Kerry lost one opportunity after another to score on George Bush, and instead often feebly retreated to a litany of facts and figures. Instead of attacking Bush for his inaccurate explanation of the flu scandal, for example, Kerry ignored the opening and started reciting one of his lists. Bush was his usual smirking, smarmy self, but unlike in the first debate, this time he made use of the smarmy behavior to show how he’s just one of the guys—the frat man up against a nerd.
Bush turned every question involving loss of jobs into a discussion on education. He would not directly come out in support of an increase in the
minimum wage, but instead insisted children should receive a better education so that they can get better jobs. “Education is how to help the person who lost his job,” he said. Retorted Kerry at one point, “We have a separate and unequal school system in America.”
Well, that’s something.
The two went around and around on health care. Bush emphasized, as he has in the past, Medicare reforms that he claims offer seniors drug coverage. (Actually, his Medicare reform flatly bans the government from bargaining for lower costs, and the drug coverage offered to the elderly is minuscule.)
Again and again, Bush stressed “market forces” as the way to get costs down, while Kerry urged opening the program for government employees to everyone so as to permit consumer shopping. Bush claimed Kerry’s health plan was just another example of the Massachusetts senator’s liberal government spending, and declared, “I think government health [care programs] will lead to poor health, to rationing” and “to more control.”
Kerry said he would back Roe vs Wade, and Bush dodged the issue by claiming it was a “litmus test” for picking activist judges who were out to change the constitution. As he has in the past, the president opposed partial-birth abortion. Bush said he believed in the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman, and thought a constitutional amendment was necessary to block activist judges from changing the constitution.
Bush sarcastically told Kerry that in the mainstream of American politics, “you sit on the left bank.” But describing Kerry as a traditional Northeast liberal would be far off the mark. From the beginning of his Senate term, it was just assumed he would be another Kennedy, but this has not been the case. Kerry has backed laissez-faire economics. One of his early votes was for the Gramm-Rudman deficit-cutting legislation. He worked closely with Massachusetts Republican governor William Weld in trying to jumpstart new businesses. In his MIA-POW investigations, Kerry worked closely with Bob Smith, the conservative Republican senator from New Hampshire, and with Senator John McCain. He has stoutly supported more money for fighting crime and putting cops on the street.
This is the last time the candidates can directly reach the general population. From now on, everything they say will be weighed and filtered through reporters or framed in advertisements. The race, in short, becomes a contest not so much between the candidates or the parties, as between media consultants, who will be aiming ads and calculated statements at various niche audiences (women, African Americans, etc.) throughout the country and especially in the swing states.
Going into the debate, Kerry had gained enough ground on the president to again deadlock the race.
Nationally, Kerry is either ahead by a few percentage points (such as the 49-48 showing in CNN/USA/Today/Gallup) or tied with Bush (45-45-Zogby).
Polls in several key states were shifting almost daily. In the crucial swing state of Ohio, a Strategic Vision poll released October 12 shows Bush 51, Kerry 45.
And in the battleground of Pennsylvania, Quinnipiac shows the contest as Kerry 49, Bush 47; Strategic Vision has it as a tie at 46 each.
Additional reporting: David Botti, Laurie Anne Agnese