American Enterprise Online | 10.6.04
By Alan W. Dowd

A late word on the first presidential debate and early word on the second: The conventional wisdom is right—and wrong.

It was wrong in its assessment of Sen. John Kerry, who found a way to shoehorn his nuanced and run-on style of speaking into digestible two-minute chunks. It was right in that the format and topic of the first debate was President George W. Bush’s turf, and as a consequence he had a chance to deliver a knockout. But as we’ve heard over and over from the purveyors of conventional wisdom, he missed that chance. Doubtless, this was puzzling to Kerry supporters and unsettling for Bush backers.

What we haven’t heard much of is exactly where and how Bush could have landed his knockout blows. I can think of three places:

Early in the contest, Kerry recalled how “the president's father” ended the Gulf War of 1990-1991. Loosely quoting from George H.W. Bush and Brent Scowcroft’s A World Transformed, Kerry explained that the elder Bush did not go to Baghdad “because there was no viable exit strategy. And he said our troops would be occupiers in a bitterly hostile land. That's exactly where we find ourselves today.”

George W. Bush and all those who recognize that Iraq is part of a much larger war that began long before September 11 know the response to Kerry’s clever triangulation gambit: Because Saddam was allowed to stay in power, American troops did in fact become occupiers in a bitterly hostile land—Saudi Arabia. On this much, we can take al Qaeda at its word: it attacked Manhattan and D.C. because America was occupying the land of Mecca and Medina, and America was occupying that land because of a shortsighted decision in 1991.

Since a wounded Saddam could not be left unattended and an oil-rich Saudi Arabia could not be left unprotected, US troops took up permanent residence in the Saudi kingdom. The presence of foreign troops in the Muslim holy land galvanized al Qaeda, which carried out the attacks of September 11, 2001, which triggered America’s global war on terror, which led inevitably back to Iraq, which is where America finds itself today.

Not only does this rejoinder draw a stark difference between how the two candidates view this war; it connects Iraq to September 11 in a way that bypasses all the conspiracies and commissions and committees.

Later on, Kerry critiqued Bush for failing to build an international coalition. (Never mind that fully 21 of the European Union’s 25 members supported the campaign in Iraq, that 24 of NATO’s 26 members have troops in Afghanistan or Iraq, that 17 of them have deployed troops on both fronts.) “What we need now,” the senator declared, “is a president who understands how to bring these other countries together to recognize their stakes in this.” He then talked about the importance of employing “the remedies of the United Nations and go[ing] through that full process.”

In response, Bush should have reminded voters that when America had a president “who understands how to bring these other countries together,” a president who used the UN to build coalitions, a president who went through the full UN process, a president who sought and obtained the blessing of the UN Security Council—including the indispensable French—John Kerry opposed the product of all that UN spadework.

Since he’s obviously read the elder Bush’s book, Kerry knows that the first Bush administration followed the letter and spirit of international law in building its desert coalition; he knows that the war to reverse Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait was a clear-cut case of just war; and he knows that when the administration—and the UN and the French and the Kuwaitis—asked for his support, the answer was “no.”

When the second Bush administration—and the Iraqi people and the British and the rest of Bush’s bribed coalition—asked for his support, the answer was “yes” and then “no.” What will the answer be if he’s sitting in the Oval Office?

In the final quarter of the debate, Kerry opened a door that Bush could have—and should have—driven a Mack truck through: “Right now the president is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to research bunker-busting nuclear weapons…You talk about mixed messages: We're telling other people you can't have nuclear weapons but we're pursuing a new nuclear weapons that we might even contemplate using. Not this president. I'm going to shut that program down.”

That wouldn’t be a first. In fact, the senator has opposed several key weapons programs that Presidents Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush requested or deployed. For example, in 1990, he voted against the M-1 Abrams battle tank, which liberated Kuwait a year later and liberated Iraq thirteen years later. He voted to kill the B-2 bomber, which reversed Milosevic’s pogrom in Kosovo and then helped liberate Afghanistan and Iraq. He has opposed ballistic missile defenses, which even President Clinton grudgingly came around to supporting—and which will likely be used this decade to defend America from some madman’s missile. And whether he calls it a protest vote or a complicated matter, Sen. Kerry opposed $87 billion in spending for troops deployed in the war on terror.

What’s most intriguing to me is that responses like these aren’t the product of Monday-morning quarterbacking or debate trickery. This is stuff that Kerry’s critics have been saying in one form or another for a year. Bush himself has hit on some of these themes.

However, missed opportunities don’t always translate into lost elections. Moreover, the conventional wisdom, which says Bush has blown his big chance on his turf, may turn out to be wrong again.

If the election race of 2004 has taught us anything, it’s that conventional wisdom and historical trends aren’t indicators this year: By those measures—think net job loss, military quagmire, “right track/wrong track”—it is Bush who should be knocked out of the race by now. 

Hence, don’t be surprised if Bush surprises the critics during the next debate, focused largely on domestic issues. Here’s how and where he might do just that:

He could draw attention to Kerry’s voting record, which he didn’t do last week. Whether Kerry likes it or not, that record reveals that he is more liberal than the American people on a range of issues.

Issues like national defense. Here’s where Bush will need to remind the American people that national defense is the most important domestic issue. It always has been, but this is especially clear in September 11’s wake. Peter Huessy of the National Defense University Foundation notes that in his 1984 campaign against Paul Tsongas, Kerry “proposed that the United States cancel or cut back the F-15 [and] F-14 tactical fighter planes; the B-1 and B-2 bombers; the Peacekeeper missile; the Trident submarine; the Aegis cruiser; the Abrams tank, the Apache helicopter, and the Tomahawk cruise missile.” These represent the mainstays of America’s modern arsenal.

Issues like taxes. The nonpartisan Project Vote Smart details Kerry’s support for a $241-billion tax increase in 1993, a 4.3-cent increase on gas taxes, higher corporate taxes.

Issues like partial-birth abortion and embryonic stem cell research. Kerry repeatedly blocked efforts to ban partial-birth abortion, a procedure too gruesome to describe here. Yet nearly seven in ten Americans oppose it.

Sensing he has found a winning wedge issue, Kerry is spoiling for a fight on stem cells and fetal tissue. But he ought to tread carefully: Americans are growing squeamish about what their indifference to the unborn has wrought. Who would have imagined in 1973 that a major political party would showcase someone dismissing human embryos as little more than lab worms because “They have no fingers and toes, no brain or spinal cord. They have no thoughts, no fears. They feel no pain”? Yet that’s what Ron Reagan said at John Kerry’s convention.

Is this the new definition of humanness, whether we feel pain or have fingers and toes, whether we have discernable thoughts and identifiable fears? Are we so selfish that we cannot see the danger of using the weakest and smallest among us to make us healthier and stronger?

The president offered his answer in 2001 by drawing a line between the possible and the ethical. If the conventional wisdom says the only way to push the frontiers of science is to disregard the constraints of ethics, then once again it’s wrong. And the president should say so.