Thursday night’s debate between President Bush and his Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry is bound to be more dramatic and consequential than any of the three Bush and Al Gore engaged in four years ago.
There has never been a face-off like this one: A wartime president, leading the nation in a conflict about which many Americans have misgivings or are opposed to, confronts his adversary, who has stopped just short of accusing him of deliberately leading the nation into war through lies.
Perhaps Kerry, abetted by such surrogates as Howard Dean, has already telegraphed one of his punches.
Last week, dripping a few drops of anxiety potion about a possible military draft into the public mind, Kerry said at a Florida campaign stop, "If George Bush were to be re-elected, given the way he has gone about this war and given his avoidance of responsibility in North Korea and Iran and other places, is it possible? I can't tell you."
Dean and other Democrats say Bush will revive the draft if voters give him a second term.
One gambit candidates who are trailing use is confronting their foe in a debate with a demand that they take a vow. In the 2000 New York Senate race, Republican Rick Lazio tried this in a debate with Hillary Clinton, asking her to pledge to abstain from using “soft money” in her campaign.
Given the Democratic rumors about Bush reviving the draft, one can frame a rhetorical question that Kerry might pose Thursday night, even though debate rules don't allow him to directly question Bush: “This evening, all across America, mothers and fathers are asking this question: 'Mr. President, will you give us, your solemn assurance that there will be no draft? And can we have any confidence in that pledge, given all your other misleading statements?'”
Kerry and his strategists have made a gamble: confront the president on precisely the issue on which polls show the American people have more confidence in Bush.
Again and again, state and national polls indicate that by large margins, voters see Bush, more than Kerry, as a resolute leader who does not adjust his positions to suit changing public sentiment.
Having made his bet, Kerry seems to have little choice but to go for broke: use Thursday’s debate to break Bush’s image as a strong leader, try to convince Americans that Bush has put them at more risk of terrorist attack.
Bush, on the other hand, has a wealth of Kerry’s Senate votes to pick from in making the case that the Massachusetts senator is not commander-in-chief material.
One that Bush might use to put Kerry on the spot: his vote against the 1991 resolution authorizing Bush’s father to use military force against Saddam Hussein’s armies after they invaded Kuwait. U.N. members were willing to use force to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, but Kerry wasn’t.
Attitude toward allies
It would be logical if Bush used the debate to pursue the charge he made in his speech at the Republican National Convention: that despite Kerry’s boast to be an internationalist who will put America on more amicable terms with France, Germany and other nations, Kerry is contemptuous of those nations that have tried to help stabilize Iraq.
“In the midst of war, he has called America's allies, quote, a ‘coalition of the coerced and the bribed,’” Bush said. “That would be nations like Great Britain, Poland, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Denmark, El Salvador, Australia, and others, allies that deserve the respect of all Americans, not the scorn of a politician.”
While praising allies such as Poland, Bush might also remind Kerry of the words of a top official of Germany's ruling Social Democratic Party quoted in Tuesday’s edition of the Financial Times: "I cannot imagine that there will be any change in our decision not to send troops (to Iraq), whoever becomes president (of the United States).”
The French foreign minister has said virtually the same thing, as has the vice chairman of the French joint chiefs of staff.
“I have troops in Haiti, in the Ivory Coast, in the Horn of Africa, in the Balkans, in Afghanistan,” the French general told an American visitor last spring. “I’m having difficulty meeting these commitments. The notion that we or the Germans can give you 50,000 troops, even together, is just not realistic.”
Kerry has argued that “George Bush refuses to confront reality.”
Bush could answer that, on the contrary, it is Kerry who is refusing to face reality by claiming that he could get the French and Germans to send troops to Iraq, even after French and German leaders have flatly said they won’t do so.
Scorn for 'puppet' Allawi
Kerry and his spokesman also have opened the Democratic candidate to a Bush debate jab by expressing scorn for Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, who at risk to his own life has tried to lead Iraq to some semblance of stability and consensual government.
“The last thing you want to be seen as is a puppet of the United States, and you can almost see the hand underneath the shirt today moving the lips," said Kerry spokesman Joe Lockhart last week after Allawi addressed a joint session of Congress.
Americans need not believe that Allawi is the reincarnation of George Washington in order to see him as a decent man trying to move his country to something better than Saddam Hussein’s despotism.
As the rivals enter the final hours of their debate rehearsals, there are plenty of examples for each man to learn from.
For the incumbent, the role model to shun seems to be Jimmy Carter and his performance against Ronald Reagan in their sole 1980 confrontation.
Read the transcript of that debate and you will see an incumbent president so disdainful of his opponent and so fretful about losing to him that he resorts to almost obsessively repetitive attacks: calling Reagan “extremely dangerous and belligerent” on nuclear weapons policy, “very dangerous” on Social Security, harboring “a very great insensitivity” toward poor people.
For Kerry, the challenger to emulate, needless to say, is the debonair John F. Kennedy in his Sept. 26, 1960, debate with Richard Nixon, a semi-incumbent by virtue of serving as Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president.
Kennedy’s performance that night has achieved legendary status: He displayed the ideal combination of intensity and relaxation.
Echoes of 1944
Going back to the pre-debate era, this year’s contest in some way recalls another wartime election. For a time in the 1944 campaign, Franklin Roosevelt’s challenger, Thomas E. Dewey, was able to capitalize on a statement made by FDR’s head of the Selective Service, who said the government might keep soldiers in uniform after World War II to keep them from the flooding the job market.
“If You Want To Bring The Boys Home Sooner, Vote For Dewey,” shouted Republican billboards, trying to stoke discontent in the electorate.
Roosevelt and his pollster Hadley Cantril had jitters heading into the last weeks of the campaign, according to historian Thomas Fleming.
An Army officer leaked to Dewey the startling information that the United States had broken the Japanese codes prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, but Dewey chose not to use the information to accuse FDR of lying the nation into war.
With the electorate today more divided than in 1944 and with relatively few Americans, other than soldiers, their parents and spouses, directly feeling the war’s impact, Bush can’t exploit the commander-in-chief’s role with Roosevelt’s masterful theatricality.
Bush, like Roosevelt, has an assurance that comes from his “old money” background, although he cloaks it in a Midland, Texas, “ordinary man” persona.
Bush may need every bit of that assurance as Kerry fires away Thursday night in what is by far his best chance to change the course of this race.