Thursday, October 14, 2004

Win some, lose some

Give John Kerry his due. During the primaries, I thought he was maybe the third or fourth best candidate to run against Bush. And during the mid-September suicide watch, Deaniac fervor returned with a vengeance as Dems watched helplessly while Kerry was tarred and feathered by a ruthless Bush campaign.

Smartly, Kerry changed his strategy and focused on Iraq, bringing in Clintonistas who revamped his floundering communications operation. Then came the debates, where Kerry really reversed the momentum of this race. If Kerry wins -- and I'm confident he will -- observers will largely focus on Bush's inadequacies, his scowls and twitches, and his repetitive, wacky, and largely unpresidential demeanor. In the three debates, Bush conspicuously wore three faces: Bitchy George, Furious George, and Smiley George. As some one put it on the Daily Kos, it seemed as if the Prez were on Ny-Quil the first time, cocaine the second, and prozac the third.

But I have to give big props to Kerry himself. He didn't strike out the side, but he came in and got the three outs he needed by remaining consistent. He made no gaffes and showed himself as a man ready to assume power. In doing so, he evinced a self-confidence in himself that both Bush and Gore (both of whom shifted their styles to mollify criticism of their previous appearances) lacked. In the final debate, he was again authoritative, upright, articulate, with a strong command of facts and policy. The Insta-polls declared Kerry the winner again, and I agree.

Despite the spittle on the side of his mouth, and the "Thank you Sir, may I have another" frat pledge smile pasted on his face the whole night, I did think Bush did pretty well. It was his best debate. He sounded sincere when talking about education and tolerance, and I think the left should lay off the "Bush sez poor people are dumb" line of attack. He's fundamentally correct that worker retraining and adult education are the most effective ways to salve the harsh effects of outsourcing -- a phenomenon that both candidates (to their credit) stated can't be completely reversed.

But Kerry was unflappable, consistent, and forceful. He was at his best when delivering unambiguous, concise answers in support of popular Democratic policies, like a raise in the minimum wage and the assault weapons ban. In those answers, he'll identify the problem in stark terms, say clearly what he'll do about it, and indict Bush's inaction on that issue as symptomatic of his wrong policy preferences. They're clean left jabs to the head. And he doesn't need to pander.

Bob Schieffer helped Kerry, if only because he presented some facts and figures in the question. And Bush's real opponent is not John Kerry but facts. Any question about "the rising cost of health care" or "the increased budget deficit" or "how to stem job losses" implicitly hurt the incumbent. Kerry needed only to amplify the failed record and present a credible plan. The only questions that play to Bush's advantage are the "character" questions, but even then, Kerry showed that, yes, Lurch could be warm and fuzzy, too.

In every debate, Kerry says something that the Bushies seize on for post-debate spin, like his "global test" remark. In this one, it turned out to be a poorly judged reference to Mary Cheney's lesbianism (not-so-subliminal message: "The Vice President has a LEZZZ-BIAN daughter!") On MSNBC's post-debate jab session, Buchanan and Scarborough ran with the Republican talking points, acting indignant that Kerry would deliver such a low blow. It seemed desperate until I saw this piece in the NY Times on folks in a focus group turned off by Kerry's reference. Expect the GOoPers to run with this one for a while, but I can't see it having much traction beyond a day or two of Faux News outrage.

Kerry remains in strong position with 19 days to go. And frankly, I'm beginning to actually want to help elect Kerry rather than just defeat Bush.

The Boston Brahmin was good in the clutch. He seized the moment. The same can't be said for the Boston Red Sox. Maybe it's better that way. If this year brings both a Bush loss and a Sox World Series win, I'd wake up on November 3rd with nothing to live for.

Best to pour your heart out for the Democrats. At least they win from time to time.