Maintaining Optimism in the Face of Reality. Occasional observations on the state of the world, society, business and politics. Usually anchored by facts, always augmented by opinion.

Did We Hear the Fat Lady Singing In Arizona?  | e-mail post

I wasn't going to write much about last night's debate, but after seeing the NYT piece on it this morning, which really didn't reflect the tone or tenor of the evening, I felt I should write something more substantial. What I saw was not simply a debate in which Bush performed better than Kerry, but one in which Kerry exuded an aura of defeat, of going through the motions. I think Mondale seemed more the fighter in his quixoitic 1984 race. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The debate, the questions, and the participants, were both surprising and yet unsurprsing in various turns and to varying extents.

Kerry seemed, in the most negative way, more himself than ever last night. When brevity would have served him well, he was unable to help himself as he talked on and on. Kerry continued to make claims about the insufficiency of simply doing more, claiming that Bush's failure is that not everything happened.

While Kerry was himself in the most negative way, Bush seemed to be himself in the most positive way. Clearly well-rested, which he clearly wasn't going in the first debate, and sporting a smile and relaxed countenance the whole time, Bush delivered a congruent message of hope and optimism in his words and posture. The Times described Bush as "staring stonily" at Kerry. I really wonder where it i now.

Bush was dead on with the answers. He stayed on topic, something Kerry had a very, very difficult time doing. Relatively early in the debate, the flu vaccine question came as a bit of a surprise, but Bush's answers were forthright, and because the problem was caused by a British manufacturing facility, it preempted Kerry's ability to criticize him on blocking drug reimportation.

I scanned my recording of the debate again, and my sense was confirmed. Kerry didn't so much as crack a smile from that point forward until the very end of the evening. He couldn't even criticize Bush on the flu vaccine. He tried to warp a British company's GMP compliance problems into an indicator of a health care system failing because of Bush's willful neglect.

A couple of question's later, Kerry's response to the question of gay marriage left me slack-jawed. While John Edwards was Eddie Haskel in the way he felt the need to make clear that Cheney has a gay daughter, Kerry came off as disgustedly choking out the even more tangential statement about Dick Cheney's daughter...who...is...a..lesbian. I was not sure if his delivery style was a rhetorical device to express disgust in her existence, or if it was from a disgust with himself for being reduced to

The rest of the debate was more of the same on both sides. Kerry appealed to the existence of "better plans" that he never elaborates upon, few of which are even on his campaign website, and those few that are do not describe tactics or mechanisms, but mostly outcomes, as if the output of the document from a printer in the Oval Office has the magical result, by fiat, of securing Russian nuclear material in 4 years. Bush on the other hand described strategies based around a coherent worldview that progress is achievable, but is not instantaneous.

It is ironic how many people thought the domestic issues debate would be Kerry's advantage, but it was Bush who dominated it in both substance and style. I'm not going to drill into much coverage of the issues, because other than some comments on immigration and Bush finally pointing out that the 80% of total federal income taxes are paid by the top 20% of Americans, there wasn't too much new. I'd encourage readers to try to view the debate if possible, or at least read the transcript, before reading much in the way of opinions.

In addition to the flu question, the two other questions that painted the most marked contrast between the two were the questions near the end, about Bush's faith and about what he's learned from being surrounded by strong women.

I was actually so impressed, and surprisingly moved (as I am not myself a man of deep faith), by Bush's answer on the question of religion and it's role in his policy decisions, that it is worth seeing in print:
First, my faith plays a big part in my life. And when I was answering that question what I was really saying to the person was that I pray a lot. And I do. And my faith is a very, it's very personal. I pray for strength. I pray for wisdom. I pray for our troops in harm's way. I pray for my family. I pray for my little girls.

But I'm mindful in a free society that people can worship if they want to or not. You're equally an American if you choose to worship an Almighty and if you choose not to. If you're a Christian, Jew or Muslim you're equally an American. That's the great thing about America is the right to worship the way you see fit. Prayer and religion sustain me. I receive calmness in the storms of the presidency. I love the fact that people pray for me and my family all around the country. Somebody asked me one time, how do you know? I said I just feel it.

Religion is an important part. I never want to impose my religion on anybody else. But when I make decisions I stand on principle. And the principles are derived from who I am. I believe we ought to love our neighbor like we love ourself. That's manifested in public policy through the faith-based initiative where we've unleashed the armies of compassion to help heal people who hurt. I believe that God wants everybody to be free. That's what I believe. And that's one part of my foreign policy. In Afghanistan I believe that the freedom there is a gift from the Almighty. And I can't tell you how encouraged how I am to see freedom on the march. And so my principles that I make decisions on are a part of me. And religion is a part of me.
And the impressive thing is that for as eloquent as that response was, particularly in the context of a debate, there was really no hint from his delivery that it was anything other than a relatively impromptu response, but one that flowed so naturally because of its sincerity. I actually believe that this passage could become part of the historical record defining Bush, and I think he would be quite happy if it were.

Kerry's rebuttal, had he been wise, would have been very brief. But, as I said, he seems to have an almost narcissistic need to hear himself speak. Given that he claims adherence to a religion, Catholicism, that is taking a nearly doctrinal position that a vote for him is a sin, the less he talks about religion the better. I'll include his response because it is classic Kerry:
Well, I respect everything that the president has said and certainly respect his faith. I think it's important and I share it. [I believe a wise move would be to leave it at that.] I think that he just said that freedom is a gift from the Almighty. Everything is a gift from the Almighty. And as I measure the words of the Bible, and we all do, different people measure different things: the Koran, the Torah or, you know, Native Americans who gave me a blessing the other day had their own special sense of connectedness to a higher being. And people all find their ways to express it. I was taught - I went to a church school, and I was taught that the two greatest commandments are: love the Lord your God with all your mind, your body and your soul; and love your neighbor as yourself. And frankly, I think we have a lot more loving of our neighbor to do in this country and on this planet. [If only we could have heard Bill Clinton utter that exact line in a speech or debate.] We have a separate and unequal school system in the United States of America. There's one for the people who have and there's one for the people who don't have. And we're struggling with that today. The president and I have a difference of opinion about how we live out our sense of our faith. I talked about it earlier when I talked about the works and faith without works being dead. I think we've got a lot more work to do. And as president I will always respect everybody's right to practice religion as they choose or not to practice, because that's part of America.
I know John Kerry will probably never understand this, but sometimes even if less isn't more, less can still be better.

It seems fitting poetry that the final residential debate of 2004 took place in a building Frank Lloyd Wright originally designed to be the Bagdhad Opera House. And not simply because of the current focus Iraq holds in this election, but also because I think we may have seen the proverbial fat lady sing tonight.

While we still have almost three weeks before Americans go to the polls, as I wrote at the start of this post, Kerry seemed liked he had lost his will to win, and maybe even his desire to win. He was going through the motions, but he lacked passion even by his standards. He dropped some of his recent gains in avoiding sound patronizing and patrician.

Maybe Kerry realizes that regardless of how close the national polls are showing the popular vote, they believe the math from reliable state-by-state polls showing Bush to have basically locked up the election. This of course offers the Bush/Cheney campaign a chance to go and take states out that Kerry has been counting on for his powerbase, such as what may be happening in New Jersey.

As a political junkie I'll still be keeping track of things through the election, but I really think last night was a major turning point.

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