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October 18, 2004

Kerry 3, Bush O, But The Contest Isn't Over

Tony Soltero

The presidential debates of the last couple of weeks bring to mind a classic storyline from the late Charles Schultz' venerable Peanuts comic strip.

Charlie Brown wakes up one morning and watches the sun rise outside his window - except that it's not the sun, it's an oversized baseball. What was THAT? Well, over the next few days he starts seeing the moon as a baseball as well, until finally his own round head sprouts a couple of baseball seams.

Naturally, this strange turn of events disturbs and embarrasses him, so he takes to wearing a paper bag over his head to obscure his disorder. He goes off to summer camp with the hope that the change in environment will help him recover.

Remarkably, the paper bag completely transforms Charlie Brown, and the heretofore born loser suddenly finds himself the most popular boy in camp. His new mates flock to him, admire his wit and wisdom, and finally elect him camp president. Charlie Brown - labeled "Sack" by his buddies - enjoys a brief period of self-confidence and assertiveness, and everything breaks his way. But he's tiring of the paper bag, so he decides to go off one morning and watch the sun rise, just to check if the "baseballitis" is finally behind him.

As he gets up that morning, his bunkmate sees "Sack" uncovered for the first time. He's puzzled and confused by the revelation, and begins to wonder if Charlie Brown's rise to the camp presidency was just one big deception.

On Thursday, September 30, in Coral Gables, millions of Americans saw George W. Bush with the sack off his head for the first time. And most undecided voters were every bit as manifestly unimpressed as Charlie Brown's bunkmate.

President Bush has spent his entire term of office sealed in a hermetic bubble. His rare press conferences have been tightly rationed and controlled, and the few reporters who have challenged him in them have not been invited back. (Who can forget Mr. Bush's breaking with a long-standing bipartisan tradition and refusing to call on Helen Thomas in the pre-Iraq-war press conference?) His public appearances are all Potemkin events - tightly stage-managed recitations of GOP talking points to uncritical audiences forced to sign loyalty oaths, with any dissenters safely corralled miles away in what the administration refers to as "First Amendment Zones."

In view of this, it's hardly surprising that he wilted so badly when his Democratic opponent, Senator John Kerry, forcefully challenged him on the Iraq war and the war on terrorism. It's tough to suddenly run up a steep hill when you've spent the last three years trotting along a leisurely conveyor belt.

The most revealing moment in that seminal first debate occurred when Senator Kerry emphasized that it was not Saddam Hussein who attacked us on 9/11, but Osama bin Laden, and that the current administration had "outsourced" the hunt for bin Laden in its zeal to rationalize and carry out its attack on Iraq.

The President's retort - "I knew that!" - was that of a defensive, petulant 12-year-old. Combined with the smirks, the scowls, and the occasional odd interjections (Poland?), the Republican Party saw four years and hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of image-building trickle down the drain, as millions of Americans asked themselves if this man really was the leader of the Free World. Well, I'm sure it's hard work.

By contrast, Mr. Kerry took full advantage of the unfiltered access to the public the debate afforded him, establishing himself as a knowledgeable, intelligent contender for Mr. Bush's current job, and a force to be reckoned with for the balance of the campaign. He presented his credentials as a public servant serious about national security, and willing to fund it fully, unlike the incumbent, who complained that securing our ports would just cost too much to be worth it, and get in the way of his Enron tax cuts.

Mr. Kerry surged in the polls in the wake of the first debate, and proceeded to solidify his gains in the second encounter in St. Louis eight days later.

In a town-hall atmosphere (featuring strong, probing questions from ordinary citizens that put the "professional" moderators to shame), Mr. Kerry simply remained calm, rational, confident, and most of all presidential, pointing out Mr. Bush's multitude of shortcomings in economic, health-care, and environmental issues, while the President, obviously overcompensating for his Florida debacle, shouted his way through a series of shrill declamations, at one point almost charging moderator Charlie Gibson.

When asked about the erosion of constitutional freedoms brought about by the Patriot Act, Mr. Bush simply dismissed the questioner, telling him he shouldn't feel that way.

Gee, that's reassuring. And most tellingly, he could not identify a single mistake he'd made in his presidency, instead blaming all of his administration's problems on "bad appointments" (i.e., it's everybody else's fault); this from the man who preaches "personal responsibility"? Oh my God - that must be one airtight bubble!

Mr. Kerry wasn't perfect himself, trying too hard to be all things to all people on taxes, but his self-control and obvious command of the facts and issues contrasted strikingly with the President.

He pointed out the obvious - that the gargantuan budget deficit is directly tied to Bush's tax cuts. He explained the famously distorted flap on the $87 billion Iraq bill - he voted FOR the fiscally responsible bill that rolled back a few of the tax cuts (which Bush said he'd veto), and AGAINST the bill that contained a massive taxpayer subsidy to GOP contributor Halliburton.

And more Americans became confident that Senator Kerry, unlike his opponent, at least seemed to realize that we have a few things we need to fix in our country - and internationally, where the senator enumerated the treaties the Bush administration had pulled America out of.

Buoyed by his triumphs and by his rising stock, Mr. Kerry set out to close the sale in the final encounter at Tempe, AZ, which focused on domestic issues.

This time Mr. Bush reinvented himself yet again (in a pattern strikingly similar to that of Al Gore four years ago), trying to come off as folksy and down-to-earth, and he was helped by a friendly moderator, Bob Scheiffer, who served the President more beach balls than Pedro Martinez doled out to the Yankees the same night.

But Mr. Bush still whiffed repeatedly; while Mr. Kerry assailed the President for the hemorrhaging of IT jobs overseas. Mr. Bush took the opportunity to shrug off the unemployed, dismissing their concerns by touting his No Child Left Behind bill as if it were some magic panacea especially designed to help 45-year-old college-educated fathers with children gain new jobs at Wal-Mart. Heck, if the drinking game had revolved around mentions of NCLB, I would've been over the legal limit within 10 minutes.

Mr. Kerry scored points on the big issues, especially on health care and unemployment, and advocated raising the minimum wage to a level more appropriate for a Western industrialized country, rather than a third-world backwater. His assault-weapons response was especially keening - he supported the Second Amendment while at the same time tying the issue to law enforcement and terrorism.

Mr. Bush did display a handful of moments of genuineness - mostly on the faith question - but overall didn't give the impression that he was very well connected with the day-to-day concerns of working American families, continually flogging his tax cuts while ignoring that tax cuts are irrelevant to those without incomes to begin with.

To many Americans, accustomed to seeing the President through the lens of an overprotective news media, the debates were a revelation.

Here were Messrs. Bush and Kerry, given the opportunity to speak directly to the people, with no talking heads "interpreting" things for them, with no news producers selectively culling out sound bites, and with no handlers spinning for their candidate. And they found out that the intellectual and emotional gap between the two does not reflect well on Mr. Bush's skills as a leader.

Many of these undecided Americans had grave misgivings about President Bush, but still needed to be convinced that Senator Kerry could be a worthy replacement. With his sharp debate performances, Mr. Kerry has accomplished that.

Of course, this campaign is nowhere near over; many, many things can still happen that could sway the election one way or another. But at this moment, Mr. Kerry has undoubtedly shown that he far outshines President Bush in qualifications for the presidency.

Oh, and when Charlie Brown went out to see the sun rise, it was no longer a baseball. It was now Alfred E. Neuman. It's been that kind of mad, mad, mad, mad, mad campaign.

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