WASHINGTON -- I was fortunate enough to be unable to listen to almost any of the pre-debate prattle on the cable news shows last night as I was at the America's Future Foundation debate party at the Porter's Dining Saloon. The blokes at AFF were smart enough to turn up the music loud enough so that hearing the talking heads was nigh impossible. A good start to the evening.
It got even better when Jim Lehrer announced the "back-up buzzer" system. It's about time.
Then the debate began, and I couldn't help feeling a bit discouraged. In the first thirty minutes, Kerry did very well. He seemed resolute and sincere, for example, when he said, "I will hunt down and kill the terrorists, wherever they are." He was gracious, almost to the point of being charming. It was a very good beginning for a candidate who needed to score a big debate victory to turn the polls around.
But soon the John Kerry emerged that we have all come to know and dislike. He started mentioning his time in Vietnam -- did you know he was in Vietnam by the way? He referred to this four times, and you could almost sense that much of America rolled their eyes and said, "Doesn't this guy get it?"
He also trotted out John Kerry the internationalist. He began emphasizing over and over how he would build a "genuine coalition," build "alliances," and chastised Bush for not letting the United Nations weapons inspectors do their jobs. He used the word coalition a half dozen times, the word alliance or allies a dozen, and the term United Nations another dozen. He only reaffirmed the suspicion that he would let an international body have a veto over our foreign policy.
Then he started flip-flopping. After reassuring voters that the Iraq War was a case of "diverting your attention from the real War on Terror," and "a colossal error in judgment," he later told us that he "did vote to give the authority, because I thought Saddam Hussein was a threat, and I did accept that intelligence." On the matter of troop withdrawal, he came up with this gem:
I want to correct the president, because he's misled again this evening on what I've said. I didn't say I would bring troops out in six months. I said, if we do the things that I've set out and we are successful, we could begin to draw the troops down in six months.
After that remark, Kerry looked silly when he said, "I've never wilted in my life. And I've never wavered in my life."
Then there was the famed Kerry aloofness. After Bush gave a heartfelt talk about meeting a women who had lost her husband in Iraq, Kerry began his response by referring to his time in -- can you guess where? --Vietnam. He finished his remark by mentioning that he had a four-point plan to get us out of Iraq, and "you [could] go to johnkerry.com and see more of it." A sales pitch following an emotional talk by the president. Classy.
Even then, Kerry still had a chance to get what he needed. Bush was not always at his best last night, at times coming off as anxious and a bit insecure, as though Kerry had rattled him a bit. If Kerry could have finished with some zingers against Bush, and given a solid closing statement, he might still have claimed a substantial win. But Kerry finally went to the internationalist well once too often:
No president, through all of American history, has ever ceded, and nor would I, the right to preempt in any way necessary to protect the United States of America.
But if and when you do it, Jim, you have to do it in a way that passes the test, that passes the global test where your countrymen, your people understand fully why you're doing what you're doing and you can prove to the world that you did it for legitimate reasons.
Bush seized the opportunity, and landed the blow of the evening:
I'm not exactly sure what you mean, "passes the global test," you take preemptive action if you pass a global test.
My attitude is you take preemptive action in order to protect the American people, that you act in order to make this country secure.
At that moment it became clear that what was foremost in Kerry's mind was the concerns of foreign countries, and not the interest of his own. With that, the best Kerry could hope for was a small victory in the debate. Most likely, he achieved a tie.
Indeed, Kerry may have won the debate last night, but with the "global test" remark he will probably lose the bigger battle in the days ahead. In post-debate remarks, Vice President Dick Cheney was already using it against Kerry, dismissing him as a "wanna-be Senator who says that in response to the question on preemptive action, he would support it as long as it passed some kind of global test." Look for the Bush campaign to use the term "global test" in the weeks to come the way they used the term "more sensitive war" a few weeks ago.
The biggest problem for the Kerry Campaign is that Kerry is often his own worst enemy. Last night was no exception.
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