A few weeks ago, David Gelernter wrote an article called “The Greatness of George Bush.” John Podhoretz wrote that he had never lost a debate. Dick Morris outlined how Bush couldn’t possibly lose the debate because half his supporters want a wider war and half want the troops home.
There was only one problem with this image of Bush the invincible, already nine points ahead in the polls and pulling away. That was George Bush himself.
Like it or not, the President has once again revealed himself as a person who can’t think on his feet. He can exude warmth and sincerity. He can give a great speech — as he proved at the convention and at the end of the debate. And the fact remains that the majority of Americans still agree with what he has to say about standing firm against terrorism.
But the President still has an embarrassing inflexibility of mind. He tends to grasp onto fixed words or phrases and repeat them over and over until it becomes obvious that he is reading from a script. And then he can’t depart from the script. He must have said five times that John Kerry switches back and forth on his positions and that’s no way to motivate the troops or lead the country.
Fine. But when you say it that many times, you can just hear his debate coaches saying, “Emphasize Kerry’s vacillations. Say he switches back and forth so many times that he’ll demoralize the troops and can’t lead the country.” You have to take an example from Kerry’s own arguments and wrap it around his neck — that’s how you make a point.
The low ebb of the debate for me came when Kerry glibly said, “Saddam Hussein didn’t attack us. Osama bin Laden attacked us. Al Qaeda attacked us. And when we had Osama bin Laden cornered in the mountains of Tora Bora, 1,000 of his cohorts with him in those mountains, with the American military forces nearby and in the field — we didn’t use the best trained troops in the world to go kill the world’s number one criminal and terrorist. They outsourced the job to Afghan warlords…”
How did Bush respond? He gripped the podium and with completely unwarranted anger leaned over and exclaimed, “First, listen, of course I know Osama bin Laden attacked us. I know that.”
This was Bush, the frat boy, debating the smooth talker from the other side of campus, responding to a point by saying, “I’m not stupid! Are you saying I’m stupid?” And by interpreting the question this way, of course, he betrays his own fear that maybe he is stupid and somebody’s accusing him of that.
A debate is like ju-jitsu. The way to win is to take the opponent’s thrust and turn them into overthrusts — to use his own weight against himself. The proper response to that point should have been something like this:
“Let me ask Mr. Kerry a question here, because I think it’s terribly important, not just for this debate but for the future of our country. Mr. Kerry, do you really think that if we find Osama Bin Laden hiding in a cave somewhere in Afghanistan, the war on terror is going to be over? Because if you do, I don’t think you’re ready to be President. You’re living in a different era. This isn’t World War II, where we capture Hitler in his bunker and the German people surrender. This isn’t the War in the Pacific, where the Emperor announces the fighting is over and the Japanese people lay down their arms. We’re in a conflict here that crosses borders and pays no attention to national boundaries — and where the invading army is not a armored division in uniform but a couple of guys in sports shirts checking through the security line at an airport in Maine.
“Killing Osama Bin Laden or putting him in jail is not going to end Al Qaeda and it’s not going to make us safe. Our main concern right now is that a sleeper cell somewhere in Jersey City is going to smuggle in a surface-to-air missile and start shooting down planes taking off from Newark Airport. Our concern is that a group of people in Chicago operating under cover of a Muslim charity is going to smuggle a nuclear weapon and blow that city off the map. And I’ll tell you this — before we took down Saddam Hussein, the most likely place those terrorist cells were going to get those weapons was from Iraq, because Iraq had them or was committed to obtaining them and Al Qaeda members were slipping in and out of that country all the time. And I’ll tell you something else — establishing a democracy in Iraq isn’t going to end the threat, either. Because Iran has now announced it’s going to develop nuclear weapons and so far the U.N. hasn’t been able to do a thing about it. So Mr. Kerry, please don’t try to convince the American public that if only we can capture Osama Bin Laden this war is going to be over. That’s foolish and misleading — and I certainly hope you don’t believe that yourself…”
It ain’t over yet. Reagan lost the first debate to Mondale in his re-election campaign but recovered quickly. Bush proved to be much more relaxed in the “community” setting of the second debate in 2000 and really won the day right there. As in any campaign, there will be thrusts and overthrusts, reversals of fortune. Kerry himself may feel a little overconfident by now.
One thing is clear, though. If the President is going to turn this thing around, he’s going to have to develop a little flexibility of mind.