I've been feeling really agitated this week, going ballistic over little things like computer programs that don't behave, a water bottle that needs refilling, or laundry that needs folding. This morning it finally dawned on me what's really bothering me -- and some of you are not going to like what I've got to say:
John Kerry is blowing it.
Last week, in the wake of the first debate between Bush and Kerry, I thought I could sense a turn in the tide, and indulged myself in the momentary luxury of believing we'd passed an important turning point for the country and the world.
But that first debate was not so much a triumph of Kerry's vision and oratory as it was a failure of Bush's hollow and clumsy rhetoric. Two days after the debate, in a big speech in Pennsylvania, Bush regained his footing and came out swinging, taking direct aim at many of the things Kerry had said in the first debate -- and he carried that momentum into the second debate.
Despite the rush of Kerry supporters to stack the post-debate polls and make it appear that "Kerry won the debate" (matched, I'm sure, by an equal effort by the Bush squads, thus rendering all such polls completely meaningless), I don't see it that way.
Maybe I'm expecting too much, but I consider Bush's record so lame, his "accomplishments" so indefensible, that if he comes out of these debates still standing, then Kerry has failed.
So we'll call the second one a draw at best, and take a moment to marvel -- quiver? -- at how George Bush still has somehow managed to hang onto the rhetorical upper hand as we go into the final round Wednesday night.
While George Bush continues to keep America cowering with fear behind his paper wall of rhetoric and lies, John Kerry keeps handing Bush all the verbal ammunition Bush needs to take his cheap shots. And even though Kerry is firing at a man hiding in plain site, for some reason Kerry's verbal bullets just don't seem to penetrate. The only damage Kerry's shots seem to inflict are on his own feet.
How else to explain that after two debates, and with less than three weeks remaining until the election, the latest polls show the two candidates locked in a virtual dead heat? Why isn't Kerry showing a substantial lead by now? Or even a minimal lead?
I got my first hint of the cracks in Kerry's facade while listening to some of the commentary after last Friday's second debate. I was watching CNN when Wolf Blitzer interviewed Joel Klein, the former Newsweek reporter and author of "Primary Colors." Klein is somebody you could safely suspect of having pro-Kerry leanings, but he was quick to point out some of the... uh, conflicting things Kerry said during the debate. "This is what drives the Republicans bonkers," Klein said, "first Kerry criticizes Bush for implementing tax cuts in a time of war, then he turns right around and proposes his own tax cuts..."
"Hmmm," I heard my inner Doubto-crat say, "He's got a point." Never mind that Kerry's notion of a "middle class tax cut" would be "revenue neutral" after "rolling back the Bush tax cuts for those earning more than $200,000 a year..." That's nuance. And if there's one thing we know about this electorate, it's that it doesn't do nuance.
Then I read William Safire's column in Monday's New York Times. Safire -- a former Nixon speech writer -- can be forgiven for whatever right-leaning bias he has, but he's got a point when he says "When pro-Kerry commentators solemnly pronounce Debate Round 2 to have been 'a draw' - you know George Bush won that round."
Safire cites this example: "On the war, Kerry almost eagerly made Bush's point, at first saying, 'I do believe Saddam Hussein was a threat,' and moments later denouncing Bush for being 'preoccupied with Iraq, where there wasn't a threat'."
I figured Safire was paraphrasing here, so maybe there was some distortion of context or other justification for Kerry's seemingly contradictory statements. So I combed through the actual debate transcripts, and guess what I found?
First, responding to the opening question about being "wishy-washy," Kerry states, "I've never changed my mind about Iraq. I do believe Saddam Hussein was a threat. I always believed he was a threat."
Mere moments later, responding to a question about the prospect of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons, Kerry says, "it is a threat, it's a huge threat. And what's interesting is, it's a threat that has grown while the president has been preoccupied with Iraq, where there wasn't a threat."
The problem I see is: Kerry is right. Iraq was NOT a threat, as we know now. Saddam had none of the stockpiles of WMDs that Colin Powell waved in front of the United Nations. The Duelfer report has reduced Bush and Co. to saying that "Saddam was a threat" merely because he wanted weapons of mass destruction -- and Kerry, the poor sap, has got to go along with that because he'd "been saying all along that Saddam was a threat."
Bush has neatly painted Kerry into a corner, forcing Kerry to assert that "Saddam was a threat" in order to justify his vote on the authorization for Bush to use force. And Kerry has not been able to effectively break out of that corner in any of his confrontations with Bush. The closest he came was in the first debate, where he said " I made a mistake in how I talk about the war. But the president made a mistake in invading Iraq." You'd think a statement like that would have had more resonance than it has.
And now comes Kerry's Undeclared War an article in the Sunday New York Times Magazine, in which Kerry discusses what it would take for Americans to feel safe again. [Kerry]... "displayed a much less apocalyptic worldview. 'We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they're a nuisance....I know we're never going to end prostitution. We're never going to end illegal gambling. But we're going to reduce it...to a level where it...isn't threatening people's lives every day,and fundamentally, it's something that you continue to fight, but it's not threatening the fabric of your life'."
Now, maybe I'm biased, but that sounds to me like an entirely rational approach to me. In fact, I suspect that's what Bush himself had in mind back in August when he told Matt Lauer on the NBC Today Show, "I don't think you can win [this war on terror]. But I think you can create conditions so that those who use terror as a tool are less acceptable in parts of the world. Let's put it that way."
That was a rare moment of candor for a president far more accustomed to sounding like Phineas T. Bluster -- so much so that he immediately back-pedaled from his own well-tempered remarks to resume his "kill 'em all" posture. After all, anything else would be nuance, and as we've already observed, this electorate doesn't do nuance.
Despite the President's own remarks, Bush & Co. have been all over Kerry in the past 48 hours for being "soft on terror." Take for example the comments of Bush campaign Chairman Marc Racicot , who appeared yesterday on CNN and and accused Kerry of saying "that the war on terrorism is like a nuisance. He equated it to prostitution and gambling, a nuisance activity. You know, quite frankly, I just don't think he has the right view of the world. It's a pre-9/11 view of the world."
See how these assholes twist everything John Kerry says, and then use it against him? This time it's the "pre-9/11 worldview" canard. Puh-leeze. The problem is not that John Kerry has "9/10 view of the world," the problem is that George Bush has a "permanent 9/12" worldview. In In Bushworld, 9/11 was always yesterday. If you don't believe that, then take a minute to download and view this video from the Republican National Convention.
And then remember while you view this footage a little bit of trivia that flew across my desk-top last week: more time has now elapsed since 9/11 than passed between Pearl Harbor and D-Day. So much for "makin' progress..."
So it's no wonder I'm goin' slighlty nutz here. Here is John Kerry, trying to take a rational view of the world, and there's Bush & Co. condemning Kerry for daring to think that we shouldn't be scared out of our wits 24/7.
Here's Bush saying "we've turned the corner" when say a healthy economic recovery would have produced something like neutral economists 9-million new jobs by now.
Here's Charles Duelfer saying "Saddam had no WMDs" and here's Bush saying "Saddam was a threat" because he wanted WMDs.... and there's John Kerry, sadly, agreeing with him in order to seem consistent. Why can't Kerry just say "if I had it all to do over again, I'd have voted differently" ?
And so they remain dead even in the polls. Still millions of people either buy into Bush's lies or can't buy into Kerry's nuance. Common sense and a vision of a world free of perpetual war is just not playing for an electorate that has been so skillfully kept in a state perpetual of fear.
Now don't get me wrong. Nothing I'm saying here should be construed as suggesting that there is anything defensible about the things George W. Bush has done over the past four years. He's bankrupted the nation's treasury and padded his cronies' pockets, while squandering an equal treasure of sympathy in the wake of 9/11 and transforming the United States a pariah in the eyes of much of the world, and he's waged a contrived "war on terror" that has created far more terror in the world than it will ever prevent.
But if I -- a Kerry supporter -- am having trouble reconciling these statements, what chance has the average fence-sitter got when he or she hears Bush's latest taunt, "You can run but you can't hide" ? Bush is like a magician pulling rabbits -- and he hasn't even got a hat!
Going into the final debate on Wednesday night, Kerry has got to be unequivocal. He has got to say, as one of my readers put it, "Mr. Bush (Kerry should call the President "Mr. Bush" instead of "Mr. President" so long as Bush keeps calling Senator Kerry "my opponent"...) Mr. Bush, your recklessness and incompetence have brought our nation to the brink of economic disaster in four short years. Your arrogance has brought disgrace upon our nation in the eyes of the world. Thousands have spilled their life blood in an unprovoked war of your choosing, simply because you were too incurious to seek the truth..." (Thanks, PJ).
Kerry has got to forget about defending his own past positions and just slam Bush hard upside the head for HIS bogus decisions, for his misjudgments, for his inability to direct his own subordinates, and for his incompetence. Bush is the president who is fucking up here, and Kerry, what ever his shortcomings or verbal miscues, has got to demonstrate to the American people that George W. Bush has done nothing to warrant spending another four years in the White House.
If Bush walks out of Wendesday's debate still standing, if the Joe Palooka doll keeps popping up and Kerry fails to lance the gas bag, if he does not draw Bush out for the incompetent that he truly is, then I don't think we're going to like the results that pour out of our TeeVees on Nov 2.
I like to be "right" when I write these things. This time I pray I'm wrong. Anything can happen between now and November 2nd. Maybe we'll be surprised. Maybe there is an enormous untapped well of discerning voters. Maybe America's inner Einstein will emerge and vote for the smart guy.
In the meantime, that's my opinion and this time I don't mind if it's not yours, too.
P.S. Don't worry kids, I won't send this one in as a "Letter to the Editor.'