Six Points to Ponder|
Things we learned from the debate
Friday, Oct. 01, 2004
In their first debate George W. Bush and John Kerry did little differently from what they've done on the campaign trail. Bush repeatedly described his leadership as "consistent" and "clear," and then tried to turn the debate into Kerry vs. Kerry. He noted several times had Kerry had called Saddam "a grave threat" in 2002, but now called Iraq " a diversion" and "the wrong war at the wrong place at the wrong time" and was sending "mixed messages" a phrase that now must be etched in the memory of every debate watcher. Kerry, on the other hand, depicted the President as incompetent in the war on terrorism, Iraq and other issues. When Bush invoked Kerry's disastrous "I actually voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it" remark, Kerry quickly retorted, "I made a mistake in how I talked about the war. The president made a mistake in going to war. Which is worse?"
But while the debate included many familiar stump lines and arguments, it also offered some interesting details about how they run foreign policy and how they see current problems:
1. Bush and Kerry have almost the exact same views on several major issues. Both candidates offered mild criticism of Russian President Putin for consolidating power and limiting democracy there, but neither seemed as if he would push the issue aggressively as president. On the issue of Sudan, they invoked almost the exact same language, noting that it was "genocide" but that they would not commit American troops there.
2. The debate offered little chance for them to air some major differences. Bush, more than almost any president in recent memory, has made spreading democracy around the world a fundamental ideal of his presidency and did talk about how Iraq could become an example to the rest of the Middle East if the U.S. stayed the course. Throughout his campaign, Kerry has eschewed visionary, democratic-promoting language, preferring to define his foreign policy goals in terms of stability. This question of goals didn't enter the debate. Nor did the question of exactly how each candidate would decide when to intervene in genocides or humanitarian crises other than Sudan. And while Kerry has sharply criticized President Bush for too readily using military force and not investing enough in so-called public diplomacy that would try to change the hearts and minds of Arabs toward America, neither candidate mentioned that either.
3. They seem to have differences on Iraq and North Korea, although the debate watcher may have had trouble figuring them out. Kerry and Bush had a series of confusing exchanges on North Korea, where Kerry wants to negotiate directly with the rogue regime that may already have several nuclear weapons. Bush wants to continue six-party talks. Both approaches have proved ineffective in the recent past. They also battled over what kind and how sanctions should be imposed on Iran in a discussion that was hard to follow and even harder to determine precisely how they differ.
4. Bush and Kerry have widely differing views about what's going on in Afghanistan. To Kerry, it's a country falling apart and full of opium, while Bush talked about how millions have registered to vote there. Both comments are largely true. In Iraq too, Bush talked about great potential for democracy, while Kerry seemed intent on fixing a disaster.
5. Both candidates found friends in places you wouldn’t have expected. To criticize the President's performance in Iraq, Kerry repeatedly quoted Colin Powell, Bush's Secretary of State, but also James Baker, a senior adviser to Bush and the George H. W. Bush, the president's father. Kerry argues Bush's performance in this Gulf War pales in comparison to how Baker, Powell, and the first President Bush freed Kuwait in 1991. For his part, the President's closest debate ally was John Kerry. To bolster his position that Iraq was a necessary war, Bush kept referring to statements Kerry made in 2002 and 2003 about the threat of Saddam's possible weapons of mass destruction.
6. The candidates used their foreign policy ideas to preview their domestic disagreements. Early in the debate, Kerry gave a long answer about how he would seek to improve homeland security by adding more money to protect ports, chemical plants, cargo and other projects. Bush quickly replied, "I don't think we want to get to how he's going to pay for his promises, that's another debate." The President has long claimed Kerry has over-promised and would have to drastically raise taxes to pay for his agenda. For his part, Kerry used his favorite attack word, "Halliburton," when talking about how Bush has bungled the reconstruction of Iraq and said that tax cuts for the rich had taken preference over homeland security the last three years. Both themes will be repeated next week in the town hall debate in St. Louis.
BACK TO TOP