It will probably be regarded as the best Presidential debate in a generation. And it had nothing to do with the characters involved, but everything to do with the subject matter and its relative time in history. George W. Bush and John Kerry highlighted clear differences between the Republicans and Democrats, as subtle and nuanced as they were. The campaign had been underwhelming until last night and given the gravity of what had happened in the world the past four years, it was as if the campaign really kicked off for the first time.
George W. Bush painted himself as a decisive leader, willing to take unilateral action and ready to continue the ‘fight against terror.’ Losing the popular vote in the debacle of the 2000 election, the relatively inexperienced Bush was thrust on to the world stage after September 11th.
The Democrats couldn’t have picked a better candidate for President in 2004. A decorated Vietnam war hero who rose to prominence opposing the war, a 20 year veteran of the US Senate, and highly critical of Bush’s rush to war in Iraq, Kerry attacked his Republican opponent relentlessly about the issue and on the limits of US unilateralism in general. For Kerry, this was ninety minutes in front of a national audience where he was able to present himself as Presidential.
Kerry was in his element at the lectern, away from the campaign trail where he had been ineffectual, awkward and lanky riding tractors in the Midwest, attending barbeques in swing states and glad-handing on the campaign whistlestops.
Bush was awkward early on, but it didn’t hurt him because the public has grown used to his verbal gaffes. They’ve taken on an eerie tone of familiarity over the years. He painted Kerry as indecisive and as someone who had originally voted to support the war. He defended his decision-making and vowed to press on. His performance played well to his conservative base. It was thoroughly American in that kind of John Wayne way.
At issue for the American people and the rest of the world effected by American foreign policy was weighing Kerry’s multi-lateralism against Bush’s independent approach. Kerry displayed his mastery of foreign policy like a New England University professor, while Bush stayed on comfortable ground counterattacking with questions of John Kerry’s character. Bush presented himself as the purveyor of decisive leadership, and defended America’s unwillingness to join international institutions like the World Court and to work more closely with the United Nations. Neither candidate discussed the issue of prisoners of war at either Abu Ghraib or those at Guantanomo Bay.
Both Bush and Kerry criticized Iran and North Korea and debated differences in how to approach these emerging foreign policy issues. The proliferation of nuclear weapons and stockpiles in the former Soviet Union were also raised.
On the same day as the foreign policy debate, there were more deaths in Iraq, Qassam rocket fire from Gaza and a heavy Israeli military response and the genocide in Sudan still an issue.
On the battleground of American politics, only about 6 million independent voters will actually cast their vote on Election Day. They will probably decide the American election on November 2nd. In swing states like Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania, the Republicans are currently ahead. Ralph Nader wasn’t at the debate last night but he will still be a factor in some states. John Kerry needs to get over 60% of the independents in these swing states if he’s going to win the election. With the exposure he received last night, he will probably be within striking distance of Bush by the middle of October.