Jewish World Review Oct. 21, 2004 / 6 Mar-Cheshvan, 5765
Creating Problems for Bush
Because of the three presidential debates, a close race has gotten closer.
And the first debate between President Bush and Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry may have been the turning point. Three news organizations polled debate watchers immediately after that debate, and all three found viewers thought that Kerry had done the better job.
Many voters find out who won a presidential debate by following the media coverage. After this year's first one, the media generally agreed that Kerry had won. "It was pretty clear to everybody watching the debate that Bush had a sluggish night," observed David Gergen, a former White House adviser to both Democrats and Republicans. When five organizations polled people the weekend after the first debate and asked them who won, the consensus got re-enforced. By a whopping 38-point margin, the public named Kerry the winner.
By the time of the second presidential debate on October 8, most national polls had the race neck and neck. The second debate had no clear winner. A Gallup Poll of debate-watchers found 47 percent saying Kerry did a better job and 45 percent picking Bush. An ABC News poll had similar results (Kerry 44, Bush 41). But viewers polled by Gallup started out favoring Bush by 4 points before the second debate. For them to give Kerry even a slight edge means that he continued to make gains.
The Republican strategy all year long has been to turn this election into a referendum on Kerry. Vice President Cheney turned the October 5 vice presidential debate into an attack on Kerry's record: "The Kerry record on taxes is one basically of voting for a large number of tax increases. . . . A record of 30 years of being on the wrong side of defense issues. . . . His judgment's flawed, and the record's there for anybody who wants to look at it."
During the vice presidential debate, Kerry's name was mentioned 64 times. Bush was mentioned by name nine times. To be fair, Bush was often referred to as "the president." If you add those mentions, the total references to Bush by name or by office came to 40. That means the debate gave nearly twice as much attention to Kerry as to Bush.
Republicans have been relentlessly focusing on the challenger. But when a president is running for re-election, the campaign is supposed to be a referendum on the incumbent. That wasn't happening until the first debate, when voters for the first time saw the two candidates side by side. That debate began to recenter the campaign on the incumbent rather than on the challenger.
Bush suffered another blow this month when his friends and allies threw him on the defensive about the war in Iraq. On October 4, former occupation administrator Paul Bremer told an audience at a private conference, "We never had enough troops on the ground" in Iraq to prevent looting and lawlessness. Bremer later described his criticism as a "tactical disagreement." The same day, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was asked to describe the connection between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. "I have not seen any strong, hard evidence that links the two," Rumsfeld replied.
Then, chief U.S. weapons inspector Charles Duelfer, who was chosen by the Bush administration to complete the investigation of Iraq's weapons program, dropped his own bombshell. "It is clear that Saddam chose not to have weapons at a point in time before the war," Duelfer declared at a Senate hearing. Duelfer's Iraq Survey Group reported that Saddam had ended Iraq's nuclear program in 1991. And it "found no evidence to suggest concerted efforts to restart the program." The report said, "Iraq unilaterally destroyed its undeclared chemical weapons stockpile in 1991" and there was "no direct evidence that Iraq, after 1996, had plans for a new biological weapons program."
Duelfer did tell the Senate that Saddam "clearly had ambitions with respect to weapons of mass destruction," as well as "a strategy and tactic to get out of the constraints of the U.N. sanctions." What about actual weapons like the ones Bush described in his 2003 State of the Union address: "Biological weapons sufficient to produce over 25,000 liters of anthrax," and "materials to produce as much as 500 tons of sarin, mustard, and VX nerve agent"?"
It turns out there were no active stockpiles that anybody's been able to find yet," Secretary of State Colin Powell said after Duelfer's report was released. Earlier, British Prime Minister Tony Blair had told his Labor Party, "The evidence about Saddam having actual biological and chemical weapons, as opposed to the capability to develop them, has turned out to be wrong. I acknowledge that. I accept it."
Bush has not acknowledged any mistakes. Instead, he has shifted the justification for war to Saddam's "intent," saying, "He retained the knowledge, the materials, the means, and the intent to produce weapons of mass destruction, and he could have passed this knowledge to our terrorist enemies."
Bush's Democratic challenger expressed astonishment. "The president of the United States and the vice president of the United States may well be the last two people on the planet who won't face the truth about Iraq," Kerry said on October 7. But this time, it wasn't the Democrats who created Bush's problem. It was his "friends." With friends like those, who needs Democrats?
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© 2002, William Schneider