Jewish World ReviewOct. 4, 2004/ 19 Tishrei, 5765
Polished, but he can't make his case
Those of us who've been sweet on George W. Bush a long time have gotten used to these moments. Four years ago, he stacks up more money and a bigger runaway lead than any other candidate in history, but he can't be bothered campaigning in New Hampshire, so he loses the primary to John McCain. He struggles to catch up, wins the nomination, but then takes the summer off to build his ranch house in Crawford, Texas. Al Gore's ahead on Labor Day, but Bush claws his way back to a small lead, then they drop the last-minute DWI scandal and, instead of rebutting it, he takes the weekend off, and lands us in a month of Florida chad-divining.
So Thursday was one of those moments. Bush wasn't wrong, but he was in the same state he was in in early 2003, before launching the Iraq war, when he was tired and punchy and stumbling round the country not making a case against Saddam but just droning the same phrases over and over: ''He's a dictator.'' Smirk. ''He gassed his own people.'' In Thursday's debate, his own people seemed to have gassed him. Bush droned, repeatedly, that Kerry was sending ''mixed messages,'' but his own message could have done with being a little less robotically unmixed. He said, ''It's tough. ... It's hard work. ...'' again and again.
And it is, no doubt. It's tough and it's hard work doing the title number of ''Singin' In The Rain,'' but Gene Kelly made it seem blithe and easy and graceful. And the president of the United States owes us a performance in wartime especially. Churchill didn't communicate the burden so much as the strength to bear it.
But who needs Churchill? It's not just that Britain's Tony Blair or Australia's John Howard could have done the job more effectively. Almost any of us armchair warriors could have put down John Kerry's feeble generalizations better than Bush did.
And yes, it's true, if you hadn't been following the election campaign closely till Thursday night, Kerry wasn't as pompous or boring or even as orange as some of us had led you to believe, though his lipstick was a slightly distracting shade and he would have been better advised to ease up on what was either his simultaneous signing for the deaf or an amusing impression of the stewardess pointing out the track lighting leading to the emergency doors.
But none of that matters. If John Kerry is so polished and eloquent and forceful and mellifluous, how come nobody has a clue what his policy on Iraq is? As he made clear on Thursday, Saddam was a growing threat so he had to be disarmed so Kerry voted for war in order to authorize Bush to go to the U.N. but Bush failed to pass ''the global test'' so we shouldn't have disarmed Saddam because he wasn't a threat so the war was a mistake so Kerry will bring the troops home by persuading France and Germany to send their troops instead because he's so much better at building alliances so he'll have no trouble talking France and Germany into sending their boys to be the last men to die for Bush's mistake.
Have I got that right?
Oh, and he'll call a summit. ''I have a plan to have a summit. . . . I'm going to hold that summit ... we can be successful in Iraq with a summit . . . the kind of statesman-like summits that pull people together ...'' Summit old, summit new, summit borrowed, summit blue, he's got summit for everyone. Summit-chanted evening, you may see a stranger, you may see a stranger across a crowded room. But, in John Kerry's world, there are no strangers, just EU deputy defense ministers who haven't yet contributed 10,000 troops because they haven't been invited to a summit. And once John Kerry holds that summit all our troubles are over. Summit time and the livin' is easy, fish are jumpin' and the cotton is high, your daddy's rich and your ma is good-lookin' ... No, hang on, your wife is rich and your manicure's good-lookin' ...
In his prebaked soundbite of the night, Kerry said: ''Well, you know, when I talked about the $87 billion, I made a mistake in how I talk about the war. But the president made a mistake in invading Iraq. Which is worse?''
Interesting question. The play-by-play pundits thought it brilliant. But I beg to differ. It would have been a better line if he'd said, ''But the president's made a mistake in how he's fighting this war. Which is worse?'' There may be a majority that thinks post-Saddam Iraq has been screwed up; there's not a clear, exploitable majority that thinks toppling Saddam was a disaster, and Kerry can't build one in the next month. But it would still have been a lousy line for this reason: ''Talking about'' stuff is all Kerry's got. He's no executive experience, he's never run a state, never founded a company, built a business, made payroll. Post-Vietnam, all he's done is talk and vote. For 20 years in the U.S. Senate: talk, vote, talk, vote. So, if his talking and voting are wrong, what else is there?
Speaking as a third-rate hack, I'd say that as a general rule articulacy is greatly over-rated. It's not what it's about: Noel Coward would run rings round Mike Tyson in the prematch press conference, but then what? But, if articulacy is the measure, how come Kerry can't articulate an Iraq policy any of us can understand? By contrast, for an inarticulate man, Bush seems to communicate pretty clearly. He communicates the reality of the post-9/11 world, a world where you can't afford to err on the side of multilateral consensus and Hague-approved legalisms and transatlantic chit-chatting and tentativeness and faintheartedness about the projection of American power in America's interest.
A majority of the American people albeit not as big a majority as it ought to be get this. John Kerry still does not. Which means he lost the debate. He got a technical win on points from the pundits, but this election won't be won on points. It's primal. The pundits keep missing this. They thought Kerry was good in the debate, just as he was good in his convention speech, because on both occasions he was tactically artful. But that's not going to cut it. We're post-Clinton: you can't triangulate your way to victory.
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JWR contributor Mark Steyn is North American Editor of The (London) Spectator and the author, most recently, of "The Face of the Tiger," a new book on the world post-Sept. 11. (Sales help fund JWR). Comment by clicking here.
© 2004, Mark Steyn