In the first and second debates, John Kerry won simply by allowing the president to lose. Tonight though, the president came prepared and, particularly in the first half, beat Kerry soundly.
Bush’s answers were, on the whole, much more robust and detailed than in previous debates. He aced Kerry on gay marriage, education and the role of religion in politics.
The same way Bush turned each question into an opportunity to attack Kerry’s super-liberal voting record, Kerry should have juxtaposed Bush’s rhetoric with hisrecord as president, and framed each issue as a choice that reflected Bush priorities: tax cuts over homeland security. Tax cuts over full funding for education. Tax cuts over health care. Tax cuts over virtually every Bush second-term proposal that he’s already failed for four years get done.
Instead, tonight was a night of missed opportunities. The president said he would tell an outsourced worker to go get educated. Kerry failed to stick up for those workers and indignantly tell the president that these are highly skilled and able workers, and that it’s an insult to them to imply they’re unemployable because they’re uneducated.
Bush grasped so desperately when he said the No Child Left Behind Act was “a jobs plan,” and yet Kerry gave him a pass.
Tonight saw the re-emergence of that old, meandering John Kerry that never fails to show up when the candidate is perceived as being ahead. The senator’s answer on catholicism was excrutiating to watch and listen to. He also failed to break through the president’s coded language on Roe vs. Wade. And tonight, days after the country became newly focused on the issue of stem cell research, Kerry failed to mention it even once.
Most other times the senator was on the defensive, his voice cracking as he ticked off counter-charges while failing to tie them together into a single indictment of Bush’s beliefs and worldview.
Lost, amid all the facts and figures, was a chance to bring home the true enormity of our national debt and how it has worsened under Bush. Lost was the opportunity to cast the fiscal gluttony of the Republican-controlled congress as a tax on America’s children.
Finally, the worst and most unforgivable error of all was Kerry’s failure to leave viewers (and the press) with a compelling rhetorical question to stew over after the debates. Are you better off than you were four years ago? Are you truly safer? Is your family’s future more secure today that it was in 2000?
Right now, the press and the rapid poll responders seem intent on awarding Kerry three wins in three debates. It’s what the media needs to get the horse race it wants down the stretch run. Maybe maintaining that status quo is enough, but it’s still disappointing, because John Kerry could have done so much better. He should have done so much better.