Though I am writing this column before the debate for publication after the debate, I want to address Kerry's gnawing, self-inflicted wounds on Iraq, as they are sure to be at the forefront of the discussion.
Indeed, given Kerry's disturbing lack of consistency on Iraq, the only chance he has for a draw or better in the debate, or the election for that matter, is to convince the voters that despite his obvious problems with decisiveness, directness and the truth, somehow President Bush is worse.
Almost all of Kerry's problems on Iraq can be traced to the ongoing conflict between his presidential ambitions and his antiwar liberalism. His many flip-flops reflect his political calculations at various points in the campaign about the viability of his antiwar sentiments.
If Kerry had been true to himself -- his antiwar nature -- during the primaries, he might not have survived, but he certainly wouldn't be faced with the problems he is today on Iraq. Yet he felt constrained to vote for the Iraq war resolution because of the overwhelming popular support for it at the time.
It was only after Howard Dean's antiwar rantings began to resonate among Democrats that Kerry realized he'd messed up. He had to explain his vote to authorize the war. What a bummer. Here was John Kerry, a guy whose lifetime antiwar credentials would put Tom Hayden's to shame, now branded by this indelible black mark on his voting record concerning the very war Howard Dean was railing against.
Kerry had to be thinking: "Who is this upstart singing from my hymnal and wooing my voters -- the people who are supposed to put me in the White House after a lifetime of careful preparation? I mean, this guy can talk a good game, but he was a lowly state governor at the time of the Iraq War resolution vote. He wasn't faced with the problem of having to vote against the strong tide of American support for that stupid, annoying war. This Dean guy is an imposter. I'm the real antiwar guy. But how can I square my vote for the war with my lifetime antiwar record?"
Then Kerry had an epiphany enabling him to construct two bogus rationales. Both were completely implausible, except to his Dean-starved antiwar supporters, who were desperate to believe him, and the hopelessly credulous among us.
His two explanations were: President Bush 1) lied about the intelligence on Iraqi WMD and the supposed connections between Saddam and 9-11; and 2) promised he would only attack as a last resort. Both were bald-faced lies, but generated just enough smoke to allow Kerry to save face with his base -- just as with his whiplash-inducing positions on the $87 billion supplemental appropriations bill.
Even the 9-11 Commission blamed the intelligence agencies, not President Bush for the intelligence errors, errors in which Senator Kerry was equally complicit. Nor did President Bush say there was a direct connection between Saddam and 9-11, but between Saddam, Al Qaeda and other terrorists, which is true.
Kerry's claim that he only voted for the war resolution to give President Bush negotiating leverage is similarly absurd on its face. The resolution, which was unconditional, speaks for itself.
Interestingly, these two rationales were designed to let Kerry have it both ways, pro-war or antiwar, whichever was convenient at the time. But in the end, he hasn't been able to sustain the ruse, because when you lie as often as he has, you eventually lose your bearings. When you listen to Kerry today on Iraq you detect no sense of conviction or passion either way about the war, only a growing frustration and indignation that he has to explain himself. He is, after all, John Kerry.
So here we are in October, and Kerry is still reeling from his fundamental and transparent dishonesty on Iraq. Yet he's faced with the conundrum that if he fully discloses his true antiwar nature he might not even garner as many electoral votes as Jimmy Carter did against Ronald Reagan.
The public is demanding a strong, resolute, decisive, pro-defense leader for the War on Terror. Either way he turns Kerry cannot satisfy all those criteria.
His only hope is to change the subject to President Bush and his alleged mishandling of the War on Iraq. But the public is privy to the same news Kerry is and has concluded for now, at least, that Iraq is not nearly the mess that Kerry claims it is. And even if it becomes that way, President Bush, and not John Kerry, is better suited to navigate us through it.
John Kerry has made his own bed, but he can't sleep in it.