I'll concede that style counts. It was fair game for critics to say Al Gore's demeanor defined his performance in the 2000 debates. In that spirit, my verdict is: On the demeanor question, George W. Bush lost Thursday night. But he won on substance. You can count me in agreement with the 37 percent of Americans who told the CNN/Gallup poll that Bush got the better of John Kerry.
Kerry looked good and talked better. But every argument Kerry hurled against Bush also worked against Kerry.
Consider Kerry on the president's mistake in going after Saddam Hussein before capturing Osama bin Laden. Or, as Kerry intoned, "We can't leave a failed Iraq. But that doesn't mean it wasn't a mistake of judgment to go there and take the focus off Osama bin Laden." I reread Kerry's very long and also ponderous remarks before he voted in favor of the October 2002 resolution authorizing force in Iraq. Kerry never mentioned Osama bin Laden. (Is that the fault of Bush, too?)
And it's an odd omission considering the Kerry pose as international know-it-all, who ostensibly sees international affairs with a clarity sorely missing in Bush.
During the debate, Kerry observed that the first President Bush did not push U.S. troops in Iraq beyond Basra. Said Kerry, as Bush pere "wrote in his book, because there was no viable exit strategy. And he said our troops would become occupiers in a bitterly hostile land. That's exactly where we find ourselves today."
So why did the world-savvy Kerry vote for the war resolution?
Thursday night, Kerry also likened going into Iraq in response to Sept. 11 with "Franklin Roosevelt invading Mexico in response to Peal Harbor. That's what we have here."
Then why did Kerry vote for the war resolution?
More Kerry: "Thirty-five to 40 countries in the world had a greater capability of making weapons at the moment the president invaded (Iraq) than Saddam Hussein."
Again: Why did Kerry vote for the war resolution?
Kerry's apologists say that the resolution did not authorize the war. Or that it only authorized U.S. force under certain conditions, such as moving against Iraq with the agreement of the United Nations. Not true. The resolution said, "The president is authorized to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate" (my italics) to defend U.S. interests and enforce the U.N. Security Council resolutions that Hussein was flouting.
What's more, Bush had warned the United Nations that it would be irrelevant if it failed to enforce its resolutions even as Kerry says he believed Bush would only go to war as a "last resort."