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."
Kerry missed these important signposts -- and he wants to lead America?
Yes, Kerry looked presidential and spoke with some fluency on foreign-policy issues, especially North Korea. To his credit, Kerry went out on a limb when he said that if necessary he was willing to send U.S. troops to Darfur, Sudan, to prevent another Rwanda.
But when Kerry attacked Bush on Iraq, he unwittingly crafted a grand argument against himself. Either Kerry voted for a war that, by his own lights, he should have seen as wrong, or he knew it was wrong but voted for it anyway.
The more Kerry argues that Bush should have known better than to go to Iraq, the more the latter scenario seems the more likely case.
Bush critics have a point when they note the president seemed tired and repetitive. There are times when Dubya coasts; the latter part of Thursday's debate clearly was one of those times. And it's irritating because so much is at stake.
My beef, however, is that Bush was so busy pointing out what he calls Kerry flip-flops that he failed to highlight Kerry's real shortcoming: that he voted for a war and then failed to support it. Bush can joke about how Kerry said he voted for $87 billion in troop funding before he voted against it. Worse, however, is the chilling fact that Kerry withheld his support for the spending bill after he told "Face the Nation" it would be reckless and "irresponsible" to vote against it.
At the debate, Kerry said he made a mistake about how he "talk(s) about the war," but "the president made a mistake in invading Iraq. Which is worse?"
This might be even worse: thinking the war was a mistake but voting for it anyway.