There was one moment in the final presidential debate in which John Kerry was downright likable. When offering up the standard gallant remark that he, Bush and Bob Schieffer had all "married up," Kerry had the presence of mind to realize instantly how that sounded coming from not just the only man on the stage, but one of the only men in America, who had been fortunate enough to marry a billionaire.
Grinning broadly, he added: "I more than others, perhaps. It's OK, I can take it." It was obviously spontaneous and funny.
Yet Kerry was also guilty of a smarmy mention of Dick Cheney's daughter being a lesbian. This was no offhand remark. Sen. John Edwards had raised it during the vice presidential debates as well, under the guise of "praising" the vice president for "embracing" his gay daughter. Sorry, but it just doesn't seem likely that Edwards was looking for ways to applaud his opponent. It was clearly some sort of strategy on the part of the ticket.
Following the debate, Mary Beth Cahill, Kerry's campaign manager, asserted defensively that since Mary Cheney was open about her sexuality, her situation was "fair game." Fair game for what? For exploitation? This doesn't add up.
Democrats will doubtless argue that Kerry raised the matter of Cheney's sexuality to dramatize the point that homosexuality is not a chosen lifestyle. How can it be so when even Republican vice presidents have lesbian daughters? But that's unpersuasive. Bush had just finished saying that he didn't know whether gays choose to be gay or are born that way. It was gratuitous and unnecessary.
Was Kerry trying to damage the Bush-Cheney ticket by calling attention to something many conservative Republicans probably did not know about the vice president's daughter?
Here's how that makes sense. Liberals tend to believe that conservatives are bigots. On the subject of homosexuality, they think conservatives oppose gay marriage not because they genuinely believe in the sanctity of heterosexual marriage but because they hate gays. To cite Mary Cheney therefore seems to them a "gotcha" moment.
It was tawdry. One cannot even imagine what stratospheric level of outrage the national press would have reached if a Republican had commented on the sexuality of a Democrat's child.
Another revealing moment: the discussion of religion. President Bush was nearly eloquent on the subject. Kerry seemed to picking his carefully focus-grouped way through a potential minefield. He wanted credit for being Catholic with its Kennedy associations, but also made it clear that he would never impose his religious views on anyone else.
In fact, he rhetorically backed up and drove over this territory a number of times. His religious views are terribly important to him, he protested. But he would never, never impose those view on anyone. It reminds me of the line that was once current about Sen. Teddy Kennedy, that his religious views were so personal he declined to impose them on anyone -- including himself.
We Bush supporters have had to become accustomed to his peculiar dips and rises. Had he been as focused, energetic, articulate and persuasive in Debate I as he was in Debate III, the election would probably be a foregone conclusion. But Bush has a habit of getting lazy, or distracted, or I don't know what and slipping down to within view of the precipice. The palms sweat. He then reaches down into himself and finds the wherewithal to scratch his way back up to safe ground.
Structurally, this should not have been a close election. The country has not elected a self-proclaimed liberal since Lyndon Johnson and hasn't elected a non-Southern Democrat since John F. Kennedy. Both Mondale and Dukakis, who believe all of the same things Kerry does, lost by crushing margins. Further, the savage attack on the United States revived Americans' desire for a muscular foreign policy -- an unequivocal advantage for the president. It should have been short work for the Bush campaign to quickly sketch Kerry's extremely liberal voting record for voters.
Yet they didn't. They painted him as a flip-flopper. If the Swift Boat Veterans had not charged into the breach, Bush might be behind today. (And ironically enough, if the Federal Election Commission had bowed to the Bush campaign's wishes to include all 527s under the campaign finance restrictions, the Swift Boat Vets would have been silenced.)
President Bush very much deserves to be re-elected. But he has made difficult what ought to have been easy.