Posted: Oct 07, 2004 12:00 AM

NEW YORK CITY -- I did not know that the American political classes were so wild for debates. Truth be known, we never hear much about debates or a politician's debating skills until about this point in a presidential campaign. Then, debating skills are boomed in the media as a very important element in presidential greatness.

 Always it is assumed that the Democratic candidate, whoever that might be, is superior to the Republican. And so I have answered my own question. The presidential debates are deemed important because the liberal media -- the Kultursmog as we say -- can pollute credulous minds with the claim that the Democratic candidate was the winner. Superb -- maybe he can take his skills to the United Nations General Assembly and overwhelm the delegate from Monte Carlo. But in the real world of geopolitics, a honeyed syllogism is not worth much against armed might or a suicide bomber.

 As Vice President Dick Cheney and vice presidential candidate John Edwards were spraying their vocal chords, applying their makeup and otherwise preparing to debate, I was at a very pleasant dinner party with one of the few people in America who can still be recognized as a great debater, William F. Buckley Jr., founder of National Review and the brainy combatant who set out over half a century ago to debate the ideas of modern American conservatism with the dominant liberal advocates.

 In the 1950s, there really was a healthy respect for intellectual debate on college campuses and to some extent beyond the campus and in the public forums. Buckley with his wit, erudition and audacity quickly established himself as a debater of the top tier. In so doing, he advanced the ideas of a strong national defense, anti-communism, personal liberty and market economics into regions where appeasement, anti-anti communism and the welfare state were taken for granted.

 As the decades have passed, debate has lost its popularity on campuses and in public forums, possibly because Buckley and his understudies fared so well. Yet Bill remains a keen student of debate, and so I questioned him about the drear of the recent debates. They really have not been all that scintillating or informative.

 One question that came to mind was, "Is it not difficult to confront debater Kerry on the war since he has been so often on every side of the issue?" The very plenitude of his positions makes it easy for him to bring confusion to any assertion. Bill responded by quoting not himself from some far-off debate but President George W. Bush in his recent standoff with Kerry. Faced with Kerry's multitudinous self-contradictions on the war Bush asseverated, "My opponent is consistent in his inconsistencies." The old debater called that an "elegant riposte."

 The president has had other effective ripostes, and of course the Francophile Democratic candidate has had his moments. Yet it really does not matter how well or badly the candidates do in these debates. In the Kultursmog, the myth stands unchallenged that Democrats are the great debaters. Republicans are inferior. Do you recall the spokesmen of the Kultursmog ever acknowledging the debating skills of, say, Ronald Reagan? When they finally had to acknowledge his rhetorical achievement, they did it disparagingly. He was the "Teflon" guy.

 Thus far the debates have been unimpressive, save for Cheney the other night. His clear victory over Edwards was brought to confusion by the bilge pumps of the Kultursmog. Nonetheless he won. Surely Buckley agrees.

 How much the debates are going to figure in the final vote I am unsure. I suspect they will encourage a segment of the electorate to vote Democratic, the segment that considers itself very intellectual without actually being intellectual. Otherwise, the election is going to turn on a clearly observable difference in foreign policy. The president has a clear policy of projecting American force abroad to prevent attacks on us at home. The challenger offers a vague policy of promising to oppose terrorists abroad even as he politicizes the war we are in at home and in so doing aids and abets the enemy. My guess is that a majority of the electorate will know how to vote.