A Race Is What We've Now Got

  • Share
  • Read Later
Spin alley is one of the weirder venues of modern U.S. politics. It is the room where reporters gather after a debate to be serenaded by the respective candidates' handlers and allies. There is a Roman Colosseum feel to the scene: each gladiator is trailed by a lackey carrying a large placard with his or her name in big block letters, so you can track ROVE and LOCKHART working the room. Which was how I found out that John Kerry had won last week's first encounter with George W. Bush.

An hour after the debate, all the Kerry spinners were gone from the room. But (Karl) ROVE and (Karen) HUGHES and (chief of staff Andrew) CARD, half a dozen big Bush placards in all, were still desperately whirling about. The Bushies were spinning their wheels, though. Some veered into giddy public hyperbole—Rove said this was one of Bush's best debates and one of Kerry's worst—while others conceded quiet, off-the-record dismay.

They knew their man had been beaten, and on his home turf. Not on foreign policy. And certainly not on substance—Kerry's arguments against Bush's policies, especially on an Iraq exit strategy, were nearly as thin as the President's defense of them. No, Kerry won the debate on Bush's favorite intangible: the appearance of strength. The President, who was so comfortable through three debates against Al Gore, appeared "annoyed," as Fox News's Brit Hume put it. Actually, it was worse than that: Bush seemed the lesser man. Kerry stood ramrod straight and preternaturally calm. Bush squirmed and grimaced behind his lectern. When he leaned down and in to make a point, he appeared to be ducking for cover. As the debate wore on, his pauses lengthened—several times he had that lost look on his face, the look he had when he was stuck reading My Pet Goat after learning of the 9/11 attacks. The next day, Rush Limbaugh was screaming at his audience, berating the ditto-heads for sending him defeatist e-mails with suggestions about what Bush might have done better. He called Kerry an S.O.B. who wanted a "freaking" global test for the use of force. Clearly, some blood had been drawn.

Bush's real nemesis may have been moderator Jim Lehrer, whose questions kept much of the debate strictly focused on Iraq. The President came armed only with the brilliantly succinct paragraph he uses on the stump to defend the war: The world is better off without Saddam, progress is being made, Kerry is a flip-flopper who sends mixed signals. It usually takes Bush no more than two or three minutes to deliver these lines to tumultuous applause. But he had 45 minutes to fill last Thursday, and there was no applause. Simple truths became simplistic evasions. He used "mixed signals" or "mixed messages" eight times. Having been carefully sheltered throughout his presidency from the press and from voters who disagree with him, Bush seemed ill-prepared for disagreement. The most stunning moment came when Kerry closed a tough exchange about how to fix Iraq by saying the difference is, "I have a plan to do it. He doesn't." Bush, out-simpled, allowed the exchange to end there.

Of course, Kerry doesn't really have a plan, certainly not one that differs in any significant detail from the President's lack-of-a-plan. And neither man confronted the most painful truth about Iraq: more American troops are needed—now—if we are to have any chance of averting disaster. Kerry's performance was deficient in other ways. It is probably not wise to use the words United and Nations in tandem as frequently as he did. He didn't hammer home his basic formulation: Going to war in Iraq was a mistake, but it would be an even greater mistake to allow chaos to prevail there—and that is why the fighting is, sadly, necessary. He made a few factual errors. The New York City subway was not closed during the Republican Convention.

You can bet you'll be hearing more about the subway in the days to come. This has been a standard Bush strategy in both his national campaigns: turning his opponents' minor rhetorical gaffes and exaggerations and, yes, sighs into major questions of character. That is why Spin Alley has always been a crucial Bush venue: if you can make the campaign about Dan Rather or Kerry's war record or Kerry's alleged Botox treatments, you don't have to spend so much time talking about Iraq.

But last week Bush came up against the limits of spin, and now he faces a daunting gauntlet. The next two presidential debates will take place within a week, and Bush finds himself in a situation similar to Gore's four years ago. The President will have to be conscious of his body language next time, which could distract him from the thrust and parry of the contest. Gore's second debate, in which his disdainful sighs were successfully squelched, was a bland calamity. Bush has to find a dignified way to regain the offensive, which will not be easy as the topic shifts to the domestic policy issues that are not his forte. His argument that Kerry is weak and wavering will be harder to make. The challenger seemed quite strong in the first debate, more in command than the Commander in Chief.