The abortion question, asked by a young woman near the end of the debate, was a micro-history of the entire campaign. Kerry offered a labyrinthine answer. He was against abortion (as a Catholic) before he was for it (as a public servant). This is known in political circles as the Cuomo dodgepioneered by former New York Governor Mario Cuomo in the 1980s, unsatisfying to this day. "I believe you can take that position and not be pro-abortion," Kerry said, and Bush actually had a terrific facial reactiona combination of Are you kidding me? and Huh? "Trying to decipher that," the President responded. "We're not going to spend federal taxpayers' money on abortion." He added that he was against partial-birth abortions and for parental notification. Kerry, he said, took the opposite position on both.
That was, in effect, the state of the campaign before the debates began: Kerry muddy, Bush simple and clear. But then, in a 30-second response, Kerry was precise and passionate: "You know, it's just not that simple." He said he voted against the partial-birth-abortion ban because it didn't include an exception for the life or physical health of the mother. He voted against parental notification because "I'm not going to require a 16- or 17-year-old kid who's been raped by her father and who's pregnant to notify her father." This seemed eminently reasonable, and Bush was forced into ad hominem liberal-liberal nyah-nyah territory in his response: "You can run, but you can't hide."
That is where the Bush campaign stands now, neck-deep in nyah-nyah negative country, especially when it comes to defending the President's collapsed rationale for going to war with Iraq. It was no accident that Bush did a (pre-eruption) Mount St. Helens imitation during the foreign-policy part of the debate. The domestic-policy section was fascinatingin part, because we hadn't heard the two men debate these issues before and also because Bush had a comprehensible, if questionable, philosophy: lower taxes, smaller government. And in part because Kerry indulged in some serious baloney slicing.
The most embarrassing moments for Kerry concerned taxes. At one point, he appropriately chided Bush,"This is the first time the United States has ever had a tax cut when we're at war." But then, in the very same answer, he said, "I want to put money in your pocket ... I have a proposal for a tax cut for all people earning less than the $200,000." This is infuriating, a textbook example of Kerry trying to have it all ways. It is very similar to his position on American troop strength in Iraq. Bush, he says, was wrong not to listen to General Eric Shinseki, who said several hundred thousand troops were necessary to do the job. But Kerry doesn't favor sending more troops. Indeed, he drops awkward hints about bringing troops home. He later compounded his tax felonyand reinforced his eerie similarities to Bush the Elderby making a read-my-lips promise not to raise taxes on the middle class. It may seem unfair to hold Kerry to a higher standard than Bush, whose distortions of the truth are frequent and brazen. The President was dead wrong about Kerry's health-insurance proposal, which isn't even remotely a "government" plan. It is, in fact, a direct descendant of the tax credits for health insurance offered by Senate Republicans to counter "Hillarycare" in 1994.
But Kerry has set the higher standard of truthfulness for himself. He hasn't distorted the President's record. He consistently, accurately, points out that Bush isn't telling hard truths to the American people. Yet Kerry has not requested a single sacrifice from Americans making less than $200,000 a year. He promises victory in Iraq without sending any more American troops. He promises more health insurance and lower taxes. He promises energy independence without pain. On the stump, he calls for a broader prescription-drug benefit for senior citizens but has nothing to say about Medicare reform.
Kerry has seemed the more graceful, intelligent and, yes, likable guy in the first two debates, but there is a threshold he has not yet crossed: he has not demonstrated the political courage necessary to be President in tough times. My guess is that many Americans suspect there is more bad news to come in Iraq and quite possibly on the domestic economy. They are open to the idea of replacing Bush, but not with a politician who shares the President's most basic flawa cynical underappreciation of the public's ability to sacrifice, hunker down and directly confront what has suddenly become a very difficult world.