Take Note, Security Moms: Kerry Manhandles Bush in First Debate
October 2, 2004
Many folks from all points on the political spectrum had begun conceding the election to our robust and resolute warrior-president. They had to. The polls were revealing the most horrifying perception of John Kerry. Married middle class white women, whose support he’d been counting on, had decided he couldn’t protect them as well as George W. Bush, and about ten percent of them skedaddled into the president’s embrace, pumping him into a lead of several points. As a reward, the “soccer moms” were given the weightier designation “security moms” and, at least by allusion, the assurance that all aspects of life would be better in the arms of the one true stud.
But that wasn’t all, I was sure, and resolved to conduct my own poll. Thursday morning before the first debate, I faced the adult students in my English as a Second Language class. The group was overwhelmingly Mexican and female, and of course they readily proclaimed their dislike of most Republicans, even the post-celluloid Arnold. I nevertheless suspected they were withholding something.
“Do you think Bush looks good?” I asked.
“I don’t like him… He doesn’t care about us…”
“Do you think he looks good?”
The room was silent.
“I said, ‘Does Bush look good?’”
“Yes,” at least twenty women said in unison.
It’s about over, I thought. If these non-voting but aggrieved females think the president is attractive, imagine how the security moms feel. Poor Kerry. Legions are joking about his orange face and his flip-flopping and questioning his manhood in Viet Nam and his worthiness to be a leader. He’s really about to be overwhelmed. But there is a debate tonight, I reasoned. Let’s see happens.
A little after nine p.m. Eastern time John Kerry, tanned, towering at six-foot-four, and determined, strode onto the stage and smiled as he pumped the smaller hand of George W. Bush. This image was an omen. While Bush spent much of the evening hunched over the podium, grimacing and pouting, Kerry stood erect as he stated the United States is safer when leading strong alliances, and that diverting the real war on terror in Afghanistan – where Osama bin Laden likely was and is – was a “colossal error in judgment.” Now, Kerry noted, the United States is suffering ninety percent of the casualties and bearing ninety percent of the cost of the war in Iraq. And Iraq, he stressed, “was not even close to the center of terror” before Bush attacked it.
The president, thoroughly programmed by his theretofore effective but not terribly artful advisers, quoted Kerry as calling Iraq “the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time,” and said you can’t lead like that. You can’t lead if you change positions as politics change. Nor can you lead if you send mixed messages. And if you say it’s the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time, that’s bad. You can’t keep changing positions. Nation building is hard work. It’s all hard work. And that work is undermined when you call Iraq the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time. You keep changing. Stop that. Actually, keep it up, Kerry, look at the polls. My message is getting across.
To ensure that his audience of sixty million got it, as well as to compensate for his apparent inability to say anything else, Bush continued to repeat his few stale points until even chief strategist Karl Rove must have winced. It was getting late, well past his bedtime, and the alpha president was not delivering his simple lines with much energy.
Excepting the aforementioned sound-bites brought in cold and stiff from the stump, Bush’s most unfortunate line was that Saddam would have been “stronger and tougher” if he, George W., hadn’t attacked Iraq. That is a blatant falsehood. Who really believes that Saddam was getting, or had any prospect of getting, stronger and tougher? By any standard, he’d been getting weaker and older since the Gulf War in 1991 when Bush’s father put together a politically and militarily powerful international coalition and said at the time and later in his book that it would have been unwise to continue the invasion and become mired in attritional warfare in the city streets of Babylon. Economic warfare was waged instead, and the sanctions strangled the Iraqi military machine and starved the citizens. By the spring of 2003, Saddam and Iraq were in fact a threat only to themselves, not to the United States.
In contrast to the president, who must have guzzled a large Shirley Temple with extra sugar before the debate, Kerry appeared to have downed a testosterone cocktail. Standing ever straight and often using his large hands for emphasis, he articulated points that are more nuanced than the Bush administration is accustomed to: bringing countries together is essential; a “fresh start and new credibility” will enable the United States to build much stronger alliances; vigorously pursuing a democratic victory in Iraq is vital but so is ensuring that the Iraqi people understand the United States “has no long term designs” on their country.
That is diplomacy. That is strong leadership. That is coherent vision and a huge contrast to the incessant and petulant cheap-shots by a president who didn’t much want to debate or even discuss. A lot of the security moms no doubt noticed. And ladies, like nations, often reassess who really can best protect them.