Sunday, October 10, 2004

Bush was better, but so was Kerry

The Boston Globe

Bush was better, but so was Kerry

By Thomas Oliphant | October 10, 2004

ST. LOUIS THIS TIME President Bush paced aimlessly instead of staying seated, scowling and glaring. Much more important -- and no doubt the result of several fascinating meetings of his hard-pressed image-makers -- this time President Bush decided to yell and show his anger with big-time decibel levels.

The problem is that it was the same old President Bush running for reelection on a shaky platform of war and stagnation when most politicians believe that peace and prosperity are more effective. Last night, instead of going on the offensive to blunt John Kerry's recent surge, the president apparently decided to simply be offensive, even going to the extreme of interrupting moderator Charles Gibson.

In Round One down in Florida, Bush lost the encounter with John Kerry decisively. In Round Two the president was much better, but so was Kerry. If Bush flopped in Florida, Kerry had Mojo in Missouri. By now the country is used to the fact that the senator can speak clearly and in short enough bursts to fall within time limits. He turns out to be not the cartoon character the Bush campaign created but an effective advocate for himself.

With only one more encounter remaining, the debates are taking on another, more important dimension than the simplistic focus on first impressions and style points so dominant in the commentary after the first debate. Now that Americans are getting used to Bush and Kerry on the same stage, it is beginning to matter just as much how people think about the candidates' positions on specific issues -- and not just Iraq and the economy, by the way.

Classic examples occurred last night on embryonic stem cell research and mandatory parental notification where abortions for minors are involved.

Bush was extremely effective in explaining why he has restricted federal aid to research using existing cell lines: in order not to encourage the destruction of more embryos. Kerry was equally effective in noting the absurdity of the fact that vast numbers of embryos are currently frozen in fertility clinics; they will either stay frozen under Bush's policy or they will be discarded. Each presented his views forcefully, but the country overwhelmingly agrees with Kerry.

Similarly, Bush gave a strong, if patently demagogic, statement in support of the principle that parents should be notified if an abortion is about to be performed on their teenaged daughter. Kerry gave a pointed reply: that he would never require a 16-year-old girl to tell the father who raped her that she was going to get an abortion. It is quite possible that many people will still agree with Bush on this.

The president needed to change the political equation last night. He didn't.