Thursday, October 14, 2004

The Final Debate

The New York Times
October 14, 2004

The Final Debate

The mission of last night's presidential debate was to engage George Bush and John Kerry in a discussion of "domestic issues" - a grab bag of topics that included both questions of money, like taxes and trade, and matters of morals, like abortion and gay marriage. Mr. Bush, however, tends to regard even policy choices as matters of faith. The numbers on his Social Security plan may never add up; last night, when asked about the $2 trillion hole in the proposal, he simply ignored the question. But to the president, all of his initiatives are success stories, and the devil take the details.

Mr. Bush took every possible opportunity to note that Mr. Kerry was once rated by a magazine as the most liberal senator and is from Massachusetts. Mr. Kerry, for his part, seemed to be vying to see how many times he could mention that Mr. Bush was the first president in 72 years to preside over an economy that has lost jobs. In a way, those efforts summarized the entire evening. Listeners certainly came away knowing that Mr. Kerry was a liberal senator and that under Mr. Bush, working people have fared poorly. The election may depend on which they decide is worse.

Mr. Kerry, who has been trying for the entire campaign to get people to pay attention to his health care plan, got the chance to talk about it last night, and he did a good, succinct job of explaining his idea. (The Kerry campaign may want to consider carrying that two-minute light everywhere.) Mr. Bush described the plan, which centers on making it easier for businesses to provide insurance for their employees, as a government hydra that would usurp people's right to pick their own doctors.

For the most part, both men seemed blessedly reasonable when talking about trade issues. Mr. Bush was passionate in his discussions about his No Child Left Behind program - so much so that, as Mr. Kerry pointed out, the president tended to talk about that even when the question was about the economy, illegal immigration, unemployment or affirmative action.

For Mr. Kerry, one of the best pieces of news was his strong performance on social issues. When the argument turns to abortion, the president's avowal that he "supports life" has generally sounded clear and sincere, while Mr. Kerry has sometimes sounded like a man who is trying desperately to obscure positions he believes are unpopular. But last night Mr. Kerry sometimes came close to eloquence when talking about homosexuality, and about his own determination to separate his Catholic faith from his responsibilities as a policy maker.

The president refused to accept any responsibility for the lapse of the ban on assault weapons and completely dodged the question of whether he wanted to see the Supreme Court reverse Roe v. Wade, while Mr. Kerry gave strong responses to both questions. "I believe that the right of choice is a constitutional right," he said. "So I don't intend to see it undone."

The campaign's debate season began with wide doubt about the usefulness of encounters that were so completely scripted by lawyers and handlers that it seemed unlikely the public could learn anything. But the result has been much better than expected.

True, both men tried to score cheap shots, and they hewed to their talking points even when their answers didn't quite fit the topic. (When the question concerned the shortage of flu shots, Mr. Bush talked about the evils of trial lawyers, and Mr. Kerry talked about the lack of health insurance.) But it's hard to believe that anyone who watched with attention didn't come away with a good handle on who John Kerry and George Bush are, what they believe, and how they would approach running the country.