ST. LOUIS — Apparently taking a cue from Vice President Dick Cheney's forceful schooling of Sen. John Edwards in Cleveland Tuesday evening, President George W. Bush took to the stage here Friday with a newfound aggression fueled by a certain air of presidential self-confidence. Sen. John F. Kerry, conversely, graced Washington University in St. Louis with his same long-faced routine of flip-flops so contradictory in nature that his platform appears to be getting made over more often than his Botox-infused cheeks. And while there can be little question that the latter candidate is a skilled orator whose posture and form were nearly impeccable, the fact remains that Mr. Kerry lacks the moral convictions and ideological consistency to package in that pristine rhetorical wrapping.
Indeed, as New York Governor George Pataki noted in a post-debate interview with this writer, Mr. Bush " … was able to point out Senator Kerry's … record in the Senate, voting to weaken our military, slash our intelligence, raise our taxes." It becomes easier to understand the near-rage manifested in the commander in chief during the debate when one considers that his opponent proceeded to answer question after question with positions even fresher than his condescending attitude.
In response to the evening's ninth question, Mr. Kerry asserted, "John Edwards and I support tort reform. We both believe that as lawyers — I'm a lawyer too — and I believe that we will be able to get a fix that had eluded everybody else because we know how to do it." This reply seemed to shock Mr. Bush, and it should have, considering that Mr. Kerry has a Senate record of voting against tort reform on at least 10 occasions and skipping both medical liability reform votes this year.
Equally baffling is the Massachusetts senator's claim that he has held firm on his stance on the Patriot Act in response to the evening's first question, "Now, the three things they try to say I've changed position on are the Patriot Act; I haven't. I support it … "
This begs the question: if Mr. Kerry supports the Patriot Act, why did he call it a "blind spot in the American justice system" on NPR's "Morning Edition" last August?
There were plenty more flip-flops over the course of the 90 minutes — at least 10 by the count of Bush volunteers furiously dropping rapid-response press releases in "spin alley" during the debate. And Mr. Bush did a deft job of pointing out his opponent's bouncing claims during the meeting in St. Louis, as Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie noted in a post-debate interview with this writer. "[President Bush] had Senator Kerry on the defensive over his 20 years in the Senate."
But, alas, to further delve into the many flip-flops of Senator Kerry would be to lend more ink to his sorrowful language than is surely proper.
Yet, in a way, the mere staging of these debates serves to dignify that very language. It was evident that before the first presidential debate in Miami Mr. Bush sat on a comfortable lead in the polls, likely due in part to the electorate's trouble taking his challenger seriously. But by merely appearing on stage with Mr. Kerry, the president has sadly offered a certain dignified credibility to the previously self-destructing campaign of his challenger — anyone who appears on national television at the president's side for 90 minutes is bound to appear in some way respectable, as the bully aura of the commander in chief seems partially contagious.
Moreover, the Democratic nominee clearly stood to gain from the format of the debate. Not only did many of the questions appear to lean heavily to the left, but the ability of audience members to challenge Mr. Bush on his record to date (including a question demanding that he list three mistakes he has made) was lopsided, since Mr. Kerry never had to face an inquisition into his Senate voting record (a more nuanced history that is less available to many Americans than the very public service of the president). And, while one question — a query about stem cell research — clearly sought to pin the Democratic nominee on the ropes, the overall agenda of the supposedly undecided audience was scathingly evident.
But the dirtiest trick of the evening was Mr. Kerry's propensity for fiction. It is one thing for the candidate to have more sudden changes of heart than the cardiac wing of a hospital, but it is another for him to altogether depart the plane of reality and engage in scurrilous lies. While there may have been a certain modicum of comic relief in Mr. Bush's dazed reaction when Mr. Kerry accused him of owning a timber company, the fact is that the bizarre allegation is either indicative of a campaign taken to disparity or a wholly naíve candidate. And while, for the sake of the American democracy, this writer would like to assume that the Democratic Party hasn't taken to nominating a candidate fully out of touch, it must be noted that later in the debate Mr. Kerry failed to properly identify the chairman of the Republican National Committee — a man who should be more than a minor figure to a career politician like the Massachusetts senator.
And yet, despite the ducking and weaving flip-flops of Mr. Kerry, a stacked audience and his opponent's propensity for slander, Mr. Bush emerges from Friday's debate still very much a contender in the election. The polls nationally continue to sit at about even, with certain key swing states still leaning towards Mr. Bush (raising the distinct possibility that he could become the first two-term president to never win a popular vote).
Still, the fly-by-night ethics of the Kerry campaign are clearly taking a toll on Mr. Bush and the American people, respectively. The Bush campaign could well suffer a fatal blow Wednesday if Mr. Kerry shows up to the final debate in as unscrupulous a mood as he has the first two. And so the Bush camp might consider proposing a slight addition to the notorious 30-plus-page document of rules the two candidates must adhere to during these encounters: require both men to wear polygraph machines.
If Mr. Kerry were made to speak only the truth, he might just find himself shutting up and listening to his rather honorable opponent.
Mac VerStandig (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a junior majoring in rhetoric.