Neither stumbled badly, but neither hit one out of the park. Since Sen. John Kerry had the more formidable task confronting him — to change public perception in areas where polls currently show President Bush has the advantage, like leadership — he probably didn’t win Thursday night’s encounter, whatever pundits or debating experts might say.
This was due in part to his own mixed record on the Iraq war and the almost minuscule differences with the president on where America goes from here. There are good reasons to criticize the war and the president’s conduct of it. But Sen. Kerry, whatever he might insist, has not had one consistent position from the beginning. President Bush was able to point this out, and the senator never countered effectively.
Sen. Kerry’s plan is essentially to do what the current administration is doing but faster, more effectively and with more allies. His burden therefore was to convince the American people that he really could bring more allies on board, train Iraqi policemen faster and get something useful from a summit. The American people will decide, of course, but our impression is that he didn’t close the sale.
Kerry focused on details and demonstrated some command of them, but didn’t offer a broader, more comprehensive vision. He acted like a debater or lawyer rather than a salesman or inspirational leader. On the style question, he did little or nothing to make himself seem more likable.
President Bush seemed more in command at the outset, but he seemed to fade as the evening wore on. He had a couple of moments of apparent befuddlement when the prepared talking points didn’t seem to have done the job.
The president stuck to his strongest point — you can’t win by sending mixed messages and that’s his opponent’s shortcoming — effectively. He countered well when Kerry accused him of dangerous inflexibility — but we would say that a decision to start a war is not a “core value,” as he portrayed it. Both contenders looked reasonably “presidential” and dignified. But we wouldn’t be surprised if more than a few Americans watched Thursday night’s encounter and wondered whether, in a country this size, these were the best two possible candidates the system could muster.
Neither candidate seemed even to consider that there might be limits to the powers or responsibilities of the United States in the world at large. The possibility that some disagreements might be none of our business, that there are conflicts in which the intervention of American power might make matters worse, that there would be limits to what missions the military is able to undertake, or limits to what American taxpayers might be willing to pay for, seems not to have entered either man’s mind. They disagreed over details, but both seem to agree that America must be the overseer of the world in this age of terrorism.
Given that conviction, it was fascinating how little they discussed other foreign policy issues beyond the war in Iraq. Beyond using North Korea, Iran and the Sudan as debating points, they showed little interest in or knowledge of the emergence of China as a global power, the changing nature of Europe, the economic or strategic importance of Asia, Africa beyond the Sudan, or the ongoing drug/civil war in Colombia in which the U.S. is already a participant.
We didn’t expect deep philosophy. But if Americans were looking for the role of America among friends and foes of the world today — the fundamental question — they did not hear a thoughtful, principle-guided answer.