Well, that was an improvement. Bush was visibly livelier, faster on his feet, more in command. He didn’t use every single line he needed, didn’t uncork some of his most powerful weapons. But he hit Kerry, and hard, on several occasions.
Kerry was mostly the same as the first debate; as noted, he’s a good debater. But tonight we saw even more clearly the real Kerry in his repeated determination to deny who he is, run from his record, duck the “liberal” label that so aptly fits him. If Kerry isn’t as liberal as Ted Kennedy and Mike Dukakis . . . well, why can’t he find examples of how?
Kerry on Saddam’s threat:
I do believe Saddam Hussein was a threat. I always believed he was a threat. Believed it in 1998 when Clinton was president.
Kerry on Saddam’s threat, same debate just a few minutes later:
I don’t think you can just rely on U.N. sanctions, Randee. But you’re absolutely correct, [Iran] is a threat, it’s a huge threat.
And what’s interesting is, it’s a threat that has grown while the president has been preoccupied with Iraq, where there wasn’t a threat.
Of course, for my perspective Bush’s best answers were early on, on the war, although to be honest some of them don’t seem as great, or at least as new, on paper. This was the home run:
Mr. President, my mother and sister traveled abroad this summer, and when they got back they talked to us about how shocked they were at the intensity of aggravation that other countries had with how we handled the Iraq situation. Diplomacy is obviously something that we really have to really work on. What is your plan to repair relations with other countries given the current situation?
BUSH: No, I appreciate that. I — listen, I — we’ve got a great country. I love our values. And I recognize I’ve made some decisions that have caused people to not understand the great values of our country. I remember when Ronald Reagan was the president; he stood on principle. Somebody called that stubborn. He stood on principle standing up to the Soviet Union, and we won that conflict. Yet at the same time, he was very — we were very unpopular in Europe because of the decisions he made.
BUSH: I recognize that taking Saddam Hussein out was unpopular. But I made the decision because I thought it was in the right interests of our security. You know, I’ve made some decisions on Israel that’s unpopular. I wouldn’t deal with Arafat, because I felt like he had let the former president down, and I don’t think he’s the kind of person that can lead toward a Palestinian state. And people in Europe didn’t like that decision. And that was unpopular, but it was the right thing to do. I believe Palestinians ought to have a state, but I know they need leadership that’s committed to a democracy and freedom, leadership that would be willing to reject terrorism. I made a decision not to join the International Criminal Court in The Hague, which is where our troops could be brought to — brought in front of a judge, an unaccounted judge.
BUSH: I don’t think we ought to join that. That was unpopular. And so, what I’m telling you is, is that sometimes in this world you make unpopular decisions because you think they’re right. We’ll continue to reach out. Listen, there is 30 nations involved in Iraq, some 40 nations involved in Afghanistan. People love America. Sometimes they don’t like the decisions made by America, but I don’t think you want a president who tries to become popular and does the wrong thing. You don’t want to join the International Criminal Court just because it’s popular in certain capitals in Europe.
Even if indirectly, he did finally deal with the Tora Bora garbage, by talking at the end about military decisions being open to question. Of course, I was thrilled to hear him stress the leadership theme I was pressing for earlier today:
Now, he talks about Medicare. He’s been in the United States Senate 20 years. Show me one accomplishment toward Medicare that he accomplished. I’ve been in Washington, D.C., three and a half years and led the Congress to reform Medicare so our seniors have got a modern health care system. That’s what leadership is all about.
I know I’m biased. And it wasn’t a knockout. But I certainly thought, especially after how Bush got clobbered in the press after the last debate, that this was a clear win.
UPDATES: And what was with Kerry talking about Red Sox fans living in a fantasy land? Didn’t he see Ortiz’ home run?
The transcript doesn’t capture this moment, where Bush basically swatted Charlie Gibson aside to drop the hammer on Kerry:
KERRY: . . . We’re going to build alliances. We’re not going to go unilaterally. We’re not going to go alone like this president did.
GIBSON: Mr. President, let’s extend for a minute…
BUSH: Let me just — I’ve got to answer this.
GIBSON: Exactly. And with Reservists being held on duty…
BUSH: Let me answer what he just said, about around the world.
GIBSON: Well, I want to get into the issue of the back-door draft…
BUSH: You tell Tony Blair we’re going alone. Tell Tony Blair we’re going alone. Tell Silvio Berlusconi we’re going alone. Tell Aleksander Kwasniewski of Poland we’re going alone. There are 30 countries there. It denigrates an alliance to say we’re going alone, to discount their sacrifices. You cannot lead an alliance if you say, you know, you’re going alone. And people listen. They’re sacrificing with us.
(The other time he tried to say “Berlusconi,” Bush gave up half way through).
Why do we have another debate limited to the economy? Seems like we covered a lot of that tonight. The foreign policy stuff, I think we can say they’ve repeated themselves plenty by now. But there’s a host of issues (social issues come to mind) that haven’t been much ventilated.
Kerry, after Bush called him the most liberal Senator:
But look, what’s really important, Charlie, is the president is just trying to scare everybody here with throwing labels around. I mean, “compassionate conservative,” what does that mean? Cutting 500,000 kids from after-school programs, cutting 365,000 kids from health care, running up the biggest deficits in American history.
Mr. President, you’re batting 0 for 2.
I mean, seriously — labels don’t mean anything. What means something is: Do you have a plan? And I want to talk about my plan some more — I hope we can.
Say it with me: “competence, not ideology.” I guarantee you the Bush camp is giddy tonight; maybe they’re wrong, but it sure looked like a Bush win to me, and I suspect it did to them as well.
You will notice once again that in discussing our strategy in the war on terror, Kerry never mentions freedom or democracy and never refers to us fighting anyone but Al Qaeda.
Starting to see some reactions . . . I’d agree that it was a good sign that Kerry was mostly on the defensive.