Jewish World Review Oct. 15, 2004 / 30 Tishrei, 5765
Draw, advantage Kerry
Who was the genius who felt President Bush could debate John Kerry or any Republican could debate any Democrat over the economy, health care and Social Security, and expect to win?
The Bush campaign selected James Baker, the first President George Bush's secretary of State, to negotiate the debate's rules. He should have insisted on no topic restrictions in any debate. Inevitably, terrorism would have dominated all three contests.
By restricting the third debate to domestic policy, they gave Bush an impossible mountain to climb.
Bush did well Wednesday night. Kerry did equally well. Both were aggressive, specific, and, at times, eloquent. But the debate was not a draw because the turf over which they debated was largely inherently Democratic.
Each issue in our politics has a natural identification with one of our two parties. After decades of experience, the Republican Party has an edge on issues of defense, crime, security, morality and taxes; the Democrats have more credibility on health care, Social Security, job creation, minority rights and the environment. (As a result of Bush's extensive efforts, education has become a jump ball.)
On the whole, however, domestic issues skew to the Democrat while foreign policy tilts toward the Republicans. Since these biases stem from deeply rooted experiences, it is very hard to change them and almost impossible to do so in a single debate.
So despite Bush's able performance last night, Kerry had the edge because the subject matter was overwhelmingly Democratic. When candidates from each party speak fervently about improving health care, the Democrat almost always wins because of the partisan skew of the issue. When jobs are at issue, we trust Democrats; when the topic is Social Security or retirement, the legacy of FDR assures the Democrat of the advantage.
Bush's sallies over taxes and his attacks on Kerry's liberalism won points for his candidacy and on specific issues like gay marriage, Bush was able to score at the Democrat's expense. And John Kerry's gutter tactics in pointedly noting the lesbianism of Dick Cheney's daughter was a new low in presidential debates. Since John Edwards did much the same thing during the vice-presidential debate, this is a clearly thought out bid to neutralize the president's lead over this issue at the expense of an honest, private young woman.
But in the final analysis, if America wants a wartime president, they will vote for Bush. Here the built-in advantages of the Republican Party and the success and determination of President Bush's policies combine to militate for a vote for the incumbent. But if last night's issues become central in the election, if we vote for a peacetime president, then Kerry may prevail.
Kerry's real opponent last night was not Bush. His victory over these issues was pre-ordained by its subject matter. His real adversary was foreign policy and the threat of terror. It was up to Kerry to prove the saliency of his domestic policy issues and to assure that Americans would vote on their personal economic problems rather than on the questions of national security.
I support Bush because I believe that there is no issue more important than fighting terrorism and protecting our homeland. On these issues, there is no question that the president understands the nature of the war and is committed to victory.
Kerry clearly did well, while Bush did the best he could to blunt the inevitable skew of these issues. But the key question can only be judged from the post-debate polls: Did Kerry sell America on the idea that domestic policy is the most important issue?
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JWR contributor Dick Morris is the author of, most recently, "Rewriting History", a rebuttal of Sen. Hillary Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) memoir, Living History. (ClickHERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.) Comment by clicking here.
© 2004, Dick Morris