- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 3, 2004

Those of us who’ve been sweet on George W. Bush a long time have gotten used to these moments. Four years ago, he stacked up more money and a bigger runaway lead than any other candidate in history but couldn’t be bothered campaigning in New Hampshire, so he lost the primary to John McCain. He struggled to catch up, won the nomination, but then took the summer off to build his ranch house in Crawford.

Mr. Gore was ahead on Labor Day, but Mr. Bush clawed his way back to a small lead. Then they dropped the last-minute DWI scandal. Instead of rebutting it, Mr. Bush took the weekend off and got us a month of Florida chad-divining.

So last Thursday was one of those moments. President Bush wasn’t wrong, but he was in the same state as in early 2003, before launching the Iraq war, when he was tired and punchy and stumbling round the country not making a case against Saddam but just droning the same phrases over and over: “He’s a dictator.” Smirk. “He gassed his own people.” In Thursday’s debate, his own people seemed to have gassed him.

Mr. Bush droned, repeatedly, that Mr. Kerry was sending “mixed messages,” but his own message could have done with being a little less robotically unmixed. He said, “It’s tough…. It’s hard work” again and again.

And it is, no doubt. It’s tough and it’s hard work doing the title number of “Singin’ In The Rain,” but Gene Kelly made it seem blithe and easy and graceful. And the president of the United States owes us a performance — in wartime especially. Winston Churchill didn’t communicate the burden so much as the strength to bear it.

But who needs Churchill? It’s not just that Britain’s Tony Blair or Australia’s John Howard could been more effective. Almost any of us armchair warriors could have put down John Kerry’s feeble generalizations better than Mr. Bush did.

And yes, it’s true, if you hadn’t been following the election campaign closely until Thursday night, Mr. Kerry wasn’t as pompous or boring or even as orange as some of us led you to believe, though his lipstick was a slightly distracting shade and he would have been better advised to ease up on what was either his simultaneous signing for the deaf or an amusing impression of the stewardess pointing out the track lighting leading to the emergency doors.

But none of that matters. If John Kerry is so polished and eloquent and forceful and mellifluous, how come nobody has a clue about his policy on Iraq? As he made clear Thursday, Saddam was a growing threat, so he had to be disarmed, so Mr. Kerry voted for war to authorize Mr. Bush to go to the United Nations. But Mr. Bush failed to pass “the global test,” so we shouldn’t have disarmed Saddam because he wasn’t a threat. So the war was a mistake, so Mr. Kerry will bring the troops home by persuading France and Germany to send their troops instead because he’s so much better at building alliances. So he’ll have no trouble talking France and Germany into sending their boys to be the last men to die for Mr. Bush’s mistake. Have I got that right?

Oh, and he’ll call a summit. “I have a plan to have a summit… I’m going to hold that summit … we can be successful in Iraq with a summit… the kind of statesmanlike summits that pull people together.” Summit old, summit new, summit borrowed, summit blue, he’s got summit for everyone.

Summit-chanted evening, you may see a stranger, you may see a stranger across a crowded room. But, in John Kerry’s world, there are no strangers, just European Union deputy defense ministers who haven’t yet contributed 10,000 troops because they haven’t been invited to a summit. And once John Kerry holds that summit, all our troubles are over. Summit time and the livin’ is easy, fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high, your daddy’s rich and your ma is good-lookin’…. No, hang on, your wife is rich and your manicure’s good-lookin’… .

In his prebaked soundbite of the night, Mr. Kerry said: “Well, you know, when I talked about the $87 billion, I made a mistake in how I talk about the war. But the president made a mistake in invading Iraq. Which is worse?”

Interesting question. The play-by-play pundits thought it brilliant. But I beg to differ. It would have been a better line if he had said, “But the president has made a mistake in how he’s fighting this war. Which is worse?” There may be a majority that thinks post-Saddam Iraq has been messed up. No clear, exploitable majority thinks toppling Saddam was a disaster, and Mr. Kerry can’t build one in the next month.

But it would still have been a lousy line for this reason: “Talking about” stuff is all Mr. Kerry has. He has no executive experience, he has never run a state, never founded a company, built a business, made a payroll. Post-Vietnam, all he has done is talk and vote. For 20 years in the U.S. Senate: talk, vote, talk, vote. So, if his talking and voting are wrong, what else is there?

Speaking as a third-rate hack, I would say, as a general rule, articulateness is greatly overrated. It’s not what it’s about: Noel Coward would run rings round Mike Tyson in the prematch press conference, but then what?

But, if articulateness is the measure, how come Mr. Kerry can’t articulate an Iraq policy any of us can understand? By contrast, for an inarticulate man, Mr. Bush seems to communicate pretty clearly. He communicates the post-September 11, 2001, reality in which you can’t afford to err on the side of multilateral consensus and legalisms approved by The Hague and trans-Atlantic chit-chat and tentativeness and faintheartedness about using American power in America’s interest.

A majority of Americans — albeit not as big a majority as it should be — get this. John Kerry still does not. That means he lost the debate. He got a technical win on points from the pundits, but this election won’t be won on points. It’s primal.

The pundits keep missing this. They thought Mr. Kerry was good in the debate, just as he was good in his convention speech, because on both occasions he was tactically artful. But that won’t cut it. We’re post-Clinton: You can’t triangulate your way to victory.

Mark Steyn is the senior contributing editor for Hollinger Inc. Publications, senior North American columnist for Britain’s Telegraph Group, North American editor for the Spectator, and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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