John Kerry scored a number of style points in Thursday night’s presidential debate, and he avoided the gaffe that would have spelled disaster for his faltering campaign. Nevertheless, given that Mr. Kerry has fallen behind in the polls, he must do more than hang on. The president must misstep. The president did not accommodate him Thursday night. In fact, Mr. Kerry’s statements on Iraq, North Korea and the role of the United Nations could haunt him in the final weeks of the campaign.
President Bush effectively drove home two major differences between his approach to the war and Mr. Kerry’s: Given that enemies of this country possess weapons of mass destruction which could kill untold numbers of people, the president is prepared to use military force, with or without the approval of the United Nations, to protect the American people, and he will take pre-emptive military action once it becomes clear that diplomacy alone won’t eliminate the threat. Mr. Kerry, the president observed, has managed to put himself on all sides of these life and death issues.
Going into the debate as the underdog, Mr. Kerry went on the offensive, and kept his tendency toward longwinded nuance in check. President Bush, on the other hand, appeared to tire as the debate wore on. Mr. Kerry scored debater’s points on the need to inspect more of the containers entering the United States for terrorist contraband, and the FBI’s failure to translate documents related to terrorism investigations more quickly. But the president prevailed on several points of substance. For example:
Iraq. Mr. Kerry criticized Mr. Bush for failing to build a “true alliance” before going to war against Saddam Hussein, and asserted that if weapons inspections had been allowed to continue Saddam would have been “trapped.” He denounced the president for failing to “exhaust the remedies of the United Nations,” and suggested that Mr. Bush could not look in the eyes of those who lost loved ones in Iraq and tell them he tried to do everything to prevent the loss of a son or daughter.
Mr. Bush replied that Saddam had violated 16 Security Council resolutions requiring him to disarm, and was continuing to deceive U.N. inspectors. The president pointed out that he went to the United Nations seeking support for military action and the Security Council refused to act. The real choice was between going to war without Security Council approval or doing nothing and permitting Saddam to keep his program of developing weapons of mass destruction intact while allies on the Security Council lobbied to end sanctions against his regime. Mr. Bush rightly called this “a pre-September 10 mentality, the hope that somehow resolutions and failed inspections would make the world a more peaceful place.” Mr. Bush noted that Mr. Kerry had seen the same intelligence as the president before voting in favor of going to war.
Kerry’s “global test.” When Mr. Kerry suggested that America should pass a “global test” to win international approval before launching a pre-emptive strike, Mr. Bush replied that the U.S. government should take such action whenever necessary to defend the American people. This, he might have added, is what every president takes an oath to do.
International Criminal Court. Mr. Bush observed that he opposes and Mr. Kerry favors joining an International Criminal Court based in the Hague, where unaccountable judges could try American troops and diplomats.
Nuclear proliferation. Mr. Kerry accused Mr. Bush of not acting vigorously enough to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. Aside from promising to spend more money, the only alternative Mr. Kerry offered was Cold War-style disarmament treaties that were routinely flouted by the Soviet Union.
North Korea. Mr. Kerry suggested that the Clinton administration had instituted meaningful constraints on North Korea’s nuclear program, and that this progress was abandoned by the Bush administration. This is not true; North Korea has flagrantly violated the 1994 agreement it signed with the United States from the beginning.
Mr. Kerry is widely thought to have “won” on debating points, but the debate has apparently not changed his horse-race standing in the polls. According to a Gallup Poll released after the debate, voters say Mr. Kerry won by a 53 to 37 margin. But asked which candidate was tough enough for the job, respondents chose Mr. Bush by a 54 to 37 margin. That suggests that, whatever bounce Mr. Kerry got from the debate, he has a very long way to go to convince the American people that he is the better man for the job.