September 29, 2004 -- OFTEN debate coaches pester candidates with detailed advice as a confrontation approaches. With mammoth briefing books, they cram facts, figures and the nuances of positioning into the candidate's head. But George W. Bush should need none of this prep.
To win Thursday's debate — decisively — all he has to do is state his position on the issues of terrorism, Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea, Iran and the myriad threats we face.
Bush enters the debate empowered by three fundamental facts:
* Virtually all of his own voters agree with his positions on these vital issues.
* About one in three Kerry voters also approves of Bush's policy in these regions.
* Kerry, for some inexplicable reason, has chosen to attack Bush on these very issues — his strongest point.
So Kerry endangers his hold on his own voters every time he attacks Bush's conduct of the War on Terror and the battle in Iraq.
The latest poll data from Scott Rasmussen underscores Kerry's dilemma. Should we commit more military force, the same amount or less to Iraq? Of Kerry's voters, 40 percent want less force, 15 percent want the same — and 28 percent want more. Are the people of Iraq better off than under Saddam? A quarter (26 percent) of Kerry's voters say yes; 34 percent say they're worse off, and 24 percent say it is about the same.
And while Kerry is alienating his supporters no matter what he says, Bush will appeal to the swing voters he needs simply by defending the policies and positions he has enunciated so frequently and with such consistency in the past.
Kerry has a tough line to walk. He has to criticize the war in Iraq while seeming supportive of the men and women who are waging it. Attack the mission we seek to achieve without seeming to dampen the morale of the men and women listening on Armed Forces Radio. Knock Bush's claims that the war is being won without appearing to echo enemy propaganda.
And Kerry must do all this without seeming to be dour or pessimistic. He can't come across as the bad news bear, lest people decide they don't want to listen to doomsday prophesies for the next four years.
Yet he must take his positions firmly and strongly, discarding subtlety and making sure not to stand on legalistic distinctions. He has to defend his vote for the war even as he attacks it, explain his vote against funding it at the same time as he ardently supports its prosecution.
Finally, he must explain why his four-part program differs from what Bush is already doing. Why is his call for arming and training Iraqi troops and police more worthy of support than Bush's current efforts to do so? Why will he be successful in attracting Coalition partners even as Bush tries to do the same thing? He has to attack the war in hindsight while trying to distinguish what he'd do from what Bush is already doing.
Is this an almost impossible burden? Yes. John Kerry can thank the geniuses whom he has brought in to run his campaign for the quandary in which he finds himself.
It doesn't matter if John Kerry is really Daniel Webster in disguise, schooled in the arts of debate and fluent or even eloquent in expression. This first debate will not be decided on style or points. It will reach its pre-ordained conclusion — a big Bush win — because of the inherent contradictions in Kerry's position on these issues.
Kerry will have a better chance in the second debate as he discusses domestic policies — the arena where he should have brought his major challenge. But even in a debate on domestic issues, George W. Bush can trip up Kerry over the Patriot Act and make homeland security the centerpiece of his presentation.
The Democratic Party's leftist base — and Bush's ads attacking Kerry flip-flops — have forced the Massachusetts senator into a difficult strategic hole in the first debate. I doubt he can talk his way out of it.
*sigh* yet he gets the big bucks and I'm here imparting my wisdom upon you schleps for free!
Today I drink from the keg of glory, bring me the finest muffins and bagels in all the land.