Bush-Kerry Debate Preview: Foreign Policy

George Will is frustrated with President Bush’s foreign policy but nonetheless believes the nation will prefer it to Kerry’s lack of one.

If ever an administration, in a re-election season properly dominated by a single issue of the administration’s choosing, has earned an electoral rebuke, it is this one. And if ever there has been a challenger who, together with his party, seemed perfectly designed to dissuade the electorate from administering such a rebuke, it is this one. One seasoned Democrat — he worked in presidential campaigns as far back as 1980, served in the Clinton White House and wishes Kerry well — says: Every candidate gets the campaign he deserves because, just as Plato said the city is the soul of the citizens writ large, the candidate is the soul of his campaign. Every successful candidate has a basic stump speech, the incessant reiteration of which drives the traveling media into insane lip-synching of it. It is 15 minutes long — five minutes on the problems, five on the candidate’s solutions, five on the contrast with his opponent. It is 33 days before Election Day and John Kerry still has no such speech. So he must make the most of these parallel news conferences that we laughably call “debates.”

Presidential debates are to real debates as processed cheese is to cheese. They are preceded by elaborate negotiations to prevent the unseemly outbreak of anything debate-like, such as a sustained development, and critique, of arguments. In negotiating arrangements for this year’s debates, the Bush campaign achieved its primary objective: The first debate, which will have the largest audience, will be on national security.

George W. Bush knows that the more Kerry talks about Iraq, the more he, Bush, prospers. This is because anything Kerry says about Iraq contradicts something else he has emphatically said — and irritates either his liberal base or an American majority. So Bush might serve national understanding, and himself, if, early on tonight, he says: “Everyone in the solar system knows my thinking on Iraq. But no one, probably not even anyone on my opponent’s campaign plane, knows his thinking, as of now, 9:17 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time. So, I invite him to take my time — all of it — and tell a bewildered nation what he thinks, at least tonight, at least between 9 and 10:30 p.m. Specifically, he says we must ‘succeed’ in Iraq. What would he call success? What is more important, success or meeting his deadline of removing U.S. forces in four years? What, aside from the allure of his personality, makes him think ‘the world’ will help?”

Will believes, correctly in my view, that Kerry’s answers will not satisfy very many people.

Dick Morris argues that Kerry is a fool to take on Bush’s foreign policy.

Winston Churchill once compared engaging Japan in a land war in Asia to “going into the water to fight the shark,” yet that is precisely what Kerry is doing by engaging Bush on his strongest suit. Since most of Kerry’s support comes from his supposed superiority on domestic issues, his base is sharply divided on the war in Iraq, with slightly more than half taking an antiwar position while about one-third back the engagement and think it is integral to the war on terror (Scott Rasmussen’s data). By coming down on the left side of the issue, Kerry will drive his voters into Bush’s arms.

Kerry has been maneuvered into this no-win positioning by the pressure from Bush attacking him as weak and vacillating. The windsurfing ad, devastatingly effective, forces Kerry to take strong positions just for the sake of showing he is not weak. But he doesn̢۪t have to take the wrong ones! He could use domestic policy to show his strength. By charging into the middle of the Iraq war, predicating his campaign on it, he is making an error of almost unbelievable proportions.

But beyond the issue of being pro-war or antiwar, Kerry is committed to showing the war in Iraq as a failure. The pessimism and negativity that comes to color his campaign as he attacks Bush on his handling of Iraq can only hurt him further. By criticizing the president on his conduct of a war, one has almost implicitly to be criticizing the troops who are waging it. It was only after years and years of obvious chaos in Vietnam that opposition to that conflict became politically acceptable. Kerry cannot break with a president in his conduct of a war without being seen as negative to the men and women who are waging it.

Morris’ assessment of Kerry’s quandry is correct. I disagree, however, that Kerry can make the campaign about domestic issues. For one thing, he’s tried that approach and failed. The reason is obvious: most Americans correctly perceive national security as the most important presidential issue. The only way Kerry could have shifted the debate to domestic policy would have been to have agreed with President Bush on Iraq–as he did, initially–and then backed him to the hilt. Having done that, there would be little reason to debate the war and Bush would be unable to make a winnable “stay the course” argument.

WaPo’s Terry Neal argues that “intangibles” will be more important than substance, in a piece subtitled “‘Likeability’ Could Be Debate’s Defining Issue.”

As a very successful high school debater, I took great pride in my ability to verbally pick my opponents̢۪ arguments apart, piece-by-piece, until they were left with a shattered case and often on the verge of tears. I won lots of debates, but not many on the basis of my likeability. But, fortunately for me, high school debates are more serious affairs than presidential debates, where style and personality often trump substance. George W. Bush didn̢۪t beat then-Texas Gov. Ann Richards in 1994 or Al Gore in 2000 with his vast knowledge of government processes, his ironclad grip on the nuances of public policy or his ability to pick apart the arguments of his opponents. He appeared to be the more likeable candidate.

Neal is almost certainly right on this score. I disagree with his subtext, however. It seems to me perfectly reasonable that people will choose the candidate with whom they feel more comfortable. Debating isn’t a skill particularly demonstrative of the ability to be an effective president. When is it that presidents debate, exactly? Nor is being quick on one’s proverbial feet something presidents. Instead, chief executives need to make calculated decisions in a deliberative manner and then have the courage of their convictions, not wavering at the first signs of trouble.

It’s not important so much whether a prospective president is a guy you’d like to have a beer with. What does matter, though, is that he demonstrates that he’s comfortable in his own skin and can shrug off the vagaries of the day-to-day campaign grind with a certain grace. As stressful as a two year presidential run is–and it’s incredibly so–being president for four years is exponentially more so.

Finally, Howard Fineman cautions us to “Beware debate spinners.”

Sometimes you see a candidacy collapse before your eyes on the television monitor in the press room of a presidential debate. At the first one I covered — at UCLA in 1988 — I watched Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts lose what little chance he had of beating Vice President George Bush. Bernie Shaw of CNN, a gritty guy who could come at you from weird angles, asked the rather nerdy Dukakis what he would do if he learned that his wife had been raped and murdered. Rather than saying that he would exact bloody vengeance, Dukakis plunged into a monologue about the need to convene a hemispheric summit on drug abuse. I was a few seats away from Tom Oliphant, the mordantly witty reporter for Dukakis’ hometown paper, The Boston Globe. “Say goodnight, Mike,” Oliphant declared, and lay his head on the table.

It isn’t usually that simple. Pivotal moments aren’t usually apparent at first glance. They are like a old-fashioned photographic print in a chemical bath; they take time to emerge. Often there isn’t a pivotal moment, even a hidden one, so it takes even longer for the press to invent one outright, since drama is what we live on. In 2000, at UMass in Boston, I went on MSNBC after the first Gore-Bush debate and said I thought that Bush had “won” it by not losing it. I was right, as it turned out, but I did not get the real news — which, it became clear after a day or two, was all about The Gore Sigh.

The point is: Without a “say goodnight, Mike” moment, we may not know who “won” tonight’s debate until a day or two later.

True. Still, it’s fun to speculate.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2004
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.