Election 2004  
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Kerry Sharpens the Differences

In the second of three debates, Bush sticks to his guns while Kerry reaches out to talk about making America stronger and safer.
 
 
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John Kerry sharpened his differences with President George W. Bush while deepening his criticisms in the second debate Friday night in St. Louis. By dismantling the labels and images that the Bush campaign has spent many months — and many millions — to create, Kerry should appeal to independent voters who disdain those very labels and can judge issues on their merits.

On the issues that really matter to Americans — the Iraq war, access to health care, taxes and schools — Kerry was dominant. He conveyed both the big picture and then gave supporting details, showing America that he was a thoughtful, resolute and competent person who was ready to lead the nation.

The president, with the exception of the war in Iraq where, despite considerable evidence to the contrary, he believes he is right, did not make a persuasive case that four more years of his policies would improve things in America. The president simply said it was, attacked Kerry and his Senate record, and promised to do more. Often, he gave the response that his base wanted to hear; he didn't address Kerry's contentions.

One of the many examples of this dynamic was how Kerry staked out the turf that he's for the middle class and has a vision to deliver reforms by rescinding Bush's tax cuts for people earning more than $200,000 annually. Bush neither acknowledged nor defended Kerry's charge that his tax cut went mostly to the wealthy. Instead, the president kept repeating that the latest of his four tax cuts went to the middle class, as though that were sufficient.

Kerry spent the night deflecting the "euphemisms" he said Bush so strongly tried to affix to him. In his best moment, Kerry displayed the hypocrisy of Bush's biggest promise of character from the 2000 election: that he would be a “compassionate conservative.”

"But look, what's really important," he replied to the moderator, ABC's Charles Gibson, "is the president is just trying to scare everybody here with throwing labels around. I mean, 'compassionate conservative,' what does that mean? Cutting 500,000 kids from after-school programs, cutting 365,000 kids from health care, running up the biggest deficits in American history? Mr. President, you're batting 0 for 2."

Kerry, later in the debate, used the same approach when responding to a question on Bush's environmental record. The president spoke first about his “achievements.”

"The Clear Skies bill that he just talked about," Kerry began, "It's one of those Orwellian names you pull out of the sky, slap it onto something, like "No Child Left Behind" but you leave millions of children behind. Here they're leaving the skies and the environment behind."

Kerry also showed that Bush was not a man of his word. When a member of the audience asked the president what he might to do help import prescription drugs from Canada, Bush answered that he would do it, but not until he could be sure that Americans would be safe in buying them from "a Third World."

Kerry reminded Americans that Bush had made this same promise four years before. "You heard the president just say that he thought he might try to be for it," he said. "Four years ago, right here in this forum, he was asked the same question: Can't people be able to import drugs from Canada? You know what he said? 'I think that makes sense. I think that's a good idea' – four years ago."

Kerry also contrasted Bush's priorities to plainly reveal that Bush had made real choices in his four years. Kerry said the president made a choice between tax cuts for the wealthy and spending taxpayer money on a long list of Homeland Security initiatives.

"He chose a tax cut for the wealthiest Americans over getting that equipment out into the homeland as fast as possible," Kerry said. "We have bridges and tunnels that aren't being secured, chemical plants, nuclear plants that aren't secured, hospitals that are overcrowded with their emergency rooms. If we had a disaster today, could they handle it? This president chose a tax cut over homeland security. Wrong choice."

By now, most Americans know the differences between Bush and Kerry on Iraq. But whereas Bush keeps reciting the same lines, Kerry explained what his position was and used new examples to make the case. The president jumped on Kerry, saying he couldn't lead a coalition if he was insulting the participant countries. But Kerry told viewers that the President's vaunted coalition was in fact crumbling.

"Mr. President, countries are leaving the coalition, not joining," he said. "Eight countries have left it. If Missouri, just given the number of people from Missouri who are in the military over there today, were a country, it would be the third largest country in the coalition, behind Great Britain and the United States."

Just as Kerry had framed it, the audience really saw "more of the same" from Bush.

The debate itself was proof-positive that to speak and use words in a compelling way — for listeners on radio and viewers on television — is not the same as reading those words in print. He also showed, unlike the president, that he could respect people he did not agree with, such as the women who asked about abortion and stem cell research.

The last question brought this distinction into the clearest relief. Bush was asked to tell the American people three mistakes he had made in office. He replied that Iraq was the right thing to do, and finished by finally acknowledging a mistake — he had appointed some people he wished he hadn't to high office. Presumably, he was not referring to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld or National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice or Attorney General John Ashrcoft. More likely, he was referring to former Treasury Secretary Paul O' Neill or EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman. As political observers know, their biggest sin was failing the loyalty test by speaking their minds and disagreeing with the president.

Jan Frel is AlterNet's political editor.