A Man With A Plan

The first debate revived John Kerry's candidacy. The second sharpened his differences with President George W. Bush. And the final presidential debate of 2004 saw Kerry reminding America why he was most qualified person to lead the nation at this moment in history.

The debate showed both candidates at their most personal and persuasive. Kerry was forceful in his competent and detailed answers. He looked into the camera and told Americans exactly how he would do a better job than Bush on a wide range of problems. Whether the topic was tax cuts or health care costs or assault weapons, Kerry said what he'd do, how he'd do it and why America needed a different direction.

The president was equally confident, but he offered fewer specifics, other than saying he had more work to do in his next term. Bush was also glib, making jokes and dodging questions by changing subjects. He kept bringing up Kerry's 20-year record in the U.S. Senate, as if that was the solution people were hoping to hear.

Both candidates seemed to know this debate wasn't about introducing themselves to voters; it was about confirming impressions and winning votes. By that measure, Kerry, by focusing on more bread-and-butter issues than the president, emerged as the candidate who stood with middle-class Americans - especially women. This is significant, because the largest chunk of undecided voters are working women.

It was Kerry, not the president, who spoke of raising the minimum wage, equal pay for equal work, and who slammed tax cuts that came at the expense of after-school programs. To working women and families with children, these issues are very real. It doesn't matter how many times Bush brought up the No Child Left Behind law as progress — and it isn't — if millions of middle-class moms know they have fewer after-school options while they're at work. As Kerry said, "Eighty-nine billion dollars last year to the top 1 percent of Americans, but kids lost their after-school programs. You be the judge."

The president neither admitted nor acknowledged that his policies made some Americans quite wealthy while ignoring the needs of others. When asked what he'd say to unemployed workers, the president said his government would try to help them learn new job skills. Bush gave a similar answer when asked about what to do about high health care costs. He said he'd try to give people assistance in paying those bills — through lower taxes.

What was wrong with those answers, according to Kerry? The Democrat said these were symptoms of problems the president has made worse. Outsourcing jobs was due, in part, he said, to a tax system that encourages large employers to invest overseas and has workers subsidizing the export of their own jobs. That's the president's record, not tossing pennies toward job training. And on health care, Kerry also pointed out that Bush has supported new laws that increased the profits of health insurers and others. That greed will not be balanced by tax cuts.

But Kerry's real dominance most surprisingly came on the issue of guns — the lapse of the assault weapons ban in particular. Kerry staked out an identity as a hunter, and a former prosecutor in one of the largest districts in the country. Kerry also used the discussion to show a failure of leadership on Bush's part and provided an answer for what he would have done that fits the conventional public understanding of what Presidents are supposed to do when they have a cause — go to the people. Bush wished away his failure to get the assault weapons ban reinstated, which he said Congress did not have the votes for — a kind of "Oh well, I wanted it, but it was impossible." Kerry explained how he would have done it, reminding the public of the last president to bring in the assault weapons ban: "If Tom DeLay or someone in the House said to me, 'Sorry, we don't have the votes,' I'd have said, 'Then we're going to have a fight.' And I'd have taken it out to the country and I'd have had every law enforcement officer in the country visit those congressmen. We'd have won what Bill Clinton won."

Bush essentially said that we're going to have a rosier future. His sunrise optimism is not appealing for older voters. Older people understand that solving problems in the world is a struggle, and are wary of easy answers to complicated problems. They respond better to explanations of how things are going to be done. Older people will recognize that Bush’s plans for dealing with retirement security issues are no panacea. "Our health-care system is the envy of the world because we believe in making sure that the decisions are made by doctors and patients, not by officials in the nation's capital." Boasting doesn't give comfort to the afflicted.

We saw some personal revelations about the candidates — when Bush said that freedom is a gift from God, he made it sound like his policies in the Middle East come from his personal dialogues with Jesus. Kerry also showed himself to be a man of faith, but one who would not impose his views on other people, just because he had the power to do so.

What more do Americans need to know before they go into the voting booths?

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