Thursday, September 30, 2004
POLITICS AS USUAL: THE GREAT DEBATE
Has Kerry the brains to act dumb?
By LAWRENCE MARTIN
From Thursday's Globe and Mail
Thursday, Sep 30, 2004
Canadians will be hoping John Kerry pummels George W. Bush in the presidential debate tonight. They'd like to see Mr. Bush get it right between the lieballs.
The stakes are stark. From the global perspective, this election is about unilateralism, which is another way of saying Dictatorship v. Multilateralism. It doesn't divide up quite that sharply between the Republican President and the Democrat challenger. But the tendencies, one to the former, the other to the latter, are there.
In the debate, Mr. Kerry bears the burden of too many Democrats who went before him. He's articulate, knowledgeable, and, more troubling, has intellectual depth.
In 1968, Raymond Price, a speechwriter for Richard Nixon, wrote a memo about the coming campaign against Hubert Humphrey. "Voters are basically lazy, basically uninterested in making an effort to understand what we're talking about." Don't bother trying to engage their intellect, he counselled. "This, for most people, is the most difficult work of all."
The memo was written in the pre-dumbing-down era. Things have hardly improved. In today's politics, the less sophisticated and the less nuanced the argument, the better. The presidential candidate from the World Wrestling Federation is likely just around the corner.
In the debates in the 2000 campaign, Al Gore had the same erudition problem that Mr. Kerry now confronts. At one point, he grew so exasperated at Mr. Bush's vacuousness, he sighed. It was an audible sigh and it was condescending. It was like, "Come on, George, surely you've heard of at least four of the six continents."
Jimmy Carter wore that same look 20 years earlier as he debated the amiable Ronald Reagan. Everybody credited Mr. Carter with encyclopedic knowledge. The book on Mr. Reagan was the colouring book. The pundits said he spent too much time with crayons. But the Gipper won that debate and that election, and G.W. won, too.
So what's Mr. Kerry to do with his surfeit of intelligence? You can almost picture his advisers at this very moment, telling him: "John, leave your brains in the parking lot. If you get out there and start sounding like Aristotle, you're finished."
Mr. Kerry has been debating since prep school. He has a Lincoln-esque countenance and a sonorous voice. He's got the most ammunition of any Democrat challenger in memory: the war, the war lies, the war deaths, the failure to find Osama bin Laden, the increase in terrorism, Abu Ghraib, Halliburton, gas prices, the biggest deficit in U.S. history, etc., etc.
He has the potential to bury Mr. Bush in these debates. But he's had the potential to bury him for months now and all he has done is fall behind in the polls. He wasted most of the summer trying to find a middle position on the war. He declined to attack Mr. Bush on the deficit. Unbelievably, he has barely mentioned the prison-abuse scandal, whose tracks lead right to the Defence Secretary's door.
In this last week, he finally abandoned his timidity and staked out hard turf on the war. Much of Iraq is under the control of the insurgents. He will come at the President aggressively tonight, arguing that instead of bringing freedom he has made the country a breeding ground for terrorism.
With his warmth and swagger, Mr. Bush will be ready to parry the charges with any patriotic platitude he chooses. The media — Fox News is at the ready — will let it pass. Mr. Bush will also have a store of one-liners to deflect criticism. Mr. Kerry has flipped-flopped so many times, Mr. Bush has legitimately pointed out, that he could spend the entire 90 minutes debating himself.
Mr. Kerry lacks the charm of a John Kennedy or a Bill Clinton. He comes out of a long line of grim-faced Democrats who made the mistake — how could they be so dumb? — of thinking knowledge was important. There was the polysyllabic Adlai Stevenson, and then Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis and Al Gore.
Their styles were drearily, eerily similar to John Kerry's. Which is to suggest that, failing a last-minute lobotomy, Canada's candidate will run into some problems tonight. In American politics, colouring books sell better than encyclopedias!
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