Philip Stephens: Certainty without a compass

By Philip Stephens

Financial Times

Published: October 7 2004

The most important thing about the first US presidential debate was that John Kerry won it. A hardening conviction among the political classes that George W. Bush was coasting to a second term was broken. Against predictions, Mr Kerry came across as focused and composed, Mr Bush as distracted and truculent. Those who had rushed to write off the Democratic contender as another Michael Dukakis are now scrambling for explanations as to why they might have been wrong.

I say might because the outcome on November 2 is still uncertain. The latest post-debate polls point to a dead heat but we have seen how quickly public opinion can move. The two men meet again this evening in St Louis, Missouri. There will be a third encounter beyond that. Yet in important respects the way in which the campaign is framed has shifted to Mr Kerry's advantage.

The argument has at last moved on from the spurious controversy manufactured by the president's allies about Mr Kerry's service in Vietnam. The focus now is on Mr Bush's record in the White House, notably his conduct of the Iraq war. At the same time, Mr Bush's great strength in the eyes of many voters is beginning to look like weakness; resolve is taking on the appearance of stubbornness, certainty is merging into denial.

For his part, the Democratic contender has found simpler ways to say complicated things. The message that America can be smart as well as steadfast in defence of its security, that alliances can help rather than hinder, seems to be getting through. So does the obverse: that Mr Bush has been wrong as well as strong.

No one needed Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, to tell them that there was no proved link between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. Every independent investigation, including the president's own commission on the September 11 2001 attacks, has reached the same conclusion. Yet Mr Rumsfeld's incautious candour this week finally exploded a claim that the administration had put at the centre of its argument for regime change in Baghdad. Popular support for the war rested squarely on the presumption, carefully nurtured by the White House, that Osama bin Laden and Mr Hussein were the same enemy.

Even before Mr Rumsfeld mis-spoke, Mr Bush's discomfort was obvious. One of the telling exchanges during his confrontation with Mr Kerry came when the president said he had gone to war "because the enemy attacked us". Reminded by his opponent that it was Mr bin Laden who had brought down New York's twin towers, Mr Bush could not contain his ire.

Dick Cheney's response in his vice-presidential debate with John Edwards was to suggest that the administration had never drawn a direct link between al-Qaeda and Mr Hussein. I was not sure whether to laugh or scream. Somehow, we were all supposed to forget that Mr Cheney, more than anyone else in Washington, had lumped the two together on numerous, televised, occasions. It cannot be long before the vice-president tells us how keen he has always been on the United Nations.

There was another moment of visible awkwardness when the president was pressed to explain the chaos into which Iraq descended after the fall of Baghdad. His protestation that General Tommy Franks had won the war too quickly - "We thought we'd whip more of them [Saddam loyalists] going in" - was scarcely persuasive.

Even ardent supporters of the war now acknowledge that Mr Rumsfeld made a grievous mistake in dismissing the calls of army commanders for more troops. Paul Bremer, who headed the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, said as much this week. Mr Rumsfeld should have been fired. We must presume he has survived only because his departure would have left the buck with the commander-in-chief.

The report of the Iraq Survey Group into Iraq's weapons of mass destruction adds to this emerging picture that Mr Bush's war had more to do with ideology than with safeguarding America's homeland. The conclusion of Charles Duelfer, its head, that Mr Hussein did not have any remaining stockpiles of unconventional weapons was hardly a surprise. I also happen to believe that the intelligence before the war did indeed say otherwise. But alongside all the other prevarications and half-truths, it gives substance to Mr Kerry's claim that the war in Iraq has been at the expense of the fight against Islamist terrorism.

I would be surprised if too many people paid much attention to the detail of all this. But the cumulative effect is to chip away at what has hitherto been assumed to be Mr Bush's most plausible claim on a second term. I gave up counting how many times during the debate the president referred to himself as strong, resolved, determined: "People out there listening know what I believe." There in many ways lies the beginning and end of Mr Bush's campaign: the choice is between constancy and equivocation.

But certainty needs a compass, steadfastness a strategic context. A leader who spends some time checking his bearings and planning his route is a lot safer than one who marches resolutely over the edge of the cliff. Mr Kerry does not have all the answers - I am still waiting for an explanation of how he intends to charm America's allies into shouldering more of the burden in Iraq. But to listen to Mr Bush is to realise that the present occupant of the White House sees foreign policy as nothing more than the exercise of military might and personal will. That will not work in North Korea or Iran.

It may be that the focus of the election will now move on to the domestic issues agenda. Here too Mr Kerry has the advantage. The administration's record on net job creation is as bad as that of any since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Middle-class incomes have been squeezed and healthcare costs have soared. Inherited budget surpluses have turned into yawning deficits. The biggest beneficiaries of Mr Bush's tax cuts have been the very rich.

The lesson of the campaign so far is that Mr Bush pulls ahead when he succeeds in putting Mr Kerry's fitness for office at the centre of the argument, and the Democratic contender makes up the ground when the spotlight turns back to Mr Bush's own record in the White House. It would be foolish to underestimate the destructive power of the Republican election machine in the remaining weeks of the campaign. But for now the election looks like Mr Kerry's to lose.