Paging Bill Clinton

Editorial

Los Angeles Times

October 9, 2004

Bill Clinton was a rarity — the smartest kid in the class with whom everyone wanted to hang out. John Kerry is no Bill Clinton. The senator comes across as the smartest kid in the class, but a recent Zogby poll shows that only 9% of Americans would prefer to have a beer with him rather than President Bush.

Kerry failed in Friday night's town hall debate to address this weakness and bond with the audience, leaving ideologically uncommitted voters to choose between the smarter candidate and the likable one. Bush elicited more laughter from the audience, though he himself wasn't particularly engaging. At one point, the famously remote Kerry presumptuously assumed that only he, Bush and Charles Gibson, the moderator, would be affected by any tax increase for people making more than $200,000. Was he rendering a verdict on what the audience was wearing?

The debate was a ringing validation for the town hall format, one that we pundits too often dismiss as gimmicky. Voters asked superb question s that forced the candidates off their rehearsed lines. In one of the more bizarre such forays, we learned that Bush was against appointing Supreme Court justices who would have voted with the majority in the notorious Dred Scott case, which upheld the constitutionality of slavery in the mid-19th century. But the president got his larger point backward — Dred Scott was an example of too little, rather than too much, judicial activism. Then came this head-scratcher on his approach to judicial nominees: "no litmus test, except for how they interpret the Constitution."

Incumbency played a large role again Friday night, with the president scoring points with his wary insistence that being president is not a popularity contest. He made it sound as if Kerry was too desperate to be liked in the "capitals of Europe," as though that was the axis of evil. Bush rattled off the names of foreign leaders who still take his phone calls — and even got Silvio Berlusconi's name right the second time. On Ir aq, the president, whose performance was less faltering than last week's, once again pressed Kerry on how he was going to succeed in a place "where he doesn't believe we should be in the first place."

It's probably safe to assume that few minds were changed last night. Kerry showed once again he is a credible challenger, but Bush stabilized himself after his disastrous outing last week. It's also becoming clearer that voters aren't only being asked to choose between two candidates, but between two competing versions of reality. One is comfortably absolutist — Saddam bad; tax cuts good; Europeans wimpy; America great; mixed messages dangerous. The other is more complex and less satisfying, even when more accurate. It's hard to come up with a stirring campaign slogan for the idea that going to Iraq was a mistake but that we now have to succeed there. Then again, Kerry came close with his best line of the night: "It's never quite as simple as the president wants you to believe."