New York Times
September 30, 2004
This year, as usual, the dominance of attack advertisements on television has made it hard to get a clear picture of where the candidates stand. But the same media revolution that brought us the 30-second commercial also brought us televised presidential debates - and ever since the first of them 44 years ago, they have played a crucial role in shaping voters' opinions of the candidates.
America has long been devoted to the clash between opposing advocates as the best way to evaluate information. In this era of media clutter, it is all the more important for voters to have this moment of simple clarity when the candidates appear before them stripped of advisers, sound bites and media spin.
My advice to John Kerry is simple: be prepared for the toughest debates of your career. While George Bush's campaign has made "lowering expectations" into a high art form, the record is clear - he's a skilled debater who uses the format to his advantage. There is no reason to expect any less this time around. And if anyone truly has "low expectations" for an incumbent president, that in itself is an issue.
But more important than his record as a debater is Mr. Bush's record as a president. And therein lies the true opportunity for John Kerry - because notwithstanding the president's political skills, his performance in office amounts to a catastrophic failure. And the debates represent a time to hold him to account. For the voters, these debates represent an opportunity to explore four relevant questions: Is America on the right course today, or are we off track? If we are headed in the wrong direction, what happened and who is responsible? How do we get back on the right path to a safer, more secure, more prosperous America? And, finally, who is best able to lead us to that path?
A clear majority of Americans believe that we are heading in the wrong direction. The reasons are obvious. The situation in Iraq is getting worse. Osama bin Laden is alive and plotting against us. About 2.7 million manufacturing jobs have been lost. Forty-five million Americans are living without health insurance. Medicare premiums are the highest they've ever been. Environmental protections have been eviscerated.
In the coming debates, Senator Kerry has an opportunity to show voters that today American troops and American taxpayers are shouldering a huge burden with no end in sight because Mr. Bush took us to war on false premises and with no plan to win the peace. Mr. Kerry has an opportunity to demonstrate the connection between job losses and Mr. Bush's colossal tax break for the wealthy. And he can remind voters that Mr. Bush has broken his pledge to expand access to health care.
Senator Kerry can also use these debates to speak directly to voters and lay out a hopeful vision for our future. If voters walk away from the debates with a better understanding of where our country is, how we got here and where each candidate will lead us if elected, then America will be the better for it. The debate tomorrow should not seek to discover which candidate would be more fun to have a beer with. As Jon Stewart of the "The Daily Show'' nicely put in 2000, "I want my president to be the designated driver.''
The debates aren't a time for rhetorical tricks. It's a time for an honest contest of ideas. Mr. Bush's unwillingness to admit any mistakes may score him style points. But it makes hiring him for four more years too dangerous a risk. Stubbornness is not strength; and Mr. Kerry must show voters that there is a distinction between the two.
If Mr. Bush is not willing to concede that things are going from bad to worse in Iraq, can he be trusted to make the decisions necessary to change the situation? If he insists on continuing to pretend it is "mission accomplished," can he accomplish the mission? And if the Bush administration has been so thoroughly wrong on absolutely everything it predicted about Iraq, with the horrible consequences that have followed, should it be trusted with another four years?
The biggest single difference between the debates this year and four years ago is that President Bush cannot simply make promises. He has a record. And I hope that voters will recall the last time Mr. Bush stood on stage for a presidential debate. If elected, he said, he would support allowing Americans to buy prescription drugs from Canada. He promised that his tax cuts would create millions of new jobs. He vowed to end partisan bickering in Washington. Above all, he pledged that if he put American troops into combat: "The force must be strong enough so that the mission can be accomplished. And the exit strategy needs to be well defined."
Comparing these grandiose promises to his failed record, it's enough to make anyone want to, well, sigh.
Al Gore, vice president from 1993 to 2001, was the Democratic presidential nominee in 2000.