10.03.2004 | Why Kerry Won

In their sparring match Thursday night, George Bush and John Kerry had a chance to prove to the voters that they had the right vision for leading the United States through the war on terror. Neither candidate was completely specific in laying out their plans, but in polls taken after the debate, most voters gave the edge to Kerry.

The reason: Reality bites.

During the debate the facts were on Kerry’s side – and it showed. While Bush stuck to his usual idealism and rhetoric, Kerry pointed out real examples of where Bush had failed and where he could do better, making Bush’s plaintive attempts at repeating campaign-trail slogans sound out of place. The debate was revealed how Bush’s limited rhetorical style was as ineffective in persuading American voters as it was with world opinion when we needed to invade Iraq.

Bush also had difficulty keeping his patience during the debate, as he isn’t used to having his viewpoint challenged. The president has had fewer press conferences than any of his predecessors, and most of them were carefully planned using questions provided him in advance. The same petulance Bush showed during the debate has in the past been directed at members of the media who asked hard questions.

The voters finally got a chance on Thursday to meet the president that had been leading them all this time from a distance, from behind scripted speeches and media appearances.

The question, though, is how they will react.

Republican political adviser Karl Rove said that in Bush, Americans saw “a plain-spoken man committed to winning the war on terror.” But during the debate, Bush looked almost silly trying to describe the role of commander-in-chief, especially when compared to John Kerry, who came across as an articulate statesman.

To limit Kerry’s momentum following the debate, Bush has gone on the attack, criticizing Kerry’s comments that pre-emptive military action from the United States must pass a “global test” of understanding. He accused Kerry of subjecting the U.S. military to “veto power from countries like France.”

But a “global test” is just another way of saying the world needed to understand what we were doing. Just like American voters on Thursday needed to know more from Bush about Iraq than that “it’s hard work,” the world needs to be able to hear from a president who can articulate the case for war.

If you remember Bush’s speech to the United Nations two weeks ago, its main criticism from media pundits and international observers was its lack of realism. The speech failed to recognize the real problems the United States was facing in its largely unilateral effort to bring stability to Iraq.

The speech and its lukewarm reception serve as a stark reminder that our president is supposed to be more than just our commander-in-chief, but our chief diplomat as well. Not only do we rely on our president to defend our interests, but to communicate them to the world so that we aren’t unnecessarily ostracized for our decisions.

Our allies are called our allies for a reason: we share common interests. If Saddam’s Iraq was a threat to America’s national security and world stability as Bush claimed, the president should have had no problem convincing our allies that this was the case. It worked for the first Gulf War; it worked for the Cuban Missile Crisis; there’s no reason why it can’t work today.

As it stands, Kerry has erased President Bush’s earlier perceived advantage when it comes to foreign policy and national security. He articulated the reasons the president hasn’t done everything he could to make the case for war and secure the nation’s borders, while the president offered no new information.

If Kerry can make the same powerful arguments for his domestic agenda in the remaining two debates, he may well seal his victory come November 2nd – and we will have a new occupant in the White House next year. For this reason, the remaining debates hold equally high stakes for the incumbent and the challenger.

I don't know about you, but I'll be watching.

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