Are we really witnessing one of the greatest comebacks in U.S. political history? Or are John Kerry and the Democrats simply playing the role of the Red Sox–getting their followers’ hopes up just enough to make the ending that much more heartbreaking?
It does seem strange that in a matter of hours–the wee hours of Thursday night–the rhetoric of the entire presidential race did a flip-flop. Before the debate, Kerry was toast; his campaign was in disarray; he couldn’t do or say anything right; and he was in need of some miracles to get off the slippery road to repeating a Dukakis-like defeat. But after the debate, in which President Bush did his best ever imitation of Alfred E. Newman, it was the Bush campaign that was being given its last rites.
The debate was, of course, a colossal failure on Bush’s part. But it certainly wasn’t Bush’s first colossal failure in his long, strange road to the White House.
Bush was equally as terrible in his Texas gubernatorial debates with Ann Richards. She mopped him up and he did what he did on Thursday night with Kerry: fumbled and bumbled his way through it. But the Bush team’s spin that he was just a “regular guy” (albeit a multimillionaire, Yale-educated version of the regular guy) worked with both the media and the voters, catapulting him to his first political victory.
The same could be said of Bush’s debates with Al Gore. We all remember the embarrassment of Bush mispronouncing foreign nations and their leaders’ names, looking like a deer in the headlights when his mental vapor lock took hold, and not so much debating as simply repeating his all-too-rehearsed phrases. Again, however, the media and the public (or at least the Supreme Court) bought it and, as a result, the nation sent the grammatically challenged man from Texas to the White House.
So what made Thursday night’s debates different in the eyes and minds of the nation? Well, for starters, Kerry was a bit better than Richards and Gore–but only a bit. The biggest difference is that the stakes are so much higher in this election than in Bush’s previous runs for public office.
It’s one thing to send a simpleton like Bush into public office when the nation was in a state of ignorant bliss over the Internet bubble in the stock market and our pre-9/11 sense of security. Like attracts like, and with the nation in the la-la land of faux-prosperity and security, having a la-la man in the White House didn’t seem like such a big gamble.
But those days are over–long over. Sure, Bush inherited many of the economic problems that plagued his first years in office and Osama bin Laden was going to attack America no matter who was in office, but Bush’s handling of his national inheritance has sobered a nation. Like the cup of coffee handed to the drunk, Bush’s performance on Thursday night was a startling wake-up call to a nation weary of having a goofball in office at such a monumental time in our history.
While Bush certainly didn’t cause all our nation’s economic woes or security problems, he and his wayward administration made them a whole lot worse. The response to a serious economic downturn, for example, shouldn’t have been to hand more money to those who already have more than they need while at the same time greasing the skids for more jobs to slide out of our nation. Similarly, the response to America’s wake-up call to the deep international resentment to our imperial desires should not have been to create even more enemies through our military arrogance.
As we learned repeatedly during his debate with Kerry, Bush has been “working hard” for the past four years trying to get the nation to focus on our economic and security threats. The problem for Bush is that he’s done such a good job scaring the wits out of the nation that the nation has apparently awoken from its slumber enough to realize that these problems are too big for the little man from Texas. Who, for example, wants a twitchy guy holding the gun in an effort to keep the peace? According to the results of Thursday night’s debate, not many.
The Bush team didn’t need to wait for the polling data to know that his performance at the first debate with Kerry was nothing short of a disaster. The Karl Rove-led campaign had worked methodically to make the entire race about the perilous state of the world and the need for a “real man” with “real convictions” to lead the nation. But then the lights came on for the debate and Bush looked like a frightened mouse and, strangely enough, Kerry looked like the stoic lion.
It only got worse when Bush used his mouth–either to smirk, smack or in his painful attempts to formulate words and articulate thoughts. Suddenly, the nation was seeing the little mouse that roared at his absolute worse. And the juxtaposition of Bush’s little roaring and the enormity of the problems he was trying to tackle became too much for the electorate to bear.
While there’s obviously still time for an “October surprise” and yet another electorate flip-flop, the tide has clearly turned against the Bush campaign. And the Kerry camp seems poised to turn yet another eleventh-hour gift from their opponent (remember the Dean scream?) into a victory–a scenario that seemed remote at best before Kerry and Bush came out and stood before those podiums.
But, as any Red Sox fan knows, it’s not over until it’s over. And Kerry’s still got plenty of time to blow it.
MICHAEL COLBY is a Vermont-based writer and the editor of Broadsides. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.