As Americans prepare for the second televised presidential debate tomorrow, a town-hall format from St. Louis, challenger John Kerry occupies far-stronger ground than he did before the first confrontation a week ago. Now in a virtual dead heat for the lead, with swing states looking ever friendlier, Kerry must step up his critique of a presidency that ranks as one of the most shameful in American history.
In the aftermath of the first debate, spin shamans on both sides of the house made American politics a veritable Frisbee factory as they strove to showcase their candidate as the “winner”. But polls early this week made it clear that Kerry had pulled even, if not slightly ahead of Bush.
These television dialogues, for better and worse, occupy an iconic place in American cultural life. They have been a benchmark of U.S. political campaigns since 1960, when Republican Richard Nixon, with sweaty makeup running in rivulets across his five o’clock shadow, seemed out of his league against vigorous adversary John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts. Those who did not see the debate on TV, but heard it on radio, did not have the same critical reaction. A majority felt Nixon did well, well enough to win. But, like his problematic makeup, the image of a stressed-out Nixon stuck, historians conclude, and aided Kennedy in his slender victory. No one quite knows how to score a presidential debate, whether to conclude that an argument becomes telling only when one debater marshals the facts to support it, how many words the adversaries get in during their respective time limits, how to score body language—in short, how to measure a candidate’s electronic performance as worthy of the White House.
That latter point, of course, now dominates politics in America. Increasingly, paraphrasing George Orwell, corporate interests who control television—especially cable TV—control politics. Indeed, so incensed was Rupert Murdoch’s FOX News after Kerry’s strong showing last week that it announced the following morning that Kerry had hit the campaign trail again, boasting of a new manicure and that he was “metrosexual”.
Neither point was true, and FOX apologized, but a key point in Bush’s low-road campaign against the Democrat is that Kerry lacks cojones, those masculine characteristics necessary to prosecute the war on terror. Indeed, the New York Times reported Sunday, Kerry no longer has his prostate—removed several years ago when cancer was discovered—but Republican advisers flunked their anatomy exam. In the eyes of most viewers, Kerry was easily man enough and it was Bush who appeared unprepared, off-guard, defensive, redundant, and, at times, downright petulant.
Kerry shed his problematic image of indecisiveness in the first debate. As a Vietnam War and antiwar hero, he faced a difficult task in managing the two incompatible images. Throughout the contest with Bush he took the offensive, shooting holes in the president’s defense of the war in Iraq and larger war on terrorism. Assuming his points were self-evident, Bush repeated them ad nauseam, failing to counter Kerry’s arguments or to contextualize and support his views, content merely to state them. The Republican mantra—consisting of one sentence or even one word seeking to distinguish pro-Bush patriots from disloyal domestic opponents—was not new, spawned by 9/11, yet with the invasion of Iraq enduring three or more incarnations. In defending his Middle Eastern policy, Bush has proved far more the flip-flopper than Kerry.
Most Canadians stand aghast at the Bush administration’s arrogance in promulgating a revolution in American foreign policy, based on pre-emptive warfare, unilateral decision-making, and the export everywhere of American-style liberty and democracy. Canada’s place on the North American continent seems not to matter to Republican war-hawks, except as the northern shield of the president’s proposed neo-Reaganian antiballistic missile program. Kerry’s major reference to Canada thus far has been to question whether Toronto should send its wretched curbside refuse to Michigan.
A Leger-Marketing Canadian poll (Sept. 21-26) suggests, in fact, that Kerry would win in a landslide if the two ran north of the forty-ninth parallel. That survey found that 56% of Canadians would support Kerry, with only 19% favouring Bush. In good Victorian form, perhaps fearing being put on the Homeland Security terrorist list, the other 25% refused to answer or said they did not know.
There are reasons for these figures, not least the Canadian realization that George W. Bush seems a self-anointed redeemer who will do things his way, everywhere, in the name of God and market capitalism--veering, at times in his support for the wealthy, dangerously close to fascism, and ignoring the consequences. Canadians, for their great diversity and strong regional disagreements, recognize that they are both in the world and of it, possessing community-mindedness, public spiritedness, and a strong sense of responsibility to strive for an equitable society here and abroad.
In this reading the Republican leader appears downright dangerous to Canada and the world.