KERRY'S MISSED OPPORTUNITIES. David Ortiz saved me from a terrible dilemma last night. If the Red Sox-Angels game had gone past 9 p.m., I'm not sure what I would have done when the opening bell sounded for the second presidential debate.
This morning, I still don't have a particularly clear handle on what happened. On substance, I thought John Kerry did far better than George W. Bush, just as he did in the first debate. It wasn't just because I agreed with Kerry more often, but because he offered clear, fact-filled explanations as opposed to the campaign slogans that Bush likes to bark out. On the other hand, there's no question that Bush was more energized and better prepared than he had been in their first encounter. By being able to interact with a crowd, the president was able to come off as more engaged than he had been in the formal setting of a week earlier. Plus, he kept the smirk under control.
My frustration is that I thought Kerry missed a lot of opportunities to counter some of Bush's more ridiculous claims. Unlike John Edwards, who was a master of looping back, answering Dick Cheney's accusations, and then returning to the question at hand, Kerry took too many strikes on pitches he should have been able to hit. (Sorry. I'm still thinking about the Red Sox.)
Perhaps the weirdest, if not necessarily the most serious, example of this came when Kerry attempted to refute Bush's notion that Kerry's proposal to raise taxes on Americans earning above $200,000 will harm small businesses:
KERRY: Ladies and gentlemen, that's just not true what he said. The Wall Street Journal said 96 percent of small businesses are not affected at all by my plan.
And you know why he gets that count? The president got $84 from a timber company that owns, and he's counted as a small business. Dick Cheney's counted as a small business. That's how they do things. That's just not right.
Now, Kerry's delivery and syntax in this instance were terrible. Maybe I'm unusually dense, but I couldn't tell whether Kerry actually meant that Bush had invested in a timber company, or was instead offering some sort of hypothetical using Bush as a theoretical example. I decided it must be latter upon hearing Bush's rebuttal:
BUSH: I own a timber company?
That's news to me.
Need some wood?
Worse, Kerry just sat there on his stool, grinning, and never returned to the subject. Granted, it was a small matter, but it was Kerry who raised it, and Bush had left him looking like an idiot. Yet as we learned as soon as the debate was over, it was Bush who should have looked like an idiot, for denying something that was clearly true. On ABC News, Jake Tapper noted that Bush had, in fact, reported $84 in income one year from a timber company. Here are the details. It was a minuscule point by Kerry, inartfully made, but Kerry should have at least made it clear to everyone that he knew what he was talking about.
And by the way, will the fact-checkers please get off Kerry's back over the retirement of General Eric Shinseki in 2003? Here is what Kerry said last night:
KERRY: General Shinseki, the Army chief of staff, told him he was going to need several hundred thousand [troops]. And guess what? They retired General Shinseki for telling him that. This president hasn't listened.
Here is what CNN's fact-checkers (among others, including Tapper) said:
Kerry implies that Shinseki was forced to retire as a result of his comments about troop levels in Iraq, which is inaccurate. Shinseki served a full four-year term as Army chief of staff, and did not retire early. Since World War II, no Army chief of staff has served longer than four years.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld decided in April 2002 on who he would tap to succeed Shinseki, according to a Pentagon official, long before Shinseki's troop level comments in 2003. So by the time Shinseki made his comments on troop levels, it was already known that he would not remain in his post beyond his full four-year term. The Bush administration may not have been fond of Shinseki, who was appointed to his post by President Clinton, but it is inaccurate to say that he was forced to retire because of his comments on troop levels in Iraq.
That is true, and yes, Kerry should find a way to make his point more accurately if he is going to keep returning to the matter of General Shinseki. But CNN only hints at the extent of the how deeply Shinseki and Rumsfeld clashed. For instance, here is the top of a Washington Post story from October 2002 on the reasons for Shinseki's retirement:
The biggest battle facing Donald Rumsfeld is with the Army, the nation's largest military service, which effectively has gone into opposition against the secretary of defense.
Among all the services, the Army, for institutional and historical reasons, is most skeptical of Rumsfeld's drive to move the military into the information age. Rumsfeld has complained that the Army is too resistant to change; Army officers claim Rumsfeld doesn't sufficiently appreciate the value of large, armored conventional ground forces.
"Does he really hate the Army?" asked one Army officer, obviously pained by the question. "I don't know."
The relationship, never close, hit the rocks when Rumsfeld let it be known in April that he had decided to name Gen. John Keane, the Army's vice chief of staff, as its next chief, 15 months before its current chief, Gen. Eric Shinseki, was scheduled to retire.
This immediately made Shinseki a lame duck and undercut his ambitious "transformation" agenda, which he had set forth in late 1999.
"I do feel that this secretaryship has been very hard on this chief and has undermined his ability to bring about the kind of transformation that Shinseki envisioned," said Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee.
And here's the top of a USA Today story from June 2003:
The former civilian head of the Army said Monday it is time for the Pentagon to admit that the military is in for a long occupation of Iraq that will require a major commitment of American troops.
Former Army secretary Thomas White said in an interview that senior Defense officials "are unwilling to come to grips" with the scale of the postwar U.S. obligation in Iraq. The Pentagon has about 150,000 troops in Iraq and recently announced that the Army's 3rd Infantry Division's stay there has been extended indefinitely.
"This is not what they were selling [before the war]," White said, describing how senior Defense officials downplayed the need for a large occupation force. "It's almost a question of people not wanting to 'fess up to the notion that we will be there a long time and they might have to set up a rotation and sustain it for the long term."
The interview was White's first since leaving the Pentagon in May after a series of public feuds with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld led to his firing.
Rumsfeld and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz criticized the Army's chief of staff, Gen. Eric Shinseki, after Shinseki told Congress in February that the occupation could require "several hundred thousand troops." Wolfowitz called Shinseki's estimate "wildly off the mark."
Rumsfeld was furious with White when the Army secretary agreed with Shinseki.
So if Kerry wants to be more accurate, all he needs to do is use White rather than Shinseki as an example of a top military official who was fired for publicly disagreeing with the Bush administration's low-ball estimates on the number of troops that would be needed to maintain order in Iraq. Alternately, Kerry could portray Shinseki as a hero who was forced to retire for having the temerity to stand up to Rumsfeld, and who then became one of the most outspoken critics of the White House's troop-strength estimates.
And since Kerry's point is essentially correct, the media fact-checkers ought to explain the context even as they tut-tut Kerry for not being 100 percent accurate.
Finally, since everyone else is doing it, allow me to indulge in a little cheap armchair psychoanalysis. I was really struck by how Bush answered a question about the Patriot Act. Audience member Rob Fowler asked, "With expansions to the Patriot Act and Patriot Act II, my question to you is, why are my rights being watered down and my citizens' around me? And what are the specific justifications for these reforms?" Here is how Bush replied.
BUSH: I appreciate that.
I really don't think your rights are being watered down. As a matter of fact, I wouldn't support it if I thought that.
Every action being taken against terrorists requires court order, requires scrutiny.
As a matter of fact, the tools now given to the terrorist fighters are the same tools that we've been using against drug dealers and white-collar criminals.
So I really don't think so. I hope you don't think that. I mean, I -- because I think whoever is the president must guard your liberties, must not erode your rights in America.
The Patriot Act is necessary, for example, because parts of the FBI couldn't talk to each other. The intelligence-gathering and the law-enforcement arms of the FBI just couldn't share intelligence under the old law. And that didn't make any sense.
Our law enforcement must have every tool necessary to find and disrupt terrorists at home and abroad before they hurt us again. That's the task of the 21st century.
And so, I don't think the Patriot Act abridges your rights at all.
And I know it's necessary. I can remember being in upstate New York talking to FBI agents that helped bust a Lackawanna cell up there. And they told me they could not have performed their duty, the duty we all expect of them, if they did not have the ability to communicate with each other under the Patriot Act.
Now, there are some factual quibbles I could offer here. The Lackawanna case has been widely criticized as government overkill, and Bush is being disingenuous when he says that "[e]very action being taken against terrorists requires court order." In fact, the Patriot Act allows agents to obtain subpoenas in terrorist cases - which are very broadly defined - from so-called FISA judges, whose discretion over whether to grant those subpoenas is far more limited than in normal criminal cases. Moreover, under the Patriot Act, someone served with a subpoena - say, a librarian or bookstore owner told to turn over a patron's records - may not challenge the search or even tell anyone about it.
But what really struck me about Bush's answer was the narcissism he displayed: You don't have to worry about the Patriot Act because I don't feel that it abridges your rights; because I wouldn't have signed it if I thought it did; because I, the president, would never allow that to happen. This is personalizing policy to a truly uncomfortable degree, and it's the subject of an excellent cover piece (sub. req.) in last week's New Republic by Noam Scheiber.
Scheiber's argument is that Bush isn't so much ideologically driven as he is motivated by a deep-seated need to see himself as the hero of his own narrative. Since he has surrounded himself with right-wing advisers, he has become a right-winger by going along with their narrative. Scheiber writes:
Conventional wisdom holds that the president is a conservative hard-liner bent on upending the Middle East and the U.S. tax code. But, while those may be the practical implications of the decisions he's made as president, the way George W. Bush makes sense of the world isn't through ideology. It's through narrative. Bush has always been a sucker for a good storyline - and never more so than when it involves him. In his own mind, Bush is the central figure in an ever-unfolding series of dramas. As such, Bush prides himself on possessing the qualities of a hero: compassion and justness on the one hand; boldness, principle, and resolution on the other. Bush almost always supports policies that appear to reinforce this image of himself; he opposes policies that appear to contradict it.
Make of this what you will, but I think Scheiber's on to something: this is followership disguised as leadership.