TCS Daily

Scream Redux?

By Ryan H. Sager - October 12, 2004 12:00 AM

President Bush's supporters had better hope that Karl Rove's conventional wisdom is right -- that the turnout of the party faithful is primarily what will decide this year's election. Otherwise, the president could be in real trouble after his third and final debate with John Kerry, set for Wednesday night in Tempe, Arizona, and intended to focus on domestic issues.

At Friday night's debate in St. Louis, Bush came out seeming buzzed and determined to make up for his drowsy performance earlier this month in Coral Gables, Florida. Unfortunately for his supporters, the result looked and sounded to independent and swing voters something like the Howard Dean death-yowl, drawn out through the entire middle portion of the evening.

Post-debate polling shows that while Republicans thought Bush won by a wide margin, and Democrats thought Kerry won by a wide margin, independents overwhelmingly gave the night to Kerry (53 percent to 37 percent, according to Gallup). At the same time, the electoral-college contest is narrowing, and Bush's lead there is shrinking as swing states like Wisconsin and Florida move toward Kerry.

Independent and swing voters are probably not being swayed by Kerry's Iraq rhetoric -- especially not if they're looking for signs that the lanky Massachusetts liberal can be decisive in times of crisis. When confronted by Bush with the charge that he would have left Saddam Hussein in power, the best Kerry could come up with on Friday was: "Not necessarily."

Take that, cowboy!

No, voters who don't know where they stand at this late date probably aren't voting on Iraq; Americans already know who's pro and who's anti, when it comes to the war. The people still weighing their options 20 days before the election probably want to hear more about the candidates' various plans and policy prescriptions.

Maybe, for instance, they'd like to hear more about why Bush has yet to allow prescription drugs to be reimported from Canada. Asked that question Friday night, Bush blamed the FDA instead of explaining that Canada's drugs are only cheap because of price controls -- which would collapse if the AARP crowd gets its way. Specifically, he said, "When a drug comes in from Canada, I want to make sure it cures you and doesn't kill you." You know those shady Canadian pharmacies, always cutting their heart medicine with rat poison. Kerry, one can imagine, would love to hear the president elaborate on that point.

Or maybe the president could reiterate his promise from Friday night's debate on judicial nominations: absolutely no judges who would uphold the Dred Scott decision, which extended slavery. Not on George W. Bush's watch. No siree.

Or maybe the president could tell the American people more about what he's done for the environment. The top item on his list at the last debate: "An agreement to reduce pollution from off-road diesel engines by 90 percent." That should get the soccer moms dancing in the aisles.

If 90 minutes of listening to Bush flail around on questions like these -- questions he has all but ignored (if for good reason) for four years -- isn't enough to make someone vote for Kerry, then nothing will be. Whoever in the Bush camp made the decision to let the last debate be on domestic issues deserves to have his name plastered right up there next to the name of the guy who put Michael Dukakis in that tank.

If Bush loses, though, it will be understandable. A president can't lead if he can't communicate. Sure, he can gesture and point the way, but most Americans would prefer a president who's able to use his words.

The only person who might save the president is his opponent, who, fluent in at least two languages, has a policy position on every issue to match each one.

And for that reason alone, it's astounding the president isn't looking at a landslide. Kerry is a man who has held more positions than Paris Hilton on the Iraq war and who has accomplished just about as much as she in terms of federal legislation. Yet, somehow, Bush consistently fails to knock the wind out of Kerry's surfboard.

That knock-out punch is unlikely to come Wednesday. The best Bush supporters can hope for at this point is that the president not answer any questions with a Deanesque "Yeaaaaaaaaarrrgh!!!"

Ryan Sager edits the blog Miscellaneous Objections. He can be reached at


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