With a flood of polling data pointing to a
Bush advantage in the current campaign, it would have been
difficult for viewers to anticipate the outcome of last
night’s presidential debates. After hearing both candidates
articulate their foreign policy platforms, it became obvious that
the election is far from won. John Kerry’s supporters had
feared their candidate would win the debate on substance, but lose
by appearing too weak or weary next to the president. But after
months of allowing himself to be cast off as a
“flip-flopper,” Kerry finally put himself on the
offensive and came out of last night’s debate the clear
winner.

Beth Dykstra

The exhaustive mantras President Bush has used over the past
four years to oversimplify complex problems and solutions, such as
“You are either with us or against us,” did not stand
up to Kerry’s more specific proposals. Kerry even introduced
what might become a mantra of his own when he sought to make a
clear distinction between himself and Bush by referring to the
president’s plan as the “four word plan: more of the
same.’”

If viewers were expecting Kerry to be on the defensive about his
Senate vote to authorize the use of force in Iraq, and then his
vote against the $87 billion to fund the war efforts, there were no
apologies when he said, “I made a mistake in the way I talked
about the war, the president made a mistake in invading Iraq
— which is worse?” It was at points like these that
Bush supporters and Kerry supporters alike might have expected the
president to come back swinging with a few slicing words. Instead,
Bush repeated phrases about how hard the work is in Iraq — 11
times. Kerry, on the other hand, stayed on the offense and said,
“I’ve had one position. That Saddam Hussein was a
threat. That there was a right way to disarm him and a wrong way
— and he did it the wrong way.”

The president has offered America his unyielding resolve in the
war on terrorism, but last night, Bush made major strategic and
substantive mistakes. Instead of acknowledging the complexity and
extent of America’s problems, and offering real solutions,
the president came across overly confident, unwilling to forgo what
he perceives to be a moral high ground and admit his mistakes. His
arguments were not derived from substance, but rather seemed to
come from a leader who thought his presidency should be above
criticism and his ability to lead beyond debate.

On Iraq, the central issue of the debate, both candidates
offered similar visions: Kerry and Bush affirmed that the United
States would not lose resolve. However, Kerry made it clear that
even though he agrees with Bush on end goals, he has a superior
understanding of how to attain them. Most importantly, Kerry
demonstrated that he is aware of reality with regards to Iraq: He
did not attempt to sugarcoat the situation. Instead of clinging to
a series of catch phrases and a rigid ideology, Kerry offered an
honest assessment of Iraq that indicates a willingness to examine
issues and search out alternative solutions.

Last night, the two candidates were finally able to face off and
differentiate themselves in front of a large national audience.
While Kerry was able to maintain composure and demonstrate a
command of the facts, Bush came off as confused — unable to
match Kerry on the issues. The debate appeared to be a clear
victory for Kerry.

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