My Reaction to the 2004 Bush/Kerry Debates (1/3)

You know the difference between Bush II and all the other commonly cited “worst presidents?” Bush was reelected. Buchanan, Pierce, Andrew Johnson and Warren G Harding, all were one termers. That’s part of what makes Bush’s legacy so much more toxic, in my opinion, the fact that he reigned for twice as long. But even so, all my biggest criticisms against W, the mass surveillance, the TSA, the Iraq War, were all set in motion by the time these debates took place. In other words, we knew what he was and had the chance to nip it in the bud but we didn’t and that is our collective shame. We can’t even blame the electoral college like in 2000 because, against all common sense, Bush won the popular vote as well.

In general, these debates were pretty hard to watch for a lot of reasons.

  • One, I hate Bush. Maybe that makes me partisan or a “lib-tard” SJW or whatever, but I do. I hate his sneery expression, I hate his goofy country bumpkin manner of speaking, I hate his non-answers and (what proved to be) outright lies.

  • Second, I hate the ’00s as a decade: socially, culturally and politically. I hated them at the time and I hate them looking back. I remember them as dark years dominated by fear mongering, exploiting a tragedy to start war and the end of the Constitution via appeals to security theater. This was the worst decade for political discourse since the ’80s with their supply side economics and “tough on crime”/”war on drugs” rhetoric. It’s unpopular to say even now, but as a kid I distinctly remember voicing to friends and family how I thought the 9/11 pandering was overblown and manipulative. Watching these debates focus almost exclusively on “WHAT WILL YOU DUU TO KEEP US SAFE??!!?” was an unpleasant reminder of those times.

  • Third, you see Kerry and by extension the Democrats, cede even more ground to the Republicans these debates after Gore had been a step in the right direction. The story of the Democrats post 1972 is that of a party that lost faith in itself as well as its principles and thus settled in as the off-brand “me too!” Conservative-Lite option. They didn’t fight neoliberalism in the ’80s, nor the obnoxious “tough on crime” wave in the ’90s, and here they didn’t fight the systematic dismantling of our Constitutional rights. This debate cycle, and really this election, sets the final nail in the coffin to the Democratic Party being a respectable force for progress and egalitarianism in the country. We fell for Obama’s “hope and change” shtick 4 years later but in practice he accomplished very little, allowed the Republicans to dominate the conversation, move the goal posts, and stonewall any small reforms he was actually serious about. Since then there’s still been no improvement on shifting back to the left in any meaningful way.

First Debate

The first question to Kerry is expected, the “would you have prevented 9/11?” followed by the vague “Yep” answer. Bush goes on about how he’s spread “freedom” to Afghanistan. Kerry talks up the generals who support him over his opponent, and criticizes Bush’s judgement, specifically how he let Bin Laden get away by focusing on Hussein to the detriment of the war on Al Qaeda.

After Kerry calls Iraq the wrong war to focus on, Bush disgustingly counters with “what kind of message does that send to our troops?” I loathe this kind of attack. You can never criticize a war, or suggest disarmament and reallocating some resources to domestic affairs, without being accused of not supporting the troops. People did the same thing to McGovern in 1972, and both he and Kerry were decorated war heroes themselves. Nobody criticized Eisenhower but he said the same in his prescient farewell address. It’s almost always those who’ve never actually seen combat who put on the biggest phony show of supporting the troops, ironically by sending them into unnecessary conflict in the first place. The term is “chicken hawks” and they are the true betrayers of our soldiers. To make it worse, Bush even reuses that same attack when Kerry spouts out his campaign slogan “Help is on the way.” Bush replies “My opponent says ‘help is on the way’…what kinda message does that send to our troops?” Oh I don’t know George, maybe that he’s gonna try to help them? How is that a bad message to send exactly? Seriously, you cannot make this up. It’s like a SNL parody.

For the most part, I like Kerry okay. He’s not one of my all time favorite “what if” candidates like McGovern or Stevenson, or even Gore but I think he’s a good man and certainly would have been better than Bush. But watching these debates, Kerry just looks dead. There are noticeable bags under his eyes, he’s not very animated, loud or charismatic, and he comes off like he could almost pass for Bush’s dad. It’s interesting how he criticizes Bush’s lack of exit strategy when going into Iraq. That was a valid and wise attack, but I think it could have been a lot more effective had Kerry quoted some of Bush’s words from the second 2000 cycle debate back at him. Again, in that debate, Bush sounded like he knew what he was talking about when it came to foreign intervention, and even painted Gore as the warmonger/interventionist, but then once elected Bush did the exact opposite of everything he said there. I think Kerry missed a golden opportunity to throw that hypocrisy in his face.

This time around Bush is even worse than he was in 2000. He carries a revolting, smug smirk on his face the entire time. He gives off an indignant air as if he considers it audacious that someone would find fault with Iraq. He throws the “support the troops” deflection as often as he can get away with it. Rather than try to rise about the terrorism and lead by saying “We will not let terrorists dictate how we live our lives, we go on business as usual,” Bush exploited it to dismantle civil liberties and start an illegal war. The sad thing is Kerry doesn’t attack him on the former. I’m not sure if things like NSA mass surveillance were well known by the powers that be yet, but the PATRIOT Act certainly was and it was controversial even then.

You can feel the shadow 9/11 left on our entire country watching this debate. Kerry reuses Gore’s attack about Bush giving tax cuts to the wealthiest 1%, but rather than talk about using that money to invest in infrastructure or social programs, he says he would reinvest it into Homeland Security. (So, basically, use our money to humiliate us at the airport and spy on our electronic communication.) Kerry also criticizes the TSA, but not because they’re a blatant and unnecessary violation of our rights, instead his issue is they don’t go far enough. Now realistically I guess it would be political suicide at this time to not appear tough on terrorism and not make an effort to convince people you’d keep them safe. But that’s exactly what I’m talking about–Kerry attempted to sell us all out for four years in the White House.

This entire debate is dominated by “keeping the American people safe”/”hunting down the terrorists”/”if our enemy gets it right just once, they’ll be able to hurt us” and bragging about how much money each man would throw at the new Department of Homeland Security. This time around, it’s all fire and brimstone, neoconservative saber rattling and fear mongering.

1 Comment

  1. I didn’t watch this debate at the time. I think I just voted for the Libertarian candidate, who ever it was that year. I already knew in my mind that I didn’t like Bush or Kerry and that nothing they said could persuade me to support either one. Too bad the rest of the country seems to have been fooled into thinking Bush’s wars were some how justified.

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