Kerry loses respect from me right off the bat for saying in no uncertain terms that he supports the PATRIOT Act. I believe supporting the extraordinary powers granted to the federal government post-9/11 such as this, NDAA, NSA surveillance etc ought to be a litmus test for any true progressive then and now, and Kerry failed. Again, it’s possible he perceived that it would be political suicide in the fearful years after that attack to criticize the overreaction of the Bush administration. But I don’t think that assessment was correct. Even then there were people critical of Bush’s overreach and the whole “you’re either with us or against us” mentality. I think Kerry would have had more enthusiastic support had he taken a stronger stand against such authoritarian measures. That’s part of what made Obama so exciting in 2008, the way he came out against Guantanamo even if he unfortunately never followed through on any of that.
In the next sentence, Kerry also comes out in favor of No Child Left Behind, another disastrous Bush policy. For me, as a progressive leftist, he just completely turned me off from him in 30 seconds with both answers. I still absolutely believe he’s better than Bush (accomplishment of the century, right?) but I can see now why a lot of people probably wondered what was even the difference between them seeing this moment. And without a compelling reason to switch, Americans tend to vote for the incumbent especially when there’s a war going on. Kerry, similar to Hillary twelve years later, really needed to give his side something to get excited about besides “at least I’m not a Republican!”
Bush’s “9/11 changed it all” quote best sums up this debate as well as the previous. The rhetoric of the past debates, about making America a better place to live, is now replaced with chest bumping about all the money being poured into military interventions and anti-terror measures. Who believed Hussein was a threat earlier in time, who would bomb Iraq the most…it’s really jaw dropping how the rhetoric changed. There was a lot of “tough on crime” talking points in the ’90s that reeked of outdated social conservatism, misplaced aggression and morality policing, but this goes even beyond that. To me, this shows again how the spectrum continued to be pulled to the far right not just by the Reagan Revolution, but 9/11 itself. The attack exacerbated the perceived need for a strongman who’s tough, militarily proactive and uncompromising in “the ends justify the means” measures like torture and surveillance. All of these qualities are traditional Right-Authoritarian tent-poles despite the appeals to small government. Sure, government was shrunk in terms of infrastructure and social welfare programs, but tyrannically engorged in terms of the military and control over the populace.
These debates are probably the best demonstration of the phrase “Republicans have no brains, Democrats have no balls” you’ll ever see. You have Bush II who is basically the embodiment of stupidity and you have Kerry surrendering the last vestiges of liberal principles for a shot at getting elected. This is why, anyone mindlessly supporting any candidate with a “D” next to their name, and pretending that the party label makes that candidate analogous to the progressives by default, ought to look at their history. The change in goals and values from McGovern to Kerry 32 years later is staggering. I don’t think the former would even recognize the latter as a fellow Democrat. For that matter, Nixon would be considered a liberal socialist heathen by the post-TEA Party Republicans of today if for no other reason than creating the EPA. And this is why, for all the abuse he and his supporters received, we needed a Bernie Sanders this past cycle. The spectrum has been so consistently and so forcefully pulled to the right since ’72 that progressives no longer existed anymore. That’s the Democratic Party’s fault as much as it is the Republicans. They forgot or did not care what their party stood for. They kept ceding ground to the Republicans which encouraged the Republicans to keep demanding more and more. And now here we are, with a center-right Obama as President who’s actually closer to Bush than he is different, getting called a Socialist Muslim Anti-Christ for those minute divergences. His healthcare plan is “Communism” even though it’s a far cry from the Single Payer of the rest of the world, and was first proposed by the Republicans of the ’90s.
All that said, Bush seems to break my first rule of campaigning, about appearances being the most important thing. He gets very angry and flustered, not unlike Gore before him, when asked about the possibility of a draft and when criticized for “going it alone” in the war by Kerry. He raises his voice and repeats himself a lot. He comes off as somewhat unhinged and indignant. I’m probably biased by hindsight, but watching this I feel uneasy thinking this is the man commanding the armed forces. Kerry’s comeback “countries are LEAVING this coalition, Mr. President, not joining it” was spot on, and delivered with cool, calm confidence as a President ought to appear. For that matter, I also loved his comeback when Bush talks about tripling the homeland security budget, where he says it isn’t about throwing money at the problem, it’s about leadership. When the topic turns to drugs and red tape in getting them to patients, Bush’s lame excuses about “I wanna make sure those drugs don’t kill ya”/”they say they’re from Canada but what if its from a third world?” don’t hold up to Kerry’s rebuttal. This is the first of two times since 1976 where the noticeably less calm and poised candidate won, the other of course being 2016.
The next half of the debate is mostly dominated by Bush hammering Kerry as the most liberal Congressman at the time. Of course, as my earlier point ought to establish, that’s complete nonsense and even more ridiculous when considering history. In any case, rather than embrace the label and defend the merits of liberalism, Kerry runs from it and tries to say “labels aren’t important.” That just goes to show, again, how out of fashion the label became and how far the Democrats had fallen from their roots. Worse yet, when confronted about the PATRIOT Act, Bush responds “I really don’t think your rights are being watered down” with a smirk. We know beyond a doubt now that he lied here when he said all the surveillance required a court order. The NSA mass surveillance began with him, just after 9/11 according to the Snowden leaks. That crowd should have tarred and feathered him right there, but instead we reelected the SOB. Kerry criticizes the way the PATRIOT Act is applied and says “it needs to be changed” but admits he voted for and supports the gist of it. That is not going far enough; nothing beyond a full condemnation and support for a repeal is.