WASHINGTON — When pro-Kerry commentators solemnly pronounce Debate Round 2 to have been "a draw" — you know George Bush won that round.
The president won because he went in with a theme spoken by the heavyweight champion Joe Louis, just before his 1946 victory over the lighter, faster Billy Conn: "He can run, but he can't hide." (The Brown Bomber caught up with Conn in the eighth round of that first TV spectacular.)
Bush's debate plan was to keep boring in on the Kerry record: flip-flopping this year on the war, but all too consistently liberal for 20 years on tax increases.
On the war, Kerry almost eagerly made Bush's point, at first saying, "I do believe Saddam Hussein was a threat," and moments later denouncing Bush for being "preoccupied with Iraq, where there wasn't a threat."
The president exploited the contradiction in Kerry's latest policy, which claims the ability to attract troop support from France, Germany and Russia — while agreeing with them that the war was a diversion. To Kerry's "plan" to hold a summit, Bush asked: "And what is he going to say to those people who show up at that summit? 'Join me in the wrong war at the wrong place at the wrong time?' "
Although Kerry accused Bush of "mass deception," he let the president focus on that illogical policy. The Democrat weakly cited recent worrying by Republican Sens. Richard Lugar and Chuck Hagel, recited a list of retired generals who endorsed him and embraced Ronald Reagan. Such a stretch for company, accompanied by a plaintive "We will get tough!" never shows strength.
When Kerry complained again of "going it alone," Bush was ready with a powerful counterpunch: "Tell Tony Blair we're going alone. Tell Sylvio Berlusconi we're going alone. Tell Aleksander Kwasniewski of Poland we're going alone."
This not only showed that Bush knew these allies personally but could pronounce Kwasniewski's name, which reminded Polish-Americans that Poland's president had responded angrily to Kerry's brush-off of his country's sacrifices in the first debate. (Next day, Australians stoutly re-elected John Howard, a staunch coalition member, who trounced a cut-and-run opponent — good news for coalition leaders.)
When the questioning turned to taxes, Kerry pandered with a liberal's absurd promise not to sign legislation raising taxes on anybody making less than $200,000 a year, neglecting only to say "read my lips."
Kerry also blundered with a weird attack on an $84 item in the Bushes' federal income tax return, supposedly from a timber business. "I own a timber company? News to me," said Bush, adding engagingly in what was the most natural moment in the debate, "Need some wood?" It turns out that Kerry relied on an Annenberg Internet Web site that later admitted it had been confused, which left the Democratic candidate out on a hardwood limb. Bush was too much the gentleman to point out, now that their income taxes were in dispute, that Mrs. Kerry paid only 11 percent on her $5 million income, while the Bushes paid 28 percent.
(Although every Bush slip gets delighted examination — he called Kerry "Kennedy" and he said, "Internets"; can you imagine? — Kerry's minor gaffes attract little coverage. When citing his overseas travel in the first debate, Kerry talked of visiting the old KGB headquarters "in Treblinka square." He meant Lubyanka Square; Treblinka was the Nazi death camp. We all make mistakes.)
As Bush picked up steam, Kerry seemed to lose heart, again evoking Lugar and Hagel, skillfully backing away like Billy Conn. Asked about high damage awards gained by trial lawyers that drive up everybody's insurance premiums, he replied that John Edwards and he "support tort reform," even to limitations on punitive awards. Bush delivered a body blow: "You're now for capping punitive damages. That's odd. You should have shown up on the floor of the Senate and voted for it then."
In an anguishing moment, Kerry said he was against partial-birth abortion (as are most voters, including many pro-choice) and then explained why he voted against the ban that is now law. Countered Bush: "He was given a chance to vote and he voted no. . . . It's clear for everybody to see. And as I said, you can run but you can't hide."
New York Times News Service