TEMPE, Ariz. — Debate fatigue has set in. But the question remains — what did we learn from the encounter in Coral Gables, the squabbles in St. Louis, the clash in Cleveland and the tempest in Tempe?
The millions of Americans who held debate parties, gathered their families together and hung out in dorms to watch TV saw that we have two very different men with very different visions of America Past, Present and Future in a dead heat for the race to the White House.
In less than three weeks we'll know who the victor is (fingers crossed here that we will avoid another cliffhanger like 2004), but nobody (except the intransigent Ralph Nader) should say there is no choice between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry.
Even the non-essential match-up between Vice President Dick Cheney and Sen. John Edwards — non-essential because we don't really elect vice presidents, we elect the top of the ticket — showed striking differences between the men and their missions.
We learned from the non-debate debates that there is almost no subject on which Bush and Kerry agree, whether it's the rationale for war in Iraq, how to fight the war on terrorism, getting along with old allies, abortion rights, stem cell research, the deficit, educating our children. Nothing!
We learned that Kerry is a more personable man than we thought but still somewhat cerebral, somewhat remote, somewhat distant. We learned that this doesn't necessarily matter, but we'd prefer a hail fellow well met.
We learned that Bush is more formidable than many thought, that after four years, we're still getting to know him. Those who insist that he's dumber than a doornail are just wrong. We learned that he's more volatile than we thought, that charm isn't everything. We saw a vast improvement in his performance between Sept. 30 and this past Wednesday. But to listen to him speak can be painful.
We saw that Kerry is not a flip-flopping wimp or the most liberal man in Washington, as Bush would have us think. But he is big on nuance. He sees the complexity of issues, and it is disconcerting to listen to him defend 20 years of votes that are not always easy to understand. Bush, on the other hand, oversimplifies just about everything, and that too can be worrisome.
This country is divided, not because Bush shelved his promise to be a uniter, not a divider, as Kerry claims, but because we are legitimately divided as a people on some extremely important issues about which many of us feel deeply and passionately.
The war in Iraq has taken a heavy toll, not just on the lives of many young people and their families, but on the psyche of the nation. The failure to catch Osama bin Laden is frightening and infuriating. Abortion is too emotional for most people to discuss without getting upset. Christopher Reeve's death and his courageous crusade for embryonic stem cell research should make us all think twice.
We want our children better educated but aren't sure Washington's approach is right. We are losing jobs overseas at a fearful rate, and most of us feel helpless in knowing how to staunch the flow. We're all uneasy about job security and pensions and health care.
Whatever the outcome on Nov. 2, millions of Americans are energized to vote. A huge handwritten sign on the Washington University campus where the two men met for their second debate read: "If you don't vote, you can't complain."
But, hey, this is America. That's what we do — complain. Nader still has the power to be a spoiler. If he is, millions of Democrats will feel angry and bitter, as they were four years ago. But if Bush wins, he will not have a mandate to make wholesale changes in society, although he will claim one, as he did four years ago. If Kerry wins, he will not be able to undo all that Bush has done, no matter what he promises.
We all understand well this is a crucial election. Let's just hope that in the few days the undecided voters have left to make up their minds, we don't have a mean, negative campaign. We deserve one that is thoughtful and substantive, in the spirit of the four non-debate debates.
Ann McFeatters is Washington Bureau chief of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Toledo Blade. E-mail amcfeattersAnationalpress.com.