I've never thought the chances of John Kerry winning this fall were very good, since it's become clear these last four years that George W. Bush and his advisers are more cynical and ruthless than pretty much any group of politicos in the country's history. I figured that even if the race got close--or, God forbid, Kerry surged to a late lead--Rove et al. would pull some dirty trick and that would be that. This may still happen--the forthcoming anti-Kerry "documentary" being exhibit A in this brief. But, after last night, I'm not sure it matters. Kerry won so decisively I don't see many ways for Bush to recover.
Maybe most importantly, there's what Bush didn't accomplish last night. In the second half of Friday night's debate, Bush put Kerry on the defensive by wielding the liberal label like a cudgel, over and over again. But, partly because Kerry spent so much time attacking, and partly because Bob Schieffer's questions actually focused on domestic policy, rather than domestic-policy-as-culture-war-fodder, Bush never got the chance last night. There was, quite simply, no way for Bush to win the debate if people didn't walk away from it believing Kerry would massively increase the size of government, jack up taxes, outlaw guns, and pay poor people to have abortions. That never happened. (Another thing that never happened: Bush never wiped the spittle off of the right corner of his mouth. If it distracted me--I actually care about what the candidates are saying--I don't see how it didn't distract the rest of the country.)
Bush also made a couple of important gaffes that exposed how out of touch with reality he is. When Bush fielded a question about the depleted flu shot supply, he seemed to be blaming the British or the legal system--anyone but his own administration. When he took a question about the very real "backdoor draft" of the National Guard and Army Reserve, he simply asserted that the ostensible concerns of our guardsmen and reservists don't exist. How does he know this? Because he met with them in Maine and they told him so. (This is along the lines of Bush absolving himself of responsibility for invading Iraq with too few troops because he asked his generals if they had what they needed and they said "yes.")
When Kerry suggested that ordinary citizens deserved access to the same health-care plan that Congress gives itself, Bush responded, derisively, that you couldn't possibly do that because it would bankrupt the country. Excuse me, Mr. President? So it's okay if we spend what it takes to make sure Senators and Congressmen have first-rate health care, but not if we spend what it takes for the average American to have the same thing? Bush even made the preposterous claim that backing a constitutional amendment outlawing gay marriage was a good idea because it would have "the benefit of allowing citizens to participate in the process. After all, when you amend the Constitution, state legislatures must participate in the ratification of the Constitution." I see. So rolling back the rights of a minority group is simply the price we pay for ginning up a little civic activism. Who says this guy isn't a uniter?
Meanwhile, if the story of the first two debates was that Kerry won by looking more in command even though he missed multiple opportunities to put Bush away, the opposite was the case last night. Kerry's repeated insistence that Bush chose to give a tax cut to the top one percent rather than fund homeland security or education or raise the minimum wage made Bush's priorities sound indefensible, which in fact they are. (After Kerry asserted that Bush had denied 9 million women several thousand dollars per year in higher wages while giving a $136,000-tax cut to millionaires, Bush could only feebly respond that Mitch McConnell once proposed a minimum wage bill he supported. Oh really? Well, you're the president, and your party controls both houses of Congress. Why isn't it the law?) When the candidates were asked about the recently lapsed assault weapons ban, Bush again absolved himself of responsibility, claiming he would have signed a bill but the Congress couldn't pass it. Kerry, on the other hand, invoked his experience as a prosecutor and hammered home the point that pretty much every law enforcement agency in the country backed the measure--and that the only people who opposed it were terrorists. (Kerry also took the opportunity to remind the audience he's a lifelong hunter.) Kerry, unlikely as it may seem, even managed to get off the best line of the night. When responding to one of Bush's charges--that Kerry couldn't pay for all his proposals--he opined that "Being lectured by the president on fiscal responsibility is a little bit like Tony Soprano talking to me about law and order in this country." It killed.
Kerry also managed to prevent Bush from reprising his Friday night tactic of spouting off statistics and names of programs that make him look compassionate but which actually mask big steps backward on the domestic front. Bush cited an increase in Pell grants on his watch; Kerry pointed out that funding had actually been cut until the election year rolled around, and that an increase in Pell grant recipients had only occurred because college-age students were poorer now than four years ago, so more qualified for low-income grants. When Bush tried to spout all of his dubious achievements on the education front, Kerry didn't attempt an exhaustive, point by point refutation of No Child Left Behind, as he did on in an analogous situation on the environment Friday night. He simply pointed out that Bush had cut 500,000 children off of after-school programs. Then, as the coup de grace, he even managed to work in a heartfelt John Edwards-like riff. "That's not in my value system," he chided the president.
Throughout the debate, Kerry was the textbook definition of presidential--authoritative and forceful, but always magnanimous. This was never more true than when Kerry responded to a question pressing him about whether it was really fair to attack the president for poor job growth, since, in such a large economy, the president can only control so much. Kerry, poised as I've ever seen him, responded with a mixture of humility ("I don't blame them entirely for it. I blame the president for the things the president could do that has an impact on it"); candor ("Outsourcing is going to happen. I've acknowledged that in union halls across the country"); and ordinary good sense ("I will ... make certain that with respect to the tax system that you as a worker in America are not subsidizing the loss of your job. ... Today, if you're an American business, you actually get a benefit for going overseas"). Beautiful.
In the postdebate analysis, most commentators were so desperate to find some shred of evidence Bush had held his own--it just wouldn't be journalistic to call the debate for Kerry until you got the go-ahead from the polls--that they repeatedly cited his moving answers on the role religion plays in his life, which came in response to one of the numerous softballs Schieffer larded the closing 20 minutes with. Okay, so Bush was moving about religion. If there's one thing pretty much everyone on the planet already knew, it was that religion plays a big role in Bush's life. Kerry, on the other hand, had previously been close to opaque on the topic. That he would get an opportunity to talk about the profound role of faith in his life, and that he would do it so eloquently--"I went to a church school and I was taught that the two greatest commandments are: Love the Lord, your God, with all your mind, your body and your soul, and love your neighbor as yourself"--gave him the decisive advantage even on this front. In general, while the last 20 minutes of the debate gave both men a chance to get warm and fuzzy, it clearly benefited Kerry far more than Bush. This is for the simple reason that no one knew Kerry could be warm and fuzzy before last night. If you'd have asked me before the debates started how you'd know if John Kerry had throttled Bush, I might have suggested it would be if the postdebate debate centered around which candidate was more likeable. Without a clear advantage on this, Bush has nothing. And he didn't even have that last night.
Noam Scheiber is a senior editor at The New Republic.