How Kerry Can Win Tonight's Debate

There's a scene in the cult favorite The Big Lebowski in which Walter, the addled veteran, incensed over possibly losing a bowling match, seizes on a technicality to disqualify his opponent, screaming: "This is not 'Nam! There are rules! ... Am I the only one who gives a shit about the rules?"

There's a bit of Walter in George W. Bush this week. Deathly afraid of being challenged on his unraveling Iraq policy, Bush demanded--and won--a series of bizarre rules governing tonight's debate. There will be no rebuttals allowed, for instance. No follow-up questions, no movement about the stage, no audience interaction, no props, no split-screen TV shots, no moderator discretion. The perspiration-prone Kerry was even denied a chilled room. Worst of all, the rules forbid Kerry from asking Bush any direct questions, a prohibition that constrains Kerry's options and makes a mockery of our civic process precisely when open debate matters most.

But Kerry does have an amazingly simple way out of the predicament imposed by this last rule: He can ignore it. Americans have a right to ask tough questions of their president. So does the Democratic nominee. You might say that asking tough questions is the moderator's job. But the mainstream journalists who run these debates almost always serve up softballs. And time and again in this campaign, the media has abdicated its duty to press Bush on the Iraq war. Don't expect Jim Lehrer to do any differently tonight.

Challenging Bush directly would expose a rich vein for Kerry to mine politically. The public doesn't think Bush is being entirely truthful on Iraq. And Bush has demonstrated a stubborn unwillingness to explain otherwise. Kerry needs to flesh out this idea by putting Bush on the defensive. Moreover, hard-nosed questions on Iraq will shift the focus away from Kerry's inconsistent positions and onto Bush's consistently disastrous ones. Many voters sense (correctly) that Bush has built a rock-hard shell of denial around the facts on the ground. A direct confrontation could expose the extent of Bush's self-deception.

Plus, Bush can be rattled by persistent questions, growing patronizing and, occasionally, mean. That's how John McCain succeeded against him during a debate in 2000. With any luck, Kerry could replicate the feat.

Would breaking the rules backfire on Kerry? I doubt it. Imagine that toward the end of a response, Kerry turns to Bush and says: "Mr. President, Iraq is on the verge of civil war. Entire towns are under the control of terrorists. A thousand American soldiers are dead. Yet you say peace and freedom are on the march. How do you explain this?" Bush would be put instantly on the defensive, and any answer he gives would be filtered through Kerry's question--not whatever softball Lehrer subsequently lobs in. If Bush completely ignores Kerry's query, it would only solidify the idea that Bush is ducking reality. If either Bush or the moderator challenges Kerry for breaking the rules, a handy line would turn the tables right back: "This isn't about rules," Kerry could say. "It's about the right of our soldiers' families to have answers." Kerry becomes the candidate prioritizing patriotism and honesty; Bush becomes the one hiding behind legalese.

Would Kerry pay a price for such a breach after the debate? It's hard to see how. Conservatives would call him a "cheater" but that would only distract from their single-minded drive to portray him as a flip-flopper. (Maybe he flip-flopped on the rules!) Moreover, Kerry's rejoinder is easy enough: "If Bush can't handle a simple question, how can he handle Al Qaeda?" Republicans earn no traction whining about the rules. The real danger is that, as a result of Kerry's heresy, Bush could pull out of the rest of the debates. But, having already agreed to two more debates, Bush would risk looking like a wimp. And the media, which invests a great deal in these events, would go apoplectic.

Of course, Kerry needn't completely break the rules. Bending will do fine. For instance, Kerry could ask rhetorical questions ("Why won't Bush admit Iraq is on the verge of civil war?"). Or he can pose questions to the American people ("I want those watching to ask themselves: Why won't Bush admit a mistake? Are you hearing the honesty you need from a President?"). And if all else fails, Kerry could bring up the rules themselves. Most Americans can recognize them easily enough as a travesty. ("Mr. President, you demanded we not question each other in these debates. What are you afraid of?")

With some tact, this could be a major theme of the evening: Bush's woeful and continued refusal to confront reality in the Middle East. It certainly fits with other aspects of his presidency: the lack of press conferences; his initial refusal to meet with the 9/11 Commission, and then only with Dick Cheney in tow; ignoring foreign leaders who don't say what he wants to hear. Plainly, this is a president hiding from the world. It's about time Kerry called him on it--rules be damned.

Josh Benson, a former TNR reporter-researcher, is a law student at the University of California, Berkeley.

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By Josh Benson