The second debate: Turning a sensible Republican into a spluttering neocon
Carlton M. Caves
2004 October 13

In a column entitled "How Bush Won Round 2," in the October 11 New York Times, William Safire contends that the President won the second presidential debate, held last Friday evening in St. Louis. The following letter to Safire addresses his points in detail.

Dear Bill,

I read your column on the second presidential debate in Monday's New York Times and found it so annoying that I wrote a detailed response. I proceed through your points in order below. Quotes from your column appear in italic font.

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."

Let's see what Senator Kerry actually said: "Well, let me tell you, straight up, I've never changed my mind about Iraq. I do believe Saddam Hussein was a threat. I always believed he was a threat---believed it in 1998 when Clinton was president. I wanted to give Clinton the power to use force if necessary. But I would have used that force wisely. I would have used that authority wisely, not rush to war without a plan to win the peace. I would have brought our allies to our side. I would have fought to make certain our troops had everybody possible to help them win the mission."

The President launched into his familiar spiel about how the sanctions hadn't worked: "Saddam Hussein was a threat because he could have given weapons of mass destruction to terrorist enemies. Sanctions were not working. The United Nations was not effective at removing Saddam Hussein."

Senator Kerry responded immediately by pointing out the outright falsity of the President's statement: "The goal of the sanctions was not to remove Saddam Hussein. It was to remove the weapons of mass destruction. And Mr. President, just yesterday the Duelfer report told you and the whole world, they worked. He didn't have weapons of mass destruction, Mr. President. That was the objective. And if we had used smart diplomacy, we could have saved $200 billion and an invasion of Iraq. And right now Osama bin Laden might be in jail or dead."

Later on in the debate, Senator Kerry made his position even more explicit: "This president hasn't listened. I went to meet with the members of the Security Council in the week before we voted. I went to New York. I talked to all of them to find out how serious they were about really holding Saddam Hussein accountable. I came away convinced that if we worked at it, if we were ready to work at letting Hans Blix do his job and thoroughly go through the inspections, that if push came to shove, they'd be there with us. But the president just arbitrarily brought the hammer down and said: 'Nope, sorry, time for diplomacy is over. We're going.' He rushed to war without a plan to win the peace."

The clear implication of these and other statements by Senator Kerry is that he voted to authorize the use of force to put pressure on Saddam Hussein to comply with UN resolutions. Surely, Bill, as a former member of the Nixon administration, you can appreciate this kind of strategy, which is right out of Nixon's play book. In contrast to the President, however, Senator Kerry says he would have used that pressure to ensure that the weapons inspectors could finish their job.

What the President and his advisors are banking on is that the American people can't appreciate even the simplest distinctions. They're hoping the people can't understand that it is perfectly consistent to have perceived Saddam as a threat, but to have wanted the weapons inspectors, backed by the threat of force, to have continued their task till they could determine whether he had weapons of mass destruction. Prudence should have suggested letting the weapons inspectors finish their job, and we now know that prudence would have been the right course. We now know what the weapons inspectors were in the process of discovering and what they would have confirmed: Saddam was a toothless threat, because the sanctions had worked.

To be blunt, it's not clear from a distance that the President can understand such distinctions, even though they're not very subtle. One is left wondering whether he's stupid or deceitful, but either way, the conclusion is not very attractive. I do think the American people can understand the distinction, if it's carefully explained to them, which is admittedly a tall order in the circus atmosphere of a campaign. More importantly, I know the President's advisors do understand, and I know you do, too, Bill. Your problem is not stupidity, but rather that the administration's record of incompetence in Iraq leaves you no place to go but to push the President's nonsense.

And what an astonishing record of total incompetence it is. The administration did two things right in Iraq, the military plan for the initial occupation and the capture of Saddam Hussein, but on everything else their incompetence has been staggering and dangerous. They didn't bother to plan for the immediate aftermath of the occupation. They didn't secure the country, they didn't stop the looting and violence and lawlessness, they didn't provide the services so urgently needed to win the good will of the Iraqi people. As a result of these failures, the insurgency gained a foothold in the early months of the occupation. Now it's going full blast, and our troops face its dangers every day. It's not that nobody knew what needed to be done. People both in and outside government knew, but the President and his advisors couldn't be bothered with actual expertise. They thought the occupation would be a cakewalk, paid for with Iraqi oil revenue, so they didn't bother to have a plan. The administration's failures make it directly responsible for the dire situation our troops find themselves in.

Senator Kerry understands this, as he made clear in the debate: "You rely on good military people to execute the military component of the strategy. But winning the peace is larger than just the military component. General Shinseki had the wisdom to say you're going to need several hundred thousand troops to win the peace. The military's job is to win the war. The president's job is to win the peace. The president did not do what was necessary. Didn't bring in enough nations. Didn't deliver the help. Didn't close off the borders. Didn't even guard the ammo dumps. And now our kids are being killed with ammo right out of that dump."

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 that show up to the summit? 'Join me in the wrong war at the wrong time at the wrong place'?"

Again what the President and his advisors are counting on is that the American people can't appreciate a very simple distinction. It is clear now that the invasion of Iraq was a mistake, a diversion from the main effort in the war on terror. None of the administration's many justifications for war has turned out to be true, which means that Iraq was and is the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time. Compounding the initial mistake, the administration's incompetence has now turned Iraq into a real mess. Iraq was not a center for terror before the invasion, but the administration has made it into one, both in terms of terrorist operations and in terms of recruitment. Thinking the initial invasion was a mistake is not inconsistent with thinking that now we must somehow salvage the situation. Thus the message to the Europeans and the UN must be, yes, the United States under the Bush administration made a mistake that has led to a disastrous mess, but we all have a stake now in preventing Iraq from morphing into something even worse.

Senator Kerry's comments show that he understands this: "Now everyone in the world knows that there were no weapons of mass destruction. That was the reason Congress gave him the authority to use force, not as an excuse to get rid of the regime. Now we have to succeed. I've always said that. I have been consistent. Yes, we have to succeed, and I have a better plan to help us do it."

The President isn't interested in getting help from Europe, and since he long ago burned his bridges, he wouldn't get any help even if he tried. Here's how Senator Kerry described the situation: "Two weeks ago, there was a meeting of the North Atlantic Council, which is the political arm of NATO. They discussed the possibility of a small training unit or having a total takeover of the training in Iraq. Did our administration push for the total training of Iraq? No. Were they silent? Yes. Was there an effort to bring all the allies together around that? No. Because they've always wanted this to be an American effort. They even have the Defense Department issue a memorandum saying don't bother applying for assistance or for being part of the reconstruction if you weren't part of our original coalition. Now that's not a good way to build support and reduce the risk for our troops and make America safer."

My view is that there might not now be---perhaps there never was---a viable exit strategy from Iraq. The Europeans recognize this---indeed, anyone who is paying attention recognizes it---so it's quite likely that it will be be impossible at this late stage to get them to provide any help, but that doesn't mean it's not worth trying. So tell me, Bill, which approach is more likely to succeed? The President's fantasy-land description of things going swimmingly in Iraq? That will be met by hoots of derision and with the reply that if things are going so well, then we'll just let you continue to handle it. A real effort to secure European co-operation, based on an honest assessment of our present predicament and appealing to their evident interest in averting the impending disaster, has a tiny chance of succeeding. We'd have to eat crow to ask, of course, but the blame for that lies with the incompetents who got us into this situation, and we owe it to our troops to try even if we do have to swallow our pride.

Although Kerry accused the Bush campaign of "mass deception," he let the president focus on that illogical policy. The Democrat weakly cited recent worrying by Republican Senators Richard Lugar and Chuck Hagel, recited a list of retired generals who endorsed him and embraced Ronald Reagan. Such a stretch for conservative company, followed by a plaintive "We will get tough!," hardly shows strength.

Here begins the descent into name calling, the signature conservative strategy: If you can't answer criticism, characterize the critics as "weak" or "liberal" or some other conservative perjorative and hope that nobody notices that you don't have an actual argument.

What Senator Kerry said was the following: "Senator Richard Lugar, the Republican chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said that the handling of the reconstruction aid in Iraq by this administration has been incompetent. Those are the Republican chairman's words. Senator Hagel of Nebraska said that the handling of Iraq is beyond pitiful, beyond embarrassing. It's in the zone of dangerous. Those are the words of two Republicans, respected, both on the Foreign Felations Committee. Now I have to tell you, I would do something different. I would reach out to our allies in a way that this president hasn't. He pushed them away, time and again. Pushed them away at the U.N., pushed them away individually."

Senators Lugar and Hagel are sensible people, and they're telling the American people the evident truth, but their reward for doing that is to have people like you label them as "weak worriers" (as opposed, I suppose, to the "strong warriors" in the administration). This is conservative code for saying the two senators actually read the pessimistic intelligence estimates and thought seriously about the implications.

When Kerry complained again of "going it alone," Bush was ready with a powerful counterpunch: "Tell Tony Blair we're going alone. Tell Silvio Berlusconi we're going alone. Tell Aleksander Kwasniewski we're going alone."

This not only showed that Bush knew these allies personally, but could also pronounce Kwasniewski's name (Whoopee! This is supposed to impress us, Bill?) which reminded Polish-Americans that Poland's president had responded angrily to Kerry's brushoff of his country's sacrifices in the first debate. (Next day, Australians re-elected John Howard, a staunch coalition member, who trounced a cut-and-run opponent---good news for coalition leaders.)

Again it's the same story about simple distinctions. To acknowledge the contributions and honor the sacrifices of our coalition partners does not require us to swallow the President's line that he has assembled a "grand coalition" in Iraq. Of all the President's lies, this is the pathetic one, this absurd pretense that he is leading a grand coalition. We can dispense with it by quoting Senator's Kerry's most effective sally of the second debate: "Mr. President, countries are leaving the coalition, not joining. Eight countries have left it. If Missouri---just given the number of people from Missouri who are in the military over there---were a country, it would be the third largest country in the coalition, behind Great Britain and the United States. That's not a grand coalition. Ninety percent of the casualties are American; 90 percent of the costs are coming out of your pockets."

And, Bill, give me a break on Australia, a country I know well. Australia's prime minister, John Howard, is very conservative, but he's also shrewd, unlike the incompetents who are running our country. Howard committed 800 troops to Iraq, a number reduced to 200 after the initial hostilities, most of whom are now guarding the Australian embassy. The war is very unpopular in Australia, Bill. Mr. Howard won re-election not because of the war or out of any admiration for our president, but because the Australian economy is going great guns, perhaps because the Australian conservatives haven't adopted the disastrous fiscal policies of our neocons.

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."

Here Bill is repeating the President's spluttering: "It's just not credible when he talks about being fiscally conservative. It's just not credible. If you look at his record in the Senate, he voted to break the spending---the caps, the spending caps---over 200 times. And here he says he's going to be a fiscal conservative all of the sudden. It's just not credible. You cannot believe it."

This name calling and spluttering is the surest sign that the conservative is out of ammo, but then what do you expect when you try a conservative's patience by reminding him of the facts: the hated Clinton administration, with a considerable assist from the apostate Bush I, produced a record of fiscal responsibility unmatched since before World War II, while the conservative's heroes, Reagan and Bush II, vie for the record in producing the biggest peacetime deficits in the nation's history. Bill, in case you hadn't noticed, since Reagan came to power, fiscal resonsibility is not something you get from conservatives. Conservative fiscal responsibility is now just the faintest of memories from the Eisenhower, Nixon, and Ford administrations.

Here's what Senator Kerry had to say: "Now with respect to the deficit, the president was handed a $5.6 trillion surplus, ladies and gentlemen. That's where he was when he came into office. We now have a $2.6 trillion deficit. This is the biggest turnaround in the history of the country. He's the first president in 72 years to lose jobs. He talked about war. This is the first time the United States of America has ever had a tax cut when we're at war. Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, others knew how to lead. They knew how to ask the American people for the right things. One percent of America, the highest 1 percent of income earners in America got $89 billion of tax cut last year. One percent of America got more than the 80 percent of America that earned from $100,000 down. The president thinks it's more important to fight for that top 1 percent than to fight for fiscal responsibility and to fight for you."

The neocons have just one prescription for the economy: wild, irresponsible tax cutting, focused on the wealthiest Americans, without any regard for an assessment of the nation's needs. The President has the chutzpah to talk about his tax cuts as being aimed at the middle class. C'mon, Bill, let's be honest about who's pandering here.

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? That's 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 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. Heinz Kerry paid only 11 percent in 2003 on her $5 million income, while the Bushes paid 28 percent.

Score one point for you, Bill. I haven't investigated this timber company thing, nor do I think an investigation is worth my time, because I agree with you that it was really stupid for Senator Kerry to bring it up unless he had his facts straight and was prepared to stick with it and make a real point. But perhaps this piece of stupidity on Senator Kerry's part is balanced by the President's absurd and comical declaration that he won't nominate justices to the Supreme Court who support the Dred Scott decision.

It's too bad you couldn't resist getting in that cheap shot about the percentages of income paid in income tax. Are you contending that Mrs. Heinz Kerry is defrauding the government in paying her taxes? If that is what you're contending, you'd better quickly get around to providing some more evidence, and if it's not what you're contending, you don't any contention at all. The policy issue is what kind of tax structure is fair and provides the revenue needed to run the federal government, not the percentages paid by particular politicians or their spouses.

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."

Here's Senator Kerry's explanation: "Well, again, the president just said categorically my opponent's against this, my opponent's against that. You know, it's just not that simple. No, I'm not. I'm against the partial birth abortion, but you've got to have an exception for the life of the mother and the health of the mother under the strictest test of bodily injury to the mother."

Whether one agrees or disagrees with Senator Kerry's stance, he has a valid position in wanting the law to contain an exception for the health and life of the mother. The Republicans in Congress refused to allow such an exception, so Senator Kerry voted against the bill, even though he would have voted for it had it included an appropriate exception. The absence of an exception has already gotten the law into big trouble in the federal courts.

Again the President is hoping the people can't appreciate an important, but pretty simple distinction, this time about supporting the basic aims of a bill, but voting against it because it contains a fatal flaw. And there you are, acting as a willing cheerleader for the President, even though you know better and are therefore being deliberately deceptive.

That's all of your points. You conveniently left out any discussion of the President's disgraceful record on the environment, the argument over the Patriot Act, and the President's inadequate health-care plan, but presumably all these will get more attention in tonight's debate. In all of these cases, we will get more of the President's distortion and deception, aimed at blurring important distinctions so as to portray Senator Kerry as a flip-flopper. Let's hope the best man wins again.

Bill, you're a conservative who can, at least occasionally, be read with pleasure, because you're a Republican from the old school, a dinosaur left over from the Eisenhower-Nixon era. Perhaps a bit staid, but sensible on the whole, you often provide a useful perspective on and corrective to liberal thought. But the task of defending the present administration, the most irresponsible and dangerous during my lifetime, has pushed you over the edge. Really, it's too bad. Perhaps the Republican party can be recaptured from the extreme right-wing ideologues who now run it, thereby allowing you to return to your important role as an often sensible Republican, but I'm not holding my breath. It would be far better for the remaining sense in the Republican party---and there's a lot of it, including Bill Safire---to join a grand coalition to fight the nuts who have taken over the GOP and, for the last four years, our country. If we have another four years of GW, I predict that sensible Republicans will be leaving their party in droves, but by then it might be too late.

Carlton M. Caves

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