Nothing tells us more about the odd political state of America than the recent presidential debate and reactions to it.
The American debates, of course, are not debates at all. They are more a set of joint press conferences, a staged opportunity for both candidates to repeat memorized lines in a cozy environment, protected by elaborate rules and an always-undemanding moderator. Still, once in a while, something manages to happen.
You cannot look to the prominent members of either major American political party for an honest assessment of how their candidate performed. Despite being regularly trotted out on America's political-discussion programs, these people leave the impression of old Soviet apparatchiks offering spontaneous views on Stalin's latest speech.
If you looked to the mainline press or the small group of people who hold lifetime sinecures on television, you would have concluded the morning after that the debate was a tie, an opinion generated by the same tireless machinery that churns out most of what Americans hear about Iraq. Only the so-called instant polls told you something else, and there was a clue from John McCain, a man desperate to cleanse his conscience of groveling for Bush, who briefly admitted that Kerry had his best night in a long stretch.
If you had read the words of former Vice President Al Gore just before the debate, you might have expected Bush to be a formidable opponent, consistently underestimated. But to credit Gore's judgment required you to ignore the fact that he is the man whose inept campaign in 2000 put Bush into office. Gore does not want to be remembered as the smart man, groomed for decades in politics at the highest level, who let one of the most sniveling and uninformed politicians in American history take the country's highest office, but that is precisely Gore's legacy.
With most of the usual sources of authority discounted, you were left to your own judgment, something with which Americans are not all that comfortable. American television's hazy, synthetic vision of the world, where everything from the best choice of toilet-bowl cleaner to what should be your view of the latest colonial slaughter is appealingly served up to be consumed as directed, makes independent judgment unfamiliar territory.
Still, once in a while, there's no shaking the effect of a stark fact. Any fool could see that Bush is a man who cannot think on his feet, that his responses are those of a toy doll whose same scratchy set of recordings play each time you squeeze him. Winning a debate with a man of his quality would not be an achievement anywhere, except in America. Gore should have landed a string of knock-out punches during the 2000 debates, but he utterly failed to do so. My private guess as to why he didn't is that he thought the audience might judge him harshly for assisting an incompetent to appear incompetent. It reflects the same political sensibility that had the razor-sharp mind of Mrs. Clinton focused on baking cookies. Kerry's wife, an outspoken woman of foreign birth, has only just been asked to make herself a little scarce. She doesn't go down well with the bowling-bag-and-Barbara-Bush set.
Before the debate, Kerry pretty much had followed Gore's script for campaign as light farce. On a few occasions, Kerry indulged an inexplicable taste for the Keystone Cops, making floundering, bizarrely-twisted statements about the war in Iraq. You almost expected to see his eyes crossed while his jaw worked at the words. His audience, not surprisingly, failed to see a Keystone Cop as someone to rescue them from a moron, and the polls marked Kerry down as someone the Political Angel of Death was not going to bypass in November. As for turning instead to a thoughtful, honest man like Ralph Nader, that simply is not on in an America that only buys brands with billion-dollar advertising budgets.
So, Kerry had little to lose in the debate. Still, he offered nothing heroic, nothing startling, only just managing a few pointed comments most of the world takes as common sense, but in politically-asthmatic America even that little wheeze is significant. Judging by Bush's reaction, which (broadcast on split-screen despite a previous understanding not to do so) resembled the movements of one of those old monkey-on-a-stick toys, even these few comments were deeply irritating. It may be that the broadcast of Bush's reactions was more telling than anything Kerry managed to say. Get ready for years of howling cries about a stab in the back from those who await the coming of a new Dr. Goebbels to save them from the sick fantasy of a liberal American press.
The ridiculous circumstance in America that tends to make an incompetent like Bush seem above scrutiny and criticism starts with the very nature of a Constitution making the President both head of state and head of government. Thus, when you criticize a President for doing something stupid, you are seen to be criticizing the symbol of the country itself, and not merely another politician, which is of course what Presidents are, first and foremost. In the case of war - even a totally illegal, bungled, and pointless war like the one in Iraq - you may be regarded as giving aid and comfort to some undefined enemy or as not supporting the "boyz in hawm's way," perhaps the most unforgivable transgression an American politician can commit.
Less-instant polls at this writing indicate the public-opinion impact of Bush's broadcast reactions may be substantial. If so, it is remarkable that it took Americans four years to see what a pathetic lump their President is, but it is equally remarkable that Kerry, who has said little of anything beyond the obvious, will benefit.
John Chuckman lives in Canada and is former chief economist for a large Canadian oil company.
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