Tonight's debate will be a duel between two delusional optimists. It pits a man who regards recent events in Iraq as "steady progress" against a man who, while accusing the president of unrealism, says that when he becomes president, "the world" -- a geographical expression, not a political entity -- will help heal Iraq.
If ever an administration, in a reelection season properly dominated by a single issue of the administration's choosing, has earned an electoral rebuke, it is this one. And if ever there has been a challenger who, together with his party, seemed perfectly designed to dissuade the electorate from administering such a rebuke, it is this one.
One seasoned Democrat -- he worked in presidential campaigns as far back as 1980, served in the Clinton White House and wishes John Kerry well -- says: Every candidate gets the campaign he deserves, because just as Plato said the city is the soul of the citizens writ large, the candidate is the soul of his campaign.
Every successful candidate has a basic stump speech, the incessant reiteration of which drives the traveling media into insane lip-syncing of it. It is 15 minutes long -- five minutes on the problems, five on the candidate's solutions, five on the contrast with his opponent. It is 33 days before Election Day, and Kerry still has no such speech. So he must make the most of these parallel news conferences that we laughably call "debates."
Presidential debates are to real debates as processed cheese is to cheese. They are preceded by elaborate negotiations to prevent the unseemly outbreak of anything debate-like, such as a sustained development or critique of arguments. In negotiating arrangements for this year's debates, the Bush campaign achieved its primary objective: The first debate, which will have the largest audience, will be on national security.
President Bush knows that the more Kerry talks about Iraq, the more he, Bush, prospers. This is because anything Kerry says about Iraq contradicts something else he has emphatically said -- and irritates either his liberal base or an American majority. So Bush might serve national understanding -- and himself -- if, early on tonight, he says: "Everyone in the solar system knows my thinking on Iraq. But no one, probably not even anyone on my opponent's campaign plane, knows his thinking, as of now, 9:17 p.m. Eastern time. So, I invite him to take my time -- all of it -- and tell a bewildered nation what he thinks, at least tonight, at least between 9 and 10:30 p.m. Specifically, he says we must 'succeed' in Iraq. What would he call success? What is more important, success or meeting his deadline of removing U.S. forces in four years? What, aside from the allure of his personality, makes him think 'the world' will help?"
Kerry's problem is that he does not have either the ideas or the courage to take the debate where it needs to go: to an uncomfortable confrontation with some comfortable American attitudes. Bush believes, as most Americans always have, in natural rights: He believes a particular kind of civic order -- democracy, representation, the rule of law, a large sphere of privacy and individual autonomy -- is right for the fulfillment of human nature. But Bush also seems to believe -- at least the slapdash non-planning for the Iraq project suggests this belief -- that a natural right implies a natural (meaning a spontaneous and omnipresent) capacity.
Does Kerry differ from Bush concerning this consequential idea? Kerry's differences about Iraq are mostly retrospective (what he would have done differently) or his own kind of wishful thinking ("the world" riding to the rescue).
Kerry ridicules Bush's May 1, 2003, appearance on an aircraft carrier, beneath that "Mission Accomplished" banner. But Kerry chose to begin his campaign using as a prop an aircraft carrier, a symbol of America's capacity to project power. Where would he project it? North Korea? Iran?
Kerry believes that Iraq, which Bush calls the "central front" in the war on terrorism, is actually a "profound diversion." But to what would President Kerry divert U.S. resources now going to Iraq? He has suggested that Iraqi elections are part of his plan for U.S. disengagement. If he doubts they are possible, does he really have a plan?
By late this evening we may know whether, beyond wishful thinking, Kerry's real answer to the Iraq conundrum amounts to telling Americans to face defeat gracefully. In which case, he will have to do just that.