Two of the three presidential debates are now behind us. So what have we learned about the men seeking our support?
The good news is that both George Bush and John Kerry have once again demonstrated the resilience and toughness that brought them to the fore of their respective parties. The senator from Massachusetts had been battered so badly in August and early September that many of his own supporters had all but abandoned hope that he might win. But he gathered himself for the first debate in Coral Gables, Fla., launched a serious counterattack on the president's international policies and put himself back into the race.
As for President Bush, that first debate was an embarrassment -- weak on substance and distracting in style -- suggesting either a lack of preparation or an undeserved sense that the election was in the bag. But in St. Louis last Friday, he recaptured his energy and aggressiveness and came close to earning a draw against a challenger who once again brought his "A" game with him.
In neither case was the comeback a surprise. Kerry had been counted out in the Democratic nomination race early last winter, but he rallied strongly in Iowa -- thanks, as in the Florida debate, to an impressive display of self-discipline about delivering a clear, succinct message.
And Bush, of course, had come back from a thorough shellacking by John McCain in the 2000 New Hampshire primary, by finding the means to turn the tables on the Arizona senator. And it should not be forgotten that Bush maintained a strong sense of confidence in the ultimate outcome throughout the 36 days of litigation and uncertainty following last Election Day.
The presidency is an office whose occupant is fated, over four years, to be thrown off balance by events. The capacity to persist in the face of adversity and recover is more than a useful political trait. It is essential for the nation's well-being. Otherwise you end up with something like Jimmy Carter's "malaise" crisis.
But there are also lots of things we have yet to learn about their agendas. Neither of them, in the three hours they have spent together, has been anything close to candid about the difficulties facing us in Iraq. Almost all their arguments have been backward-looking, with Kerry faulting Bush for rushing to war on the basis of bad intelligence and Bush responding with a recital of the senator's varying and inconsistent statements about the decision to attack Saddam Hussein.
Neither of them has come close to acknowledging the realities we confront as an occupying power in an increasingly hostile country. Neither has presented a plausible plan for creating the model of a peaceful, unified and democratic Iraq they want to see. What either of them would actually do next year to alter a dynamic that is adverse to that outcome remains as uncertain as ever.
Equally uncertain, and undiscussed, are the repercussions of a lengthy U.S. involvement in Iraq, especially on our ability to bring plausible military-diplomatic pressure on Iran to abandon its nuclear program or to cope with a possible upheaval in Saudi Arabia, which faces a change of leadership and conceivable unrest during the next presidential term.
On the largest, long-term challenge here at home -- the systemic imbalance between federal spending and revenue, especially with the looming fiscal crisis of financing the baby boomers' retirement and health care costs -- we have been fed pablum. Both Kerry and Bush have pledged to cut the budget deficit by half in the next four or five years, a promise that, even if kept, would still imply adding a trillion dollars or more to the national debt. But neither one has been forthcoming about the stringent measures this pledge would require. Nor are they ready to spell out the steps they would take to sustain economic growth when billions of dollars are being siphoned off in payments for $50-a-barrel oil and chronic trade deficits.
Since one of these men will be president, it would help if either of them began preparing the public for the difficult tasks that lie ahead. What has been conspicuously missing in the first two debates is any call for sacrifice on the part of the American people. Instead, they are dangling promises of more tax cuts and new domestic programs. If either of them is willing to acknowledge at their final get-together in Tempe, Ariz., that there is no free lunch, it might be enough to sway the undecided vote.