Saturday, October 09, 2004


Debate debriefing IV: The politics of "nuh-uh"

Wanna buy some wood?


Kerry opened a can of whup-ass on Bush again in the second presidential debate. The pundits will not report it that way: I suspect they’ll call this one "a tie" – largely because Bush did so poorly at the first debate that he managed to lower the expectations of him back down to their campaign 2000 levels.

Kerry looked and sounded poised throughout, and appeared calm and unflappable when Bush was flinging stuff at him. Kerry managed some nice stage-craft, turning to Bush and directly addressing him as "you." Bush looked poised too, at least when he wasn’t doing his shoulder hunching thing or screwing his face up, but he did get riled up a lot. Bush groupies will probably spin that as "passionate,"but I suspect the truth is that he’s a jerk with a temper who gets enraged when someone disagrees with him in public.

But of course "who won" is irrelevant: the debates are not the baseball playoffs, the winner of two out of three does not automatically get to be president. Kerry comes out ahead of this one because his performance has to be helping him with the critical undecided voters, who are heavily anti-Bush but need motivation to vote for Kerry. Kerry just looked more "presidential," to use the favorite "analysis" of debate pundits.

One of the more enjoyable moments for me was the little "timber company" thing:

[KERRY] And you know why he gets that count? The president got $84 from a timber
company that owns, and he's counted as a small business. Dick Cheney's counted
as a small business. That's how they do things. That's just not right.
I own a timber company?
That's news to me.
Need some wood?

The debate transcript fails to capture the moment. Bush seemed caught off guard by this one. "That’s news to me" was a passable, if deceptive response, but "Need some wood" – he said this with a leer that prompted a woman I was watching the debate with to remark, "I think he just said something dirty." The purported "(LAUGHTER)" was really an uncomfortable titter. Weird joke, Mr. President.

Unscripted attempts at humor are probably best avoided in presidential debates – Kerry looked foolish when Jim Lehrer threw him the softball question "what 'colossal misjudgments has President Bush made [in the war on terror]" and Kerry said with a chuckle "well, where do you want me to begin?" The attempt at humor was misplaced, and Kerry plainly learned not to extemporize, staying serious in the second debate except for the excellent prepared joke about who would be affected by Kerry's planned rollback of Bush's tax cut for the rich:
[KERRY] And looking around here, at this group here, I suspect there are only three people here who are going to be affected: the president, me, and, Charlie, I'm sorry, you too.
As an amateur stand-up comedian in a former life, I thought that one was pretty good. For his part, Bush fell on his face with another ad lib:

MICHAELSON: Mr. President, if there were a vacancy in the Supreme Court and you had the opportunity to fill that position today, who would you choose and why?
BUSH: I'm not telling.
I really don't have -- haven't picked anybody yet. Plus, I want them all voting for me.

Again, the so-called "(LAUGHTER)" would not have fooled any stand-up, who would think "S**T, I’m dying up here."

But returning to Mr. Bush’s query to the American public, whether we might actually want to buy "some wood" from him, there is something important underlying his reaction. , the web site mistakenly endorsed by Dick Cheney at the Vice Presidential debate (mistakenly because he misled us to "" and because it shows how many stretchers these guys tell) reports that

Bush was wrong to suggest that he doesn't have ownership of a timber company. And Kerry was correct in saying that Bush's definition of "small business" is so broad that Bush himself would have qualified as a "small business" in 2001 by virtue of the $84 in business income.
Okay, no big deal, right? Bush can’t be expected to remember the details of every loophole he takes on his tax returns, because being president is hard work, and he’s so busy talking with guys like Tony Blair and other world leaders, and pointing out when his opponent forgets Poland.

But it’s symbolic of a larger truth about Bush-Cheney. Their basic philosophy of addressing the American people is "when in doubt, lie." More specifically, if someone accuses you of something, don’t get all caught up in how it might be true, just deny it. It is the strategy used, with mixed success, by nearly every unfaithful husband in America. It is the strategy used, with mixed success, by generations of pre-teens. It seems to be working well enough for Bush and Cheney: The straight denial in disregard of the facts. Just say "nuh-uh."

I speak of Iraq, in particular. The Iraq war is a disaster, costing in the hundreds of billions, costing thousands of American lives, overextending our military and putting Americans in places where they’re exposed to continual terrorist attacks. It is not a subtle or debatable point that Bush had no plan to win the peace, as Kerry says. Bush boasted "mission accomplished" before at least 80% of the American casualties had been suffered.

Bush backers are apparently satisfied with Bush’s bald assertions that things are going well in Iraq – buttressed of course by the Orwellian argument that pointing out that they’re not invites failure. The facts of Iraq don’t matter as long as Bush can say something in denial, and what he says need not be any more burdened with facts than a simple "nuh-uh."

I’d like to get some focus groups of these Bush supporters together in one place. I’ve got some wood for you to buy.

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