The US Presidential and Vice-Presidential Debates

Like (almost) everyone else on this side of the Atlantic, and apparently more than half of the electorate on the other side, I scored Senator Kerry a clear winner in the first of the presidential debates, relieved to find the President as inarticulate and generally ill-informed (not to mention petulant and irritable) as anyone could have dared to hope. The Veeps’ debate between Cheney and Edwards was much more difficult to call. Both men were much more accomplished debaters than their respective principals: fluent, confident, with an excellent grasp of issues, facts and figures, tough but pleasantly persuasive. Edwards obviously had the best of the argument on substance — how could he not? But Cheney landed some shrewd and damaging punches and sometimes managed to mount a momentarily plausible defence of the manifestly indefensible; and he got plenty of mileage out of his longer experience in public life than Edwards’s. Conversely, Edwards inflicted obvious damage on Cheney by his account of Cheney’s connections with the discredited firm Halliburton, a major beneficiary of huge contracts for Iraqi reconstruction despite being under investigation for assorted frauds. So probably the debate was a draw, each candidate confirming his already convinced supporters in their views. But what effect the debate will have had on the crucial swing or undecided voters it is very hard to guess. No doubt the polls will tell us. In that connection, the very latest opinion poll results, state by state, expressed in terms of the current position in the electoral college which determines the result of the election, brought up to date daily or even more often, can be seen at an outstanding website: Vaut la Visite, as Michelin would say. But be prepared to be depressed by what you see there.

Kerry seems to have surprised almost everyone by his display of authority, punchy persuasiveness and even charisma: he appeared much more presidential than George W Bush, and (much less unexpectedly) far more in command of the facts and with a sure grasp of the issues. He seems however to have given an unfortunate hostage to fortune by his reference to the need for US decisions on foreign policy issues to pass a “global test”, which he and Edwards have subsequently been interpreting as meaning only that America should ensure that its policies were understood, respected, and seen to be just by the international community, not that any other country or institution should have a veto over the freedom of action of the United States to do whatever might be necessary to defend itself and its interests. The Republicans have however seized on the phrase as implying that a Kerry presidency would submit itself to the will of the dreaded United Nations, as Bush spectacularly refused to do when he took the US (and the UK) into the invasion and occupation of Iraq in March 2003, against the wishes and without the consent of a clear majority of members of the Security Council. What a pity that Kerry doesn’t feel able to say loud and clear that as President he would honour America’s commitments and obligations under the UN Charter, and that unless threatened by an actual or imminent armed attack, the US under his leadership would resort to the use of force in the conduct of its international relations only if it had persuaded the Security Council to authorise it by an explicit decision expressed by resolution or consensus! Presumably he knows, or believes (probably rightly), that to promise to abide as president by international law and the Charter of the United Nations would amount to political suicide. A grim commentary on the age we live in.

6 October 2004