Now Tell Me Who Won
The best and worst of the presidential race.

The Wall Street Journal, Wednesday, November 3, 2004

Dear reader, I must beg your indulgence, for my deadline puts you at an advantage over me. By the time you read this, you will (we devoutly hope) know how the election turned out. It has fallen to me to comment on the election without knowing the result. So, a look back at some of the superlatives of the presidential campaign:

Most pivotal event (if Bush wins). Kerry's lackluster convention speech. Devoid of both style and substance, it was memorable mostly for the goofy "reporting for duty" salute at the beginning. (Apparently Kerry served in Vietnam.) You never get a second chance to make a first impression, so Kerry might as well have thrown in the towel after botching his.

Most pivotal event (if Kerry wins). The first debate. Kerry got a second chance after all, and he used it to great advantage, appearing cool and in command while an obviously out-of-practice Bush fumed, fretted and repeated canned lines. Did he really think Kerry would be an Al Gore-like heavy breather? The president did better in the subsequent debates, but it was too late. Kerry was already on the path to victory. (Incidentally, many partisans' immediate reaction to the Kerry speech and the Bush debate performance was to insist their man had acquitted himself adequately. Luckily they had the polls to provide a reality check.)

Best strategic move. Kerry's decision in the primaries to focus all his attention and resources on Iowa. His upset victory there transformed him from also-ran into prohibitive favorite in New Hampshire and beyond.

Most effective lame insult. "He looks French." That's how an unnamed Bush adviser described Kerry back in April 2003. The invective was effective because rather than simply laugh it off, Kerry howled that the White House was practicing "the politics of personal destruction." By letting it get to him, Kerry ensured that the French-looking label would stick.

Worst hypocrisy. The Kerry camp's attacks on the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Kerry not only made his Vietnam service the centerpiece of his early campaign but deployed it as a shield from criticism of his national-security record. But if he had moral authority simply by virtue of his having served, the same should have been true of veterans who dissented from his campaign.

Worst lack of preparation. Bush's failure, during the second debate, to answer a question about what mistakes he's made--a question he'd earlier flubbed at a press conference. This is the sort of question anyone should be able to answer in a job interview. Bush protested that when people ask about mistakes, "they're trying to say, 'Did you make a mistake going into Iraq?' " This may be true, but Bush could have avoided this trap and displayed a capacity for reflection by owning up to a smaller mistake.

Worst flip-flop. "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it." Speaks for itself.

Best recovery from a flip-flop. When Bush cited the above quote in the first debate, Kerry's rejoinder was masterful: "I made a mistake in how I talk about the war. But the president made a mistake in invading Iraq. Which is worse?" This diverted attention from the real problem, which was Kerry's "no" vote.

Worst flip-flop following a recovery from a flip-flop. Immediately afterward, moderator Jim Lehrer asked Kerry, "Are Americans dying in Iraq for a mistake?" Kerry said no--thereby contradicting in record time his assertion that "the president made a mistake in invading Iraq."

Smoothest appeal to prejudice. In the vice presidential debate, John Edwards answered a question about same-sex marriage by invoking Dick Cheney's family: "You can't have anything but respect for the fact that they're willing to talk about the fact that they have a gay daughter, the fact that they embrace her." Edwards thereby discouraged socially conservative blacks, Hispanics and union members from voting GOP on the marriage issue, and all Cheney could say in reply was, "Let me simply thank the senator for the kind words."

Clumsiest appeal to prejudice. In his third debate, Kerry tried to repeat Edwards's trick, making a gratuitous reference to "Dick Cheney's daughter, who is a lesbian." This time Dick and Lynne Cheney had time to collect their thoughts before responding, quite properly, with indignation. To make matters worse, Kerry aide Mary Beth Cahill said Mary Cheney's private life was "fair game." Kerry's use of Miss Cheney appealed to gay voters (who saw it as a swipe at Republican hypocrisy) as well as antigay ones--but many more Americans have families than have strong opinions one way or the other about gay rights, and the invasion of the Cheneys' privacy rubbed most people the wrong way.

Worst media hit job. CBS's story on Bush's National Guard records--and not only because it was a fraud. Even had it been true, it was old news that the young Bush was neither a war hero nor an overachiever.

Worst October surprise. On the eve of the Spanish election, al Qaeda blew up a train in Madrid; before Australians voted, their embassy in Jakarta was hit. And all we got was a lousy videotape? Bin Laden could never cow Americans into voting his way, but such a stunning show of weakness just might turn out to have lulled them into doing so.

Next article: Be Careful What You Wish For (12/7/04)

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