Try listening on the radio to the final presidential debate for a different perspective. Then read the transcript. Only after that, watch a rerun on television. That's what I did for the second debate between Sen. John Kerry and President George W. Bush. My impression was starkly different from what it would have been had I only watched TV.
Listening and reading summon different senses. These focus more on the content of the answers than on appearance and debating styles, neither of which has anything to do with policy.
My impression from radio and the transcript was that President Bush was much more credible and substantive than Sen. Kerry. A Gallup poll found the same reaction among 515 registered voters it surveyed, even though most of these people probably watched the debate on TV. Before the debate, these voters favored Kerry on Iraq by a 50 percent to 46 percent margin. After the debate, there was a significant switch in the president's favor, with 53 percent supporting Bush and 46 percent supporting Kerry.
The president's support on fighting terrorism increased from a pre-debate 52 percent to a post-debate 56 percent. Kerry's support dropped from a pre-debate 45 percent to a post-debate 39 percent. Equally significant are Gallup's findings on which man voters thought "demonstrated he is tough enough for the job." Forty percent believed Kerry demonstrated he is tough enough, while 53 percent said Bush demonstrated he is tougher.
Kerry also suffered from a "who was more believable?" deficit; 45 percent thought it was Kerry, but 49 percent thought it was Bush. Kerry trailed Bush on "likability," and Kerry was barely behind Bush on "agreed with you more on the issues you care about." Kerry led Bush by a wide margin on "expressed himself more clearly," a superficial measurement unrelated to core beliefs.
Kerry's believability deficit can be attributed not just to his favoring political pragmatism over convictions, but also to his often haughty style and his penchant for pandering to voters. When an issue suits Kerry and seems popular in the polls, he's for it. When public opinion shifts, he's against it and tries to convince you he always held whatever position a majority may now hold. He mimics Bill Clinton's tactics. The trouble with this strategy, as President Bush noted, is that Kerry has a Senate record.
A telling example of Kerry's problem is the issue of his political philosophy. Kerry doesn't want to be tagged as a "liberal," the label Bush's father used to bury Michael Dukakis in 1988. But the president wouldn't let Kerry escape the label, noting that National Journal has called him the most liberal member of the Senate.
Kerry himself was once proud to wear the liberal label. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch quoted him in its July 21, 1991, edition as saying, "I'm a liberal and proud of it." During the debate, Kerry accused the president of "just trying to scare everybody here with throwing labels around. ... I mean, seriously, labels don't mean anything."
Yes, they do, when they reflect how you vote and what you believe.
Contrary to all evidence, Kerry believes that "allies," such as the French and Germans, are waiting for him to become president and will then fall into his arms and cooperate fully on stabilizing Iraq. He says he has a plan to make this happen. French and German officials have said they won't join the effort no matter who is president.
Kerry also displays misplaced faith in the United Nations, which he thinks can be effective in controlling rogue nations that violate its sanctions and pay off our allies to do their bidding. Never mind that the United Nations issued numerous resolutions that were ignored and is busy investigating itself over its own suspect role in skimming oil-for-food money in Iraq.
Kerry's one good point in the second debate was noting the president's failure to exercise his veto over a single spending bill, including those loaded with pork barrel projects, the last truly bipartisan enterprise in Washington. The president cited the cost of war and homeland security as reasons for the growing deficit and debt. It is why he should lead in reducing non-defense spending, along with the size and cost of unnecessary government.
The president made a substantial comeback in the St. Louis debate from the first one a week earlier. The last debate will give him a final chance to persuade the dwindling number of undecided voters and motivate his base to turn out on Election Day. Maybe they should listen on the radio or read a transcript and stay away from TV for a better and more accurate perspective.
Cal Thomas is a columnist for Tribune Media Services.