Tonight, for the first time, both candidates wore red ties. Previously, Bush wore blue. Kerry has always worn red, perhaps trying to reach out to all of those red-tilting voters Bush has been holding. If his tie and comments during the night were an indication, Bush abandoned the blue voters and went back to consolidating his base.
After 90 minutes of a remarkable exchange on what was mostly domestic policy, Kerry ultimately won the night, scoring well in his concern for the circumstances of women -- their jobs, their pay and their ability to choose how to manage their childbirth and abortion options. Kerry put the consequences of the next president's Supreme Court justice decisions squarely on the table, and Bush refused to offer any solace to women who might fear losing their constitutional right to choose in a future battle over Roe vs. Wade.
If this third and final presidential debate is to be weighed by who reached more effectively across the boundaries of their current supporters, Kerry outperformed Bush, who seemed to be tickled by his line that he wouldn't appoint judges via a litmus test on issues. But assurances are what many women want -- and Kerry reached out to them not only about abortion but in the questions of gender discrimination in the workplace over pay and family-related flexibility, and also the minimum wage, which affects the pay of more than 9 million women.
The memorable moments will include Bob Schieffer breaking out in uncontrolled laughter at Kerry's line that Bush, Schieffer and he had "all married up." George Bush had one when he said that there were no market forces operating in America's healthcare system, when in fact uncontrolled market forces are squeezing millions of Americans out of that system. Perhaps the most human moment of the night was when Bush said that his wife told him to stand up straight and not scowl -- and that she speaks better English than he does. But Kerry didn't yield much on the humanity front -- he broke the place up with his married-up comment and struck home when quoting his mom counseling him on his planned presidential run: It's all about "integrity, integrity, integrity."
On the gaffe front, George Bush in biting twang said Kerry was using one of those ex-ag-gerations" when Kerry reported Bush's statement that he was not concerned about Osama bin Laden. It turns out that Fox News' own Brit Hume reported that they had in fact found several occasions when Bush had said this. John Kerry's own low moment was when he gratuitously dragged Mary Cheney's lesbianism into his response on whether being gay is a choice or not; he'll take some deserved hits on that. To Bush's credit, he avoided raising the fact that Kerry's first marriage ended in divorce.
Whereas in the second debate, Bush questioned Canada's reliability as a safe producer and exporter of lower-cost drugs to America, it was more than a bit ironic that he said the nation's flu-vaccine hopes now rested on Canada's ability to help replace some of what was lost in the contaminated batches from the United Kingdom. Kerry was compelling on how he'd manage the costs of his proposals and did quite well breaking complex tax questions into more easily digestible sound bites.
Bush failed in his offshoring response; Kerry scored. When asked what he would do for someone who lost his job, Bush said that he'd help that person go get an education and then went on to talk about his trade adjustment assistance program -- which has only been activated for approximately 200,000 displaced workers this last year, a mere drop in the bucket for the country. But more strangely, Bush started talking about No Child Left Behind and the importance of education when one is young as the best response to deal with offshoring. I'm sure few displaced workers will be comforted by the remedy Bush offered.
John Kerry really scored on women's issues, pointing out that 9.2 million women would benefit from an increase in the minimum wage and that women wrongly suffer employment discrimination, making just 76 cents per dollar made by men in the same jobs. Kerry promised that any Supreme Court judge he appointed would not overturn Roe vs. Wade and would preserve a woman's constitutional right to choose regarding abortion. Bush didn't throw a line to women here -- not on pay, not on their right to choose, nothing. Kerry sealed the deal with women with his line, "There's a lot of talk by this administration about family values, but they don't value families."
What surprised me was that Bush did not attack Kerry's minimum-wage-hike plan as something that would raise costs, spur inflation and stifle job creation. Instead, he jumped back into his No Child Left Behind efforts and into education -- laudable perhaps as an inspiring long-term effort, but hardly responsive to the financial pressures felt by low-income workers.
Kerry also kept hitting at the underfunding of NCLB, which Bush said had a whopping increase in government spending -- but at which Kerry levied the critique that you can't measure the success of a program by how much funding it got but rather by what the results were, noting that 500,000 children were neglected by the program.
George Bush won points on Kerry's vote against the first Gulf War when there was a concert of powers of the sort Kerry thinks America needs to pursue in the future assembled against the aggressive actions of Saddam Hussein. And Kerry hit back with George Bush being AWOL in the fight to keep assault weapons banned.
Bush and Kerry, once an alter boy, both eagerly shared their enthusiasm for Godly references and praying. They competed with each other in extolling just how much of America -- and what is around writ large -- is a "gift from the almighty." Clearly, both are groveling for the religious vote -- and are perhaps figuring that the less religiously inclined will forgive or overlook these passions. It's interesting to remember that the word "God" did not appear once in Arnold Schwarzenegger's Republican National Convention speech -- so not all Republicans, and certainly not all Democrats, are into this. However, Elizabeth Dole's speech, which just preceded Schwarzenegger's, seemed to have a religious reference in every other line. The fact that both Bush and Kerry were Bible-centric tonight tells us that the uncommitted voters they want are fairly religions.
Bush's Reaganesque "Morning in America"-style concluding statement was inspiring -- full of references to freedom and liberty, "armies of compassion to heal the hurt," optimism about the day ahead -- all quite brilliant.
But in the end the question is, who did what he needed to do and added to his tally of support. On that basis, the night has to be all about women and all about what the Supreme Court might do to women. The rest was all parity -- no knockout blows.
Bush was better than the first debate but not as good as his second. Kerry was himself, just as good as always -- but tonight on the themes he needed to hit home, he scored the best with those important women voters.
Copyright 2004, United Press International