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October 15, 2004



PAUL GIGOT: It's clear that John Kerry's performance has propelled him back into a race that is a toss-up with less than three weeks to go. It's also clear that the debates were remarkably full of substance, making it obvious that voters have a real choice this year. With me to discuss where we've been and where we're going in this campaign are: Dan Henninger, deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal editorial page, Susan Lee, who specializes in economics, and Dorothy Rabinowitz.

The candidates spent the first two debates sharpening their differences on the war and terrorism. This week they concentrated on domestic issues. And if you waded through all the facts and pseudo-facts they threw around, you could get a clear idea of their philosophical differences. And some clues about the way the rest of this campaign is likely to go.

KERRY: During the 1990s, we had pay-as-you-go rules. If you were going to pass something in the Congress, you had to show where you were going to pay for it, and how. The fact is that the President is driving the largest deficits in American history, he's broken the pay-as-you-go rules ...

BUSH: He talks about pay-go. I'll tell you what pay-go means, when you're a senator from Massachusetts. When you're a colleague of Ted Kennedy, pay-go means you pay, and he goes ahead and spends.

KERRY: Being lectured by the President on fiscal responsibility is a little bit like Tony Soprano talking to me about law and order in this country. This president has taken a 5.6 trillion dollar surplus and turned it into deficits as far as the eye can see.

BUSH: When they proposed reducing taxes, you voted against it 126 times. You voted to violate the budget caps 277 times. You -- you know, there's a mainstream in American politics and you sit right on the far left bank. As a matter of fact, your record is such that Ted Kennedy, your colleague, is the conservative senator from Massachusetts.

KERRY: Under President Bush, the middle class has seen their tax burden go up, and the wealthiest tax burden has gone down. He's also the only president in 72 years to lose jobs. 1.6 million jobs lost.

BUSH: We had 1.9 million new jobs over the last 13 months. Sure there's more work to do. But the way to make sure our economy grows is not to raise taxes on small business owners. It's not to increase the scope of the federal government. It's to make sure we have fiscal sanity and keep taxes low.

KERRY: This president has turned his back on the wellness of America. Five million Americans have lost their health insurance in this country. I have a plan to cover all Americans. We're going to make it affordable and accessible. We're going to let everybody buy into the same health care plan senators and congressmen give themselves.

BUSH: I want to remind people listening tonight that a plan is not a litany of complaints. And a plan is not to lay out programs that you can't pay for. Now he's been in the United States Senate for 20 years. He has no record on reforming of health care. No record at all. He introduced some 300 bills, and he's passed five. No record of leadership.

PAUL GIGOT: Dan, sometimes in presidential history, debates have mattered. Sometimes they haven't. Did these matter? And if so, how did they re-shape the campaign?

DAN HENNINGER: Well, I think they've certain had an effect. You know, this is turning out to be the valium election. This is high anxiety. Iraq, people are anxious about that. And they're anxious about the economy. And so both candidates have spent a lot of their time trying to make the electorate anxious about the other guy. Kerry says Iraq was a colossal mistake. Bush has mis-managed it, and his thoughts on the economy are quite clear. Bush by contrast is saying that Kerry is not fit to be commander-in-chief, and that he doesn't have presidential character.

That said, on the substance, these two could not be further apart. There is a clear-cut distinction between the two, and yet they have both managed to undermine the fitness of either one to hold the office, which means it's very tough for people to choose.

PAUL GIGOT: Dorothy, I want to follow up on a point Dan made, which is about the Bush strategy of making Kerry's fitness for office, his character, the issue. Have these debates helped John Kerry address that concern with the electorate?

DOROTHY RABINOWITZ: I think they have. I think that, for example, in the last debate he managed to avoid saying, ģI have a planī fewer than 12 times. And he also managed to say various things filled with serious data that people could respond to in a way. And he was talking about the economy, and he sounded less judgmental. And again, old prophet doom-sayer. But of course, George Bush -- and he came out very combatively on this third event. I think people have not noticed how combative Kerry was, while George Bush gave a fair imitation of Mr. Roger's neighborhood from time to time, sounding sunny and cheery. And all of this, both their benefits, I think.

PAUL GIGOT: Well, Bush was ahead in the polls going in by seven, eight points. Now it's a real horse race. It seemed to have helped John Kerry, the debates, in some respect.

SUSAN LEE:  And I'd like to make sort of a Dorothy comment on style, which Dorothy will probably disagree with. You watch these debates, and it's like having them in your living room. It's like a dinner party. So I've sort of devised a dinner party test. Do you want to sit next to either of these guys at a dinner party? Well, one saw in three debates Bush being petulant, then agitated, and then goofy. But one saw Kerry throughout being what I would say excessively dignified, which I suppose is another word for haughty. So actually, I would rather sit next to Bush at a dinner party than Kerry. And I was a little puzzled that Kerry pulled away so strongly after the debates. But maybe the dinner party test is just my own.

PAUL GIGOT: Well, he pulled away after the first two. We don't know about the third one yet. One of the fascinating things to me is that both candidates, Kerry and Bush, have at some point in the campaign wanted to make this a campaign about biography and character. Kerry wanted to make his Viet Nam record the centerpiece of his campaign. President Bush said it's my steely resolve versus his flip flopping. And yet in the third debate, what you saw was this attempt by both of them to frame this in almost classic philosophical left/right, liberal/conservative terms, where President Bush is saying he's a Massachusetts liberal who wants to raise taxes and Kerry's saying he's a typical Republican who wants to help the rich. What do you  make of this strategy on both their parts?

DAN HENNINGER: Well, I think in that respect it was a success. These are not high school debates. This is not an event where you score at the end and give somebody a little trophy and tell them they won. You're trying to elicit information about the two candidates. And it has been to all of our benefits that both of them decided in that third debate to go so deeply into substance and policy. They gave voters a real basis on which to make a choice.

PAUL GIGOT: You know, a very senior Republican said to me this week that the Bush family candidates, and there's a lot of them, do not like to run ideological campaigns. They like to make their campaigns personal victories. And certainly, I think this president's victory in 2000 was a character victory, a personal victory in some way.

And yet, if he wants to win now, he almost has to make this a reflection of philosophical differences, this campaign. It's a fascinating little irony, it seems to me.

SUSAN LEE:  Well, he's had four years of showing what his philosophy is. And so it would be very difficult for him to say, oh, this is a personal thing. I mean, we've got four years here. Let's look at it.

DOROTHY RABINOWITZ: I was thinking simply that despite their philosophic efforts, both of them were obviously driven by the need to be the persona that they were told was necessary to be. Kerry, warmer -- which he didn't quite succeed in doing. Bush, as I said, was charming and funny, within the limits of this. People really reacted to those things I think, more than anything. Who is going to keep up with this flow of data being hurled at them one after another?

PAUL GIGOT: But at the philosophical level, at the values level, are you for big government or for smaller government? And that is something that people do understand. Now E.J. Dionne, the liberal columnist for the Washington Post, wrote this week that the Bush play book is old. It's the liberal thing, it's the -- and people don't want to hear that any more. And that's why it's not going to work against John Kerry. What do you think about that?

DAN HENNINGER: Well, I don't know whether it'll work or not. What fascinates me about the Bush play book is that there's been a role reversal between Kerry and Bush. Bush is the one who's proposing to privatize social security, approach health care insurance an entirely new way, and reduce taxes. It's a very risky proposition. And in many ways Bush is the one running as a progressive. Whereas John Kerry is proposing a more comfortable, beltway centric business as usual platform. And in many ways he's the conservative.

PAUL GIGOT: You know, in 1999 when he was running for president, we were invited, some of us, down to the Texas ranch to have lunch with Bush. And we asked him what lessons he'd learned from his father's defeat. And he said two. One, if you have political capital, spend it. And never go into an election where you're not telling the American people what you want to do. So these things are about the future. And for an incumbent, he seems to be following through on that lesson here as he talks about what he would do for a second term. I'm going to give myself the last word on that this week.

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