Among other demons, John Kerry has been struggling with what The Washington Post calls "the Enthusiasm Gap." A recent Post-ABC poll shows that George Bush's supporters admire the President much more than Kerry supporters admire Kerry. Some 65% of those who plan to vote for the President claim to be "very enthusiastic" about him, but Kerry's equivalent figure is 42%.
This was a subtext of the first presidential debate on Thursday night. Kerry needs more than an increase in the number of people saying they'll probably vote for him. He needs to arouse the passion that sends Democrats out to organize for him up to the last minute on polling day.
But it must be restrained passion, which is more or less what he delivered. He can't give his people the rhetorical raw meat they want. He can't echo the Democrats who think Bush lets soldiers die to protect the business interests of his father's friends. To those Democrats, Bush is the source of all evil. (Even those who reject the concept of evil on theological grounds are willing to make an exception for Bush.) Those savage feelings frighten the independents.
That's one reason an air of gentility hung over the debate. Both candidates worried about appearing insensitive. If Kerry was avoiding "extremism," Bush was determined not to look like a bully. He passed up an invitation from the moderator to discuss character flaws that would harm a Kerry presidency. He replied that Kerry is a decent sort, though wrong. He also declined to say a Kerry victory would make the U.S. less safe. Won't happen, Bush said, since he's going to win.
Both candidates mentioned each of their points five or six times (redundancy does not terrify these orators) but there was an empty space at the centre of the debate, as if someone had cut a key scene from the script: The religion in whose name the world's great atrocities are now being committed was barely mentioned, though Kerry did promise to "reach out to the Muslim world." Allah was invoked only under one of His other names, God, when He was twice reminded to bless America.
It was a "defining night," Wolf Blitzer assured us on CNN. Kerry did all he could to define it as Warriors' Night. With the pacifist Democrats in his pocket (he believes), he addressed himself to the bellicose independents, voters who like Bush as commander-in-chief but dislike him for other reasons. Kerry tried to look as tough as Bush, sometimes comically overshooting the mark: "I will hunt down and kill the terrorists wherever they are."
He said the Iraq war was a colossal mistake but he was nevertheless going to carry it through to the end, a contradiction he's never figured out how to resolve. He referred to Vietnam -- "I defended this country as a young man in war, and I will defend it as president." (He wisely omitted the salute he used at the Democratic convention.)
But of course Kerry also opposed the Vietnam war. So just mentioning it annoys once again all those veterans who think he betrayed them, all those who spent years rather than months in the fighting, and the much larger group who believe real soldiers never brag about their war years (or months).
He also raised an awkward question: If the Vietnam War was a mistake, and he considered surrender the best course, why doesn't the same apply to Iraq, which he believes is also a mistake? (Wrong war, wrong place, wrong time.) He personally helped make this mistake, by his senate vote, but surely that's no reason to keep on making it, if he's convinced the U.S. was wrong to invade Iraq.
Kerry demonstrated that he's acquired the style, if not the substance of a statesman, a large improvement. In the past he's seemed scattered and even a little frightened, but on Thursday his confidence was obvious. In some part of himself he thinks the job is already his.
His record still reads like a relentless chronicle of opportunism but he's learned to speak his latest views with what sounds like deep conviction. He made no more sense on Iraq than he has in the past, but he nevertheless talked like a man with a plan. On paper the plan reads like a fatuous wish list, particularly the part about getting more Europeans to pitch in. But as he solemnly announced his promises, he made them seem briefly plausible. He almost convinced us he believes them himself.