Despite John Kerry’s respectable performance in the first presidential debate, there was still this nagging doubt that for all his intellectual superiority, his nuance and his substantive grasp of the issues, his ”win” may yet amount to a Pyrrhic victory. George W. Bush’s implacable rhetoric sledgehammered on as usual, for the most part just as blithely unaware of Kerry’s criticisms as it normally is of the real-world content it aims to supplant. Kerry never for a moment grappled with the source of Bush’s peculiar appeal: his inspired, idealistic oratory, whose very detachment from the realities it putatively describes is the very foundation for Bush’s unrelenting popularity in the face of the economic, diplomatic and military disasters of the last four years.
While Kerry pattered on, presenting tangible plans and projects, Bush countered him at every juncture on the rhetorical level. His constant refrain of the evening — “Wrong war, wrong place, wrong time, what type of message does that send to our troops?” — was not thrice-repeated for lack of any other message. The emphasis on message was the message itself: that message is more important than reality. If you keep saying the war is going well, it will go well. If you claim the economy is on the up-and-up, the stock market will rise. Remember: “A lie repeated long enough and loud enough becomes true.”
Indeed, when the post-debate commentators murmured their approval of Kerry, but lauded Bush for “staying on the message,” they implicitly acknowledged that the substance of Bush’s popularity is his message; and what a message it is. From time to time during the debate, Bush would pause for some uncomfortable seconds, blinking as he does before the cameras, and then suddenly unleash a barrage of idealism: He would speak of the spread of freedom, democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan, the liberty for which every individual yearns, and about remaining “strong and resolute” in the face of hardship. His words were that we must “defeat this ideology of hatred,” and his critique of Kerry — picked up by almost every media outlet after the debate — amounted to “How can we do this with a man who ‘sends mixed messages’?”
It is for this reason that directly after the debate, ABCNEWS.com could intuitively announce, “Kerry wins debate, nothing changes.” If he has any hope of winning, Kerry must first counter Bush on the rhetorical level. He must expose the basic disconnect between Bush’s rhetoric, which resonates with us all (and boy, does it ever resonate), and his actions, which are totally incommensurable with his claims.
Indeed, the constant refrain of the Kerry campaign should be “How dumb do you think we are?” He needs to point out that though Bush’s rhetoric always sounds good, the reality rarely matches the rhetoric. Bush’s “Clear Skies initiative” meant sunny days for polluting power plant owners and noxious air and more mercury in the drinking water for the rest of us. His “Culture of Ownership” amounted to ownership by the rich and the disenfranchisement of the middle class and the poor. His “Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit” certainly benefited the pharmaceutical companies. His “Middle-Class Tax Cuts” conveniently cut out the middle class. His grossly underfunded “No Child Left Behind” bill simply left every child behind. His “Mission Accomplished” was never accomplished, and is unraveling faster every passing day.
Most importantly, his stated goal of spreading liberty and freedom surely wasn’t meant to extend to the American people, who have seen their rights undermined by the Patriot Act and due process denied their citizens at Guantanamo Bay. Surely the president didn’t consider that freedom and liberty include such things as human rights (Abu Ghraib and the shuttled Geneva Convention are not unrelated). Furthermore, despite the fervor with which Bush trumpets security, he seems to believe that much like a rhetorical flourish, security for the Iraqis and the Afghanis can come without sufficient funding. The Cheney doctrine of just enough soldiers to lose has been utterly effective. What worth, I ask, has liberty under occupation? What meaning has freedom in abject poverty and fear?
Bush’s rhetoric is bombast without substance, and more doubletalk and doublethink than most of us would care to admit. It is the verbal equivalent of an SUV: you may feel safe inside of it, but in truth it is unwieldy, a gross environmental hazard, and in it you are much more likely to have a fatal accident than in any other model. Unfortunately, people keep buying SUVs and voting for Bush because of the feelings of power and safety that these products bring. So tell those Kerry campaign strategists that in tonight’s debate, Kerry must point out Bush’s inconsistencies. The moment Kerry draws attention to the “colossal” discrepancy between the rhetoric and the reality of the Bush administration, Bush’s pedestal will be knocked out from under him. Although Bush likes to present himself as a plain-spoken person, plain-spoken people do what they say and say what they do. Surely Bush’s rhetoric is “stalwart” and “consistent,” but what greater inconsistency is there than to say one thing and do another? Talk about flip-flopping.
Kerry thinks that his past actions matter in this contest. That he was a war hero and showed greater bravery and resolve than our president ever did or will has no significance in the disconnected realm of rhetoric, where the lies of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth rule. To return this contest to reality, you have to end the hegemony of rhetoric. My advice to Kerry, then, is this: Look up, pause and then calmly state, “Though what my opponent often says sounds inspiring; though he speaks about liberty and freedom and being resolute, his actions rarely match up to his rhetoric. Indeed, his rhetoric consistently misleads us, and what we need to get us through the next four years is precisely a leader, and hardly a misleader.”
Spencer Wolff is a second-year graduate student in the Comparative Literature Department.