Debate School

Perhaps no candidate in the last 20 years has had so much riding on the presidential debates as John Kerry does. Bludgeoned by merciless attack ads and a well-oiled right-wing spin machine, Kerry is still a virtual unknown to many Americans, with few having a clear picture of who he is or what he stands for. This din of distracting issues and cheap personal attacks has also, by design, deprived voters of a crisp and cogent case against the current administration.

Yet, as testament to George W. Bush's inherent weaknesses, Kerry still remains neck and neck with the incumbent in the polls. That means that the upcoming debates represent his best chance yet to go from undefined challenger to legitimate alternative. To get there, here are the top 10 things he must do:

1. Make your Iraq vote an indictment of Bush. Bush has ridiculed Kerry for having a nuanced position on Iraq, but the bottom line is undeniable: Kerry has been consistent in saying that his vote was to give Bush the authority to use force -- not an endorsement of recklessly misusing that authority and misleading America, as the White House did. Sure, his answers on the campaign trail have been less than perfect. But he can still transform his Iraq vote from an albatross into a weapon by making it all about White House credibility. The question is not why John Kerry voted to trust his commander in chief in the aftermath of September 11; most Americans wanted to trust the president, especially on issues of weapons of mass destruction. The real question is why Bush abused that trust, lied to America about the intelligence, and plunged the country into war on false pretenses.

2. Connect the Vietnam experiences to Iraq. Critics charge that Kerry's focus on his Vietnam War experience was a miscalculation, especially after the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth smears. They also claim that Bush's and Dick Cheney's records of evading combat are irrelevant. Both statements may be true now, but they do not have to be from this point forward. Kerry can transform Vietnam from non sequitur to salience by making a very simple argument: Bush's careless postwar Iraq plan, which has needlessly put troops in harm's way, is a direct consequence of his lack of combat experience and refusal to take military service seriously. Bush hid behind the protection of his personal security detail, told terrorists to “bring them on” [the attacks], and then refused to provide American soldiers with adequate body armor. Only someone who has never seen the barrel of an enemy's machine gun -- and yet brags about a spotty National Guard record -- could be so reckless. Kerry, on the other hand, has the shrapnel in his leg to prove that he really understands the gravity of putting troops' lives on the line, and that he would be more serious and thoughtful before doing so.

3. Demand answers about specific national-security decisions. Over the last year, evidence has emerged that has called into question all of Bush's rhetoric about being tough on terrorists. We have learned the administration has fewer intelligence operatives tracking Osama bin Laden than before 9-11; the Bush Treasury Department has five times as many agents investigating Cuban embargo violations than it does tracking al-Qaeda's finances; the White House three times rejected military plans to kill Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the terrorist behind much of the insurgency in Iraq; and the neoconservative-dominated Pentagon secretly moved Special Forces off the hunt for al-Qaeda in 2002 so they could prepare for an Iraq invasion. Kerry should ask specific questions about why these decisions were made, as they add up to an airtight case that Bush is not serious about defending America.

4. Use the word “Halliburton” at least 15 times a debate. Cheney's oil company has become a symbol to America about what is wrong with having a government run by people willing to put corporate interests above the public interest. Not only does Halliburton raise serious improprieties about the vice president coordinating no-bid contracts for a company he still owns holdings in and receives compensation from, it evokes all of the other White House favors for corporate campaign donors.

5. Talk about how the Bush-Saudi relationship compromises America's national security. The Achilles' heel of Bush's image as an advocate for democracy and as a no-nonsense terrorist fighter is his all-too-close relationship with the Saudi royal family. As author Craig Unger writes, "Never before in history has a [president] been so closely tied financially and personally to the ruling family of another foreign power. Never before [have] a president's fortunes and public policies been so deeply entwined with another nation." The Saudis, of course, are not just your run-of-the-mill dictators; they've been investigated for funding the 9-11 terrorists, have refused to fully cooperate in the global war on terrorism, and are known to underwrite anti-American Islamic fundamentalism. Yet from classifying a congressional report about potential Saudi ties to terrorism to deploying crony James Baker to defend the Saudis in lawsuits by the 9-11 victims' families, the White House has done everything possible to shield these despots from scrutiny. And make no mistake about it. This issue has political resonance. Focus groups during Kerry's speech at the Democratic national convention indicated a spike in support for the Massachusetts senator when he said that U.S. policy should not be dictated by the Saudi royal family.

6. Remind people about Bush's secret war on working families. In talking about the economy, Kerry has focused mostly on tax cuts, allowing Bush to muddle the issue by claiming that this administration's tax policy helps the middle class (it does not, but it makes for good rhetoric). During the debates, Kerry should buttress his tax arguments with a critique of other, even more offensive actions that the White House has taken to stiff ordinary Americans. During a recession, why did Bush sign a report endorsing outsourcing? Why is the Bush Commerce Department encouraging U.S. companies to move to China? Why is the Bush Labor Department giving companies tips about how to avoid paying overtime? Why did the president slip a provision into the Medicare bill giving new subsidies for companies to slash retirees' health benefits? Why did Bush oppose bipartisan legislation cutting off federal loan guarantees to companies shipping jobs overseas? Unlike a tax debate that can be blurred by "fuzzy math," Bush cannot lie his way out of these questions.

7. Connect Bush's money to his decisions. Polls show that the public knows Bush is closely aligned with big business. Yet unless those ties are connected to specific policy decisions, Americans seem willing to accept that reality as just another staple of modern politics. That is why when Kerry discusses Bush's record, he must detail who Bush was paying back when he made decisions. $7.5 million from Wall Street, for example, bought a weak corporate-reform bill and a lax attitude toward offenders like Enron; $5 million from the health-care industry bought a Medicare bill that weakens the program while enriching the HMOs and big drug companies; $2 million from the energy industry bought an energy bill that would give away billions in new tax credits to oil companies (already fleecing billions from skyrocketing gas prices). The list goes on. The point is for Kerry to be very specific about cause and effect.

8. Stop pretending you never served in the Senate. Many Americans still know almost nothing of Kerry's Senate record beyond what has been force fed to them via Bush television ads. That is partially due to Karl Rove's effective campaign of taking votes out of context to make Kerry look like a serial flip-flopper. But it is also because Kerry has avoided promoting his accomplishments. He should quit being so reticent. For instance, Kerry can speak forcefully about how in the early 1990s -- before fighting terrorism was in vogue -- he overcame opposition from both political parties to bring down the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) after he discovered its ties to terrorists like Abu Nidal and Osama bin Laden. (At almost the very same time of Kerry's investigation, Bush was doing business with a BCCI joint venture.) Kerry could also talk forcefully about his efforts to raise fuel-efficiency standards -- a courageous position on energy security that earned him powerful enemies in the oil and auto industry and that contrasts with Bush's corporate-driven agenda. Or he could pick something else. The point is for him to stop ignoring his record, because it makes it look like he does not have one. In fact, he does.

9. Take a controversial position. Bush right now does not have any of the news or policy positions on his side. The war in Iraq is raging out of control, the economy is sagging, and polls have shown that the public has serious questions about Bush's foreign and economic policies. In spite of this, he remains a viable candidate. How? Because, as a new CBS poll illustrates, Bush is perceived as willing to take tough positions and say what he believes. Kerry, on the other hand, has run a risk-averse campaign, trying to avoid positions that are not sure winners. But rather than help him avoid danger, this all-things-to-all-people strategy has allowed him to be portrayed as weak-willed, prevaricating, and opportunistic. In the debate, he can parry this criticism by going out on a limb and taking a principled position on a divisive issue. It makes no difference what issue he chooses; it matters that he displays a willingness to accept the political consequences of his personal convictions. If he needs proof that such chutzpah works, he need only remember what vaulted him to prominence in the first place: courageous opposition to the Vietnam War.

10. Don't try to be something you are not. There has always been talk that Kerry comes off as "aloof" or not "likable." He has overcompensated with various stunts, like appearing on Jay Leno's show riding a Harley, or taking reporters with him while he buys a jockstrap. In the debate, he should drop the pretense that he has to be anything other than himself. He should not try to be funny or folksy; that will come off as false. Instead, he can turn his purported weaknesses into strengths that contrast with Bush. He is not aloof; he is a thoughtful leader who can see shades of gray in a world that is never black and white. Nor is he unlikable; he is a serious person for serious times.

David Sirota is the director of strategic communication at the American Progress Action Fund, a progressive advocacy organization in Washington, D.C.

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