Reality Check

Now we know that the president disagrees with the Dred Scott decision and is not likely to reappoint its author, Chief Justice Roger Taney (1777-1864) to the United States Supreme Court.

This comes as a relief. After all, several of George W. Bush's favorite justices have been elevating the doctrine of states' rights over those of the individual and the federal government during the past decade. If his term runs long enough, Clarence Thomas can reasonably be expected one day to declare that under a proper originalist reading of the Constitution, he should be enslaved. Bush's break with Taney in Friday night's debate, then, is good news for abolitionists.

It's on more contemporary topics that Bush's answers Friday night were
troubling. In numerous answers, Bush either failed to respond to John Kerry's indictment of his presidency or turned his attention to his own alleged resolve and Kerry's alleged inconsistencies and creeping Europhilia. “In order to be popular in the halls of Europe,” Bush noted disdainfully, “you sign a treaty.” That may be what girlie-man John Kerry wants, but not Bush, the American homie through thick and thin.

If you're pandering to the xenophobe vote, Kerry is the perfect opponent -- too cosmopolitan for his own damned good, as his blurted-out “global test” reference from the first debate makes clear. Kerry was compelled to reassert his obvious belief in national sovereignty last night, just as he was compelled to take a no-new-tax pledge straight into the camera for Americans earning less than $200,000 a year. (It would have been bad form, I suppose, for Kerry to point out that the only president in recent memory to have broken such a pledge was Pappy Bush. But it would have been great Oedipal theater to have seen Junior, in his reply, struggling with his impulse to diss his old man.)

The president's real trouble is less with Kerry than with reality. In the week between the first and second debates, a CIA-appointed investigator concluded that Iraq had dismantled its WMD programs in 1991, Paul Bremer revealed that he had complained to the White House about the shortage of troops in Iraq, The New York Times reported that the administration knowingly covered up the misgivings of our intelligence establishment during the run-up to the war, the job creation figures were underwhelming, and Tom DeLay was reprimanded
three times by the bipartisan House Ethics Committee. Kerry took Bush to task on Iraq and job loss, and on the domestic issues that first came into play during this debate: the president's preferring the drug industry over American patients, the lack of funding for Bush's own Leave No Child Behind program.

The attack by Bush and Cheney on Kerry's allegedly “big government” health care plan is a mark of the nervousness that has come over the president and his consultants. Kerry unveiled his plan, with all its particulars, fully 18 months ago in a speech in Des Moines. During those 18 months, neither health care experts nor the media -- nor all but a handful of Republicans, nor anyone in the president's campaign, until just recently -- have characterized the plan as "big government,” for the simple reason that its not. Its major component is to have the government assume the costs now borne by employers for catastrophic illness that cost more than $50,000. It also extends the coverage of children and the poor under existing programs. Only in the past several
weeks has the Bush campaign suddenly realized that this is a “big government” program. You wonder, if Bush had a big lead, whether they'd even bother to mention the plan at all.

Kerry had several lines of attack on domestic issues he did not embark upon Friday, though he could be saving them for the final debate on Wednesday. The fact that by independent estimates, Kerry's health care proposal would cover about 27 million currently uninsured Americans, and Bush's would cover no more than 6 million, has yet to be mentioned. The fact that Bush's proposed new spending comes to $3 trillion -- nearly a trillion more than Kerry's -- has yet to be raised. The connection between Bush's giveaway to the big pharmaceutical companies and those companies' support for the president's and other Republicans' campaigns has not yet been discussed.

Kerry was in command for the first hundred minutes of Friday's debate, then seemed too unsure and defensive as the discussion turned to stem cell research and abortion. (What's wrong with Bill Clinton's old line -- that abortions should be “safe, legal and rare“?) By then, Bush had stopped shouting out his answers and was actually talking in a normal register. Both candidates said much that appealed to their respective bases, but Kerry's handling of Iraq and health care seemed better calculated to win voters who are still making up their minds.

We await polling to know whether the debate did anything to stop or slow the shift of momentum to Kerry. But I'd be surprised if it did.

Harold Meyerson is editor-at-large of The American Prospect.

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