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WHAT WE THINK
The subject of the first presidential debate...
Debating how to dominate the globe

October 8, 2004 | Page 3

JOHN KERRY was generally seen as the winner of the first presidential debate September 30, and the liberals in charge of the "Anybody But Bush" bandwagon were giddy with relief and admiration.

"Kerry outsmarts Bush in the crucial first debate," gushed a Salon magazine headline, its article concluding "a race that once seemed lost suddenly seems alive again." Nation magazine columnist Eric Alterman proudly declared that in a contest devoted to foreign policy issues, his man had been "well-spoken, well-disciplined and almost likeable: in other words, 'Presidential.'"

But what the first presidential debate really proved is that John Kerry is capable of putting a more respectable and palatable face on essentially the same imperialist program pursued by the Bush administration.

Anyone thinking about voting for Kerry as the "lesser evil" needs to consider two points. First, Kerry himself has problems distinguishing what he would actually do differently from Bush about Iraq. As on other issues--for example, Washington's attitude to North Korea--there are more similarities between Bush and Kerry than either candidate is willing to admit. And second, from the point of view of the ruling establishment, Kerry may be more effective at projecting U.S. power around the world.

At one level, it was absurd that so much ink and airtime was wasted on the presidential debates. They aren't "debates" at all, but dressed-up press conferences whose rules--made up by the campaigns themselves--are designed to keep discussion confined to a narrow spectrum of views acceptable to the Washington establishment.

Actually, Kerry didn't win the debate as much as Bush lost it when he seemed to stumble over his own lies and distortions, falling back on endlessly repeated sound bites drilled into him by his handlers. This allowed Kerry to dominate the exchange enough that his limited criticisms of the way Bush waged the war on Iraq spoke to the doubts of listeners worried about the deepening crisis of the occupation--while his "tough leader" pose appealed to a more conservative audience.

Anyone who hates Bush will have enjoyed watching him reduced to a short-tempered, ignorant twerp. But the big story about the first debate--largely ignored by the progressive media in the interests of promoting Kerry as a "lesser evil" candidate--was the common agenda shared by the two candidates and the two mainstream parties.

"Nobody noticed [Kerry's] foreign policy sea change," wrote the New York Times' right-wing columnist William Safire. "On both military tactics and grand strategy, the newest neo-conservative announced doctrines more hawkish than President Bush."

Kerry criticized Bush's conduct of the "war on terror" for not "keeping America safe," and he actually claimed that the U.S. hadn't been tough enough in Iraq. "What I want to do is change the dynamics on the ground," Kerry said. "And you have to do that by beginning to not back off of Falluja and other places and send the wrong message to terrorists."

As liberal analyst William Pfaff wrote in the Boston Globe, "Kerry is committed to fundamentally the same goal as George Bush, which is a permanent U.S. strategic presence in Iraq. Most of the Muslim world is ferociously opposed to this idea. The international community is generally skeptical of it. The American electorate senses that there has to be something better than stubborn persistence in a Bush administration war that is manifestly failing. But since Kerry until now has had nothing really different to offer, his campaign has gone nowhere on the Iraq issue. He is a victim of the conventional wisdom and the conventional political cowardice.

The twin parties of the Washington establishment, Pfaff concludes, "share an identical vision of America's role in the world. They believe, in one or another form, in the notion that as America is the world's most powerful nation, its duty (and privilege) is to order and police the world." And they can count on John Kerry every bit as much as George Bush to pursue this vision, whatever the human cost.

There was a candidate in Miami for the debates who could claim to present a real alternative to the Bush agenda--Ralph Nader. Nader's independent presidential campaign calls for an end to the U.S. occupation of Iraq--both military and corporate. But the debates were organized by the two mainstream parties to exclude any opposing voices--just as the Democrats have waged an all-out war to keep Nader's name from even appearing on the ballot in November.

There are reasons to criticize Nader's campaign. In addition to accepting the endorsement of the right-wing Reform Party, he has decided to appear on the ballot line of the cult-like Independence Party in New York. This is an insult to activists who organized an effort to get enough signatures for Nader to appear separately.

But the attack on Nader by liberals doesn't have anything to do with such criticisms. The Anybody But Bush chorus is opposed to Nader running at all--and threatening the chances of the "lesser evil" candidate, John Kerry. We deserve better than the two parties of the status quo. Supporting Ralph Nader is a way to stand up for a real alternative.

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