Hoping for an honest debate before election

September 05, 2004|By G. Jefferson Price III

Sometimes I wish we were more like the British. Two elements of their political system seem particularly enviable these days.

One is short elections. The governing party sets a date. The campaign lasts a few weeks, and the people vote. In the process, the debate focuses on the most important issues. The other is question time in Parliament, where the prime minister faces intense questioning from any member. The exercise demands that the leader of the party in power has a firm grasp of all issues and that he or she is able to answer questions persuasively and eloquently. Someone like West Virginia's Sen. Robert C. Byrd would flourish in such an environment. President Bush decidedly would not. Nor, for that matter, would John Kerry, with his habit of confusing people about where he stands and why.

Our system of government and democracy is better, but the ability of our politicians to abuse it is appalling. Apart from a couple of elections I covered in Israel, where slander is a political art form, I have never witnessed elections that are so down and dirty as in the American experience.

For the past several weeks, American voters have been bombarded with fierce attacks by both parties and their candidates against each other. There has been little room for any intelligent, honest and forward-looking discussion of the staggering problems that face America at home and abroad.

The most staggering of these is the so-called war on terror and the battlefields where it is being waged in Afghanistan and in Iraq, where the Bush administration would have us believe Saddam Hussein was in league with Osama bin Laden.

War and terrorism are powerful components in the political debate of any nation engaged in the fight. They are frightening and thus offer opportunities for politicians who disagree about how to fight to manipulate the public's fears and anxieties.

So, we have a president asking Americans to re-elect him with a real majority this time, asserting that since Sept. 11, he has conducted the war on terrorism the only way it could be waged. And that he is the only commander in chief with enough steadfastness and resolve to see the war through to a successful conclusion. This way has included the detour to Iraq and what the president has described as "catastrophic success" there - whatever that means.

John Kerry argues that America did not have to invade and occupy Iraq to advance the war on terrorism, that the adventure in Iraq - conducted, in effect, unilaterally - has been a costly distraction from the war on terrorism, executed with justifications that turned out to be false.

I happen to agree with Kerry. But I know, as he does and the president does, that now that we're in Iraq, it's futile to keep arguing about whether we should have gone there. The question today is how we're going to get out without leaving that country in an even more dangerous condition than it was before Saddam Hussein was overthrown, more dangerous to America, too.

The discussion about how to accomplish this is overwhelmed by the venomous attacks our own politicians are making against each other. So are necessary discussions about other issues, including the economy, health care and education in America.

Each side has played its part in this obstruction. But reviewing the conventions of both parties, it's hard to escape the conclusion that President Bush and his supporters have been more fiercely aggressive about it. This is manifest in the ads attacking Kerry's war record, before and during the conventions, and the assaults of former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Vice President Dick Cheney, and the bitter savagery of Sen. Zell Miller from the podium of last week's GOP convention.

(On the issue of service during the Vietnam war, two points come to mind. One is that great soldiers do not necessarily make good presidents. The other is that even if John Kerry spent his whole time in Vietnam getting a suntan on the deck of a Swift boat, he can prove he was there. Bush cannot prove where he was, but he was nowhere near Vietnam. Neither were most of the people in his administration who started clamoring for war in the Middle East even before Sept. 11).

The pugnacious pandering and insults that Giuliani, Cheney and Miller hurled out at the Republican convention will be forgotten soon enough, for there's sure to be more of that between now and Election Day.

George Bush's remark that "some folks look at me and see a certain swagger, which in Texas is called `walking,'" will be remembered longer - for whatever he meant.

What stays with me from the conventions is what Kerry had to say about the remainder of the campaign.

"I want to address these next words directly to President George W. Bush," he said. "In the weeks ahead, let's be optimists, not just opponents. Let's build unity in the American family, not angry division. Let's honor this nation's diversity. Let's respect one another. And let's never misuse for political purposes the most precious document in American history, the Constitution of the United States."

That's a good idea. What we need is for Kerry and Bush, and their supporters, to embrace it. It matters less where they were 3 1/2 decades ago than it does where they are today and where they will take us. There's still time for that. But both campaigns have got to get out of the slime to give us an honest debate.

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