Bush and Kerry each missed an excellent opportunity last night to clarify important distinctions in their positions. I can't say I was terribly impressed by either of them, though the debates were somewhat useful in helping me develop my opinions of them and this race.
Bush's big missed opportunity was this: He said, in answer to a question about Iraq, “the enemy attacked us,” and Kerry jumped all over it, saying that Saddam Hussein didn't attack us, Osama bin Laden did. Bush, in his response, simply stated (paraphrasing), “I know Osama bin Laden attacked us. You think I don't know that?” He then proceeded to address a different part of Kerry's statement. This was the perfect opportunity for Bush to not only show that he didn't slip up in his statement, but to illustrate an important difference between him and Kerry. He should have said, “Of course I know bin Laden attacked us. And that event changed the way we respond to threats. We didn't attack Iraq because they attacked us on September 11, we attacked because we wanted to prevent another September 11, and you agreed with me that Saddam was a threat, and authorized me to use force to prevent Saddam from carrying out the kind of attack we suffered on September 11. That is why the September 11 attack is relevant to the war in Iraq.”
Kerry's big missed opportunity was this: Bush's campaign has been portraying Kerry as a flip-flopper. So he was posed the question (paraphrasing), “When you returned from Vietnam, you asked, ‘How can you ask a man to be the last to die for a mistake?’ Are the soldiers in Iraq dying for a mistake?” Kerry answered (paraphrasing), “No; they don't have to be, if we implement the right policies there.” Wrong answer for him, I think. This answer made him look to me like he either didn't have a clear position on Iraq (was it a mistake or not?) or he was answering only for political expediency (yes, Iraq was a mistake, but if I say that, I'll lose votes). What he should have said was, “Yes, it was a mistake to go into Iraq the way we did. But it is not a mistake for us to stay and finish the job, now that we're there. We have a moral obligation to the people of Iraq, the Middle East, and the entire world to bring nations together to stabilize Iraq, to rebuild its infrastructure, to train its security forces, and to help make Iraq a safe and democratic nation. Our president made a mistake in going into Iraq when and how he did, but I will succeed in Iraq where he is failing, so that our soldiers don't die for a mistake.”
Maybe that's too much to hope for from these candidates.