William Rivers Pitt: Game. Set. Match.
Only Cowards Cancel Elections
By William Rivers Pitt
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Thursday 14 October 2004
"Gosh, I just don't think I ever said I'm not worried about Osama bin Laden. It's kind of one of those exaggerations."
- George W. Bush, 10/13/04
"So I don't know where he is. Nor - you know, I just don't spend that much time on him really, to be honest with you. I...I truly am not that concerned about him."
- George W. Bush, 03/13/02
The third and final debate between George W. Bush and John F. Kerry was slated to be about domestic issues. It finished as a crystal-clear argument about basic American values, and made clear for all who watched or listened where each of these candidates stand.
Bob Schieffer of CBS News, the moderator for this last debate, put a series of questions to both candidates about the minimum wage, about Social Security, about the assault weapons ban, about health care. It must be noted that Schieffer failed completely, demonstrably and shamefully to put a single question to either candidate about protecting the environment and alternative energy, but the questions he did lay out afforded the American people a long, hard look at where Bush and Kerry stand on a number of lynchpin issues…
The words of the candidates speak for themselves.
Schieffer, questioning Bush: "You said that if Congress would vote to extend the ban on assault weapons, that you'd sign the legislation, but you did nothing to encourage the Congress to extend it. Why not?"
Bush response: "I believe law-abiding citizens ought to be able to own a gun. I believe in background checks at gun shows or anywhere to make sure that guns don't get in the hands of people that shouldn't have them. But the best way to protect our citizens from guns is to prosecute those who commit crimes with guns. And that's why early in my administration I called the attorney general and the U.S. attorneys and said: Put together a task force all around the country to prosecute those who commit crimes with guns. And the prosecutions are up by about 68 percent -- I believe -- is the number. Neighborhoods are safer when we crack down on people who commit crimes with guns. To me, that's the best way to secure America."
Kerry response: "I ran one of the largest district attorney's offices in America, one of the ten largest. I put people behind bars for the rest of their life. I've broken up organized crime. I know something about prosecuting. And most of the law enforcement agencies in America wanted that assault weapons ban. They don't want to go into a drug bust and be facing an AK-47. I was hunting in Iowa last year with a sheriff from one of the counties there, and he pointed to a house in back of us, and said, 'See the house over? We just did a drug bust a week earlier, and the guy we arrested had an AK-47 lying on the bed right beside him.' Because of the president's decision today, law enforcement officers will walk into a place that will be more dangerous. Terrorists can now come into America and go to a gun show and, without even a background check, buy an assault weapon today. And that's what Osama bin Laden's handbook said, because we captured it in Afghanistan. It encouraged them to do it."
In this exchange, Bush sided with the National Rifle Association, which has sadly become an institution that supports any and all weapons, up to and including personal rocket launchers and buzz-saw machine guns, in the hands of any American, regardless of criminal background. Kerry, the former prosecutor, injected a strong dose of law-enforcement reality into the conversation. Supporting the repeal of the assault weapons ban is tantamount to approving of cops walking into a spray of 7.62mm assault rounds while trying to do their jobs.
Schieffer, questioning Kerry: "The gap between rich and poor is growing wider. More people are dropping into poverty. Yet the minimum wage has been stuck at, what, $5.15 an hour now for about seven years. Is it time to raise it?"
Kerry response: "The minimum wage is the lowest minimum wage value it has been in our nation in 50 years. If we raise the minimum wage, which I will do over several years to $7 an hour, 9.2 million women who are trying to raise their families would earn another $3,800 a year. The president has denied 9.2 million women $3,800 a year, but he doesn't hesitate to fight for $136,000 to a millionaire. One percent of America got $89 billion last year in a tax cut, but people working hard, playing by the rules, trying to take care of their kids, family values, that we're supposed to value so much in America - I'm tired of politicians who talk about family values and don't value families...I think that it is a matter of fundamental right that if we raise the minimum wage, 15 million Americans would be positively affected."
Bush response: "Let me talk about what's really important for the worker you're referring to. And that's to make sure the education system works. It's to make sure we raise standards. Listen, the No Child Left Behind Act is really a jobs act when you think about it. The No Child Left Behind Act says, "We'll raise standards. We'll increase federal spending. But in return for extra spending, we now want people to measure -- states and local jurisdictions to measure to show us whether or not a child can read or write or add and subtract. You cannot solve a problem unless you diagnose the problem. And we weren't diagnosing problems. And therefore just kids were being shuffled through the school."
Kerry spoke to millions of Americans who get paid a minimum wage better suited to the economic realities of the Truman administration. A higher minimum wage lifts those millions of Americans working McJobs, which are the lion's share of the 'new jobs' created under this administration, to a place where they can begin to dream of someday possibly joining the oft-ballyhooed middle class. A higher minimum wage opens the entire economy up to the kind of consumer spending that is the lifeblood of our system. Bush, by comparison, avoided the question entirely and wandered off into a confused paean for his tragically underfunded No Child Left Behind bill. This became his refuge several times on Wednesday night; when he had no answer, he flogged NCLB.
Laying it out on the razor, Bush backed machine guns in our neighborhoods toted by people who take the risk of selling drugs instead of working a counter job, because the counter jobs available to them can't possibly begin to pay a living wage thanks to the currently anemic minimum wage. Kerry, by contrast, would get the machine guns off the streets, period, and at the same time make sure anyone working a minimum wage job will make enough money to feed their family and keep a roof over their head.
Beyond the clear delineation of values exposed in this last exchange is the ugly fact that Bush went out of his way to dodge as many hard questions as he could get away from. How does nattering about NCLB answer the question of the minimum wage? Was Bush afraid of offending his corporate backers on that one? The folks who support him are happy to keep the minimum wage where it is, because it increases their bottom line. It was this exchange, above all the others, that displayed where Bush stands when it comes to the American people. He does not stand with you if you don't have a few million, at least, in the bank.
The NCLB refuge received a direct hit from Kerry at one point, when the Senator said, "Five hundred thousand kids lost after-school programs because of your budget. Now, that's not in my gut. That's not in my value system, and certainly not so that the wealthiest people in America can walk away with another tax cut. $89 billion last year to the top 1 percent of Americans, but kids lost their after-school programs. You be the judge."
Dodging the question is not an American value, Mr. Bush.
Consider the question Schieffer put to Bush on Social Security: "We all know that Social Security is running out of money, and it has to be fixed. You have proposed to fix it by letting people put some of the money collected to pay benefits into private savings accounts. But the critics are saying that's going to mean finding $1 trillion over the next 10 years to continue paying benefits as those accounts are being set up. So where do you get the money? Are you going to have to increase the deficit by that much over 10 years?
Bush's answer? "There is a problem for our youngsters, a real problem. And if we don't act today, the problem will be valued in the trillions. And so I think we need to think differently. We'll honor our commitment to our seniors. But for our children and our grandchildren, we need to have a different strategy. And recognizing that, I called together a group of our fellow citizens to study the issue. It was a committee chaired by the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, a Democrat. And they came up with a variety of ideas for people to look at. I believe that younger workers ought to be allowed to take some of their own money and put it in a personal savings account, because I understand that they need to get better rates of return than the rates of return being given in the current Social Security trust. And the compounding rate of interest effect will make it more likely that the Social Security system is solvent for our children and our grandchildren. I will work with Republicans and Democrats. It'll be a vital issue in my second term. It is an issue that I am willing to take on, and so I'll bring Republicans and Democrats together. And we're of course going to have to consider the costs. But I want to warn my fellow citizens: The cost of doing nothing, the cost of saying the current system is OK, far exceeds the costs of trying to make sure we save the system for our children."
Note well that Schieffer asked a pointed question: "But the critics are saying that's going to mean finding $1 trillion over the next 10 years to continue paying benefits as those accounts are being set up. So where do you get the money? Are you going to have to increase the deficit by that much over 10 years?"
Bush had no answer whatsoever. He gassed. This happened repeatedly throughout the night.
Kerry quoted Bush's bizarre statement from March of 2002 about Bush no longer being concerned about Osama bin Laden. Bush tried to claim Kerry was exaggerating, but the White House website says different. Bush: "So I don't know where he is. Nor - you know, I just don't spend that much time on him really, to be honest with you. I...I truly am not that concerned about him." Beyond the glaring silliness of this lie - millions of Americans saw the filmclip of Bush making this statement when they saw Moore's documentary 'Fahrenheit 9/11' - is the frightening truth behind it. If Bush truly does not care about or worry about Osama bin Laden, as his March statement indicates, he is truly an Army of One, divorced from one of the most fundamental concerns within the American mind.
Bush said Pell Grants had increased under his tenure, and had previously promised to increase the maximum Pell Grant award to $5,100. Yet his fiscal year 2005 budget is the third in a row that has refused to increase the value over the current amount of $4,050. The value of the maximum Pell award has fallen dramatically in the past years from covering 94% of the public two-year institution to just 68% today. Kerry did well to split this lie open by stating, "You know why the Pell Grants have gone up in their numbers? Because more people qualify for them because they don't have money. But they're not getting the $5,100 the president promised them. They're getting less money. We have more people who qualify. That's not what we want."
Bush said he supported Mitch McConnell's minimum wage bill. In fact, he supported minimum wage increase by $1.00 per hour, but only if states could opt out of the increase. According to the Associated Press, Bush's qualification for a minimum wage increase was, "a condition that could render a proposed increase meaningless." Bush and the Republicans are rapidly approaching the record set in the 1980s for the longest period without an increase adjusted for inflation. The minimum wage is 24.5% lower than it was 24 years ago and is rapidly approaching an all-time low set in 1989. Bush has not used his influence to pass a minimum wage law in Congress, where the law cannot even get out of committee. This follows a pattern, as Bush, while governor of Texas, resisted raising that state's decade-old minimum wage, which was only $3.35 an hour.
Lying is not an American value, Mr. Bush.
There was a statesman and a salesman on that debate stage on Wednesday night. Kerry, the statesman, was calm and clear, in command of the facts, and not afraid to stare into the camera at the American people and tell some hard truths. Bush, the salesman, left behind the muddled foolishness of the first debate and the screaming histrionics of the second debate, in favor of an aw-shucks smirk and a series of ill-timed snickers that makes one truly wonder if he knows his job is on the line. All the pundits agreed that Bush, having lost the first two debates, needed to dominate during this third and final meeting. He failed completely to do so.
In the end, it comes down to values. When Schieffer asked Bush at one point about the problem of health care for America's seniors, Bush burst into a fit of laughter. If there was ever a moment, in any of these three debates, that let people know exactly where Bush's head and heart and priorities lay, that was it. He laughed.
William Rivers Pitt is the senior editor and lead writer for truthout. He is a New York Times and international bestselling author of two books - 'War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know' and 'The Greatest Sedition is Silence.'