Another potential pitfall is if Kerry tries to get too tough...in the wrong direction. If he makes some grandoise statement to President Bush like "The American people want to know when you're going to bring the troops home," he'll be clobbered by the Republican Spin Machine so fast you won't have time to say "swing vote." Kerry has to appeal to the voters who want us to win Iraq, not those who don't think we should be there at all. That means challanging Bush on his weaknesses (like Fallujah), not playing to his weak-kneed liberal stereotype.
One thing that had made me optimistic about the debates was that I thought Kerry could address Bush directly. If I were Kerry, I would make my entire opening speech a serious of questions: "The War on Terror is too important to be subordinated to Politics, Mr President. The American people deserve to know: Why have we held back in Fallujah? Why'd you allow House Republicans to kill a bill to increase Chemical Plant Security? Why are you cutting funding towards securing loose nuclear material, so terrorists can't build a dirty bomb? Why'd you threaten to veto desperately needed Homeland Security spending, right after 9/11? Why'd you oppose the creation of 9/11 commission? Why'd you oppose the creation of the Department of Homeland Security? The security of the American people is worth more than a soundbite, Mr. President. It means having a real plan, that exists in the real world, and the American people deserve real answers to these questions."
Aggressive, neat, overwhelming, and factually true. What a combo (ok, maybe I'm tooting my own horn just abit)! But the principle sounds good, right? Apparently, Karl Rove thought so too, because questioning the opposing candidate is one of the many prohibited actions in the Byzantine debate rulebook. As Josh Benson of the The New Republic points out:
Deathly afraid of being challenged on his unraveling Iraq policy, Bush demanded--and won--a series of bizarre rules governing tonight's debate. There will be no rebuttals allowed, for instance. No follow-up questions, no movement about the stage, no audience interaction, no props, no split-screen TV shots, no moderator discretion. The perspiration-prone Kerry was even denied a chilled room. Worst of all, the rules forbid Kerry from asking Bush any direct questions, a prohibition that constrains Kerry's options and makes a mockery of our civic process precisely when open debate matters most.
This is a debate? This harldy qualifies as dramatic interpretation! At this point, why don't we just play the candidates stump speeches back to back?
Benson thinks that Kerry should just ignore these rules and question Bush anyway (or at least bend them). I find this proposition tempting, as the prospect of Bush whining that "questions are against the rules" is very, very appealing. But unfortunately, I don't think that the action would be as consequence free as Benson implies. Maybe it would be beneficial on the whole, I don't know. But the facts are that these "debate" rules make it almost impossible for the already error-prone Kerry to succeed tonight.
Keep your fingers crossed!