Winning time

During his playing days on the court, basketball legend Earvin 'Magic' Johnson relished the last two minutes of big playoff games. Usually, those final moments would see Magic single—handedly taking over the ball game with a tough hoop, a sleight of hand pass, or a key rebound. Magic loved the pressure, the competition, and — most of the time — the end result. He called it winning time.

We find ourselves in the waning moments of the 2004 presidential campaign, and winning time begins tonight with the first debate between President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry. Fittingly, the subject of the evening will be foreign policy since national security is, no matter what the Bush—as—Herbert Hoover Democratic Party wants you to believe, the most vital issue of the day and the most important duty of the presidency. 

Once again the President is fortunate in his competition, for he is not facing the political equivalent of the Bird's Boston Celtics or Jordan's Chicago Bulls. Kerry is more like an expansion team that somehow lucked into the playoffs thanks to a severely diluted talent pool in the league — think Dennis Kucinich running the point for the Clippers with Howard Dean as general manager, Wesley Clark as coach, and John Edwards as ball boy. Despite Kerry throwing up brick after brick and committing a slew of turnovers this summer, his team has its share of devoted fanatics and, as history tells us in politics and sports, anything can happen.

President Bush certainly does not need any advice from the blogosphere, but it is expected that he use this opportunity Thursday night to effectively signal the end the series and raise another championship banner. As he has shown throughout, Kerry will be ruthless in his accusations, reckless with the truth, and aggressive in his last—ditch effort to save his faltering campaign. As James Fallows points out in his insightful article regarding the debating styles of the candidates, Kerry was successful in past debates when he was prosecutorial in tone and tenor, trying to put his opponent on the defensive. Sadly for Kerry, it is he who will have to spend the evening back on his heels, trying to defend the indefensible, otherwise known as his public career.

When Kerry parrots his neighbor Ted Kennedy in claiming that President Bush has turned America's allies against us, the President must respond indignantly to this by calling it the outrageous, insulting lie it is. Charles Krauthammer pointed out that Australia, to name one nation, has consistently been with us in the conflicts of the past 100 years, more so than Great Britain, France, and, of course, Germany. One hopes the President asks Kerry why he spends so much time denigrating our true friends, calling them the 'coalition of the coerced and the bribed,' to please people in France and Germany, who wish us ill. And why his sister has been telling Australians that their support for us will eran them terror attacks.

When Kerry trots out his Nixonian promise of a plan to solve the problems in Iraq, the President must state clearly and completely what the Administration is doing and ask Kerry how his plan differs. When Kerry plays the 'Mission Accomplished' card, the President must clear up that misconception, and quote from his address to Congress on September 20, 2001:

'Americans should expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign, unlike any other we have ever seen. We will starve terrorists of funding, turn them one against the other, drive them from place to place, until there is no refuge or rest. And we will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism...From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.'

The President must emphasize Kerry's shameful behavior last week following the appearance of interim Iraq Prime Minister Allawi in Congress, a body of which Kerry is purportedly a member. The President must make Kerry answer the question of whether he wants Allawi to succeed, and whether saying things such as Allawi lives in 'fantasyland' will help relations with our newest ally. One wonders who lives in  fantasyland: a billionaire with five mansions and a private jet, or somone living in the Green Zone. Kerry must be asked if calling leaders of other nations crazy is how he intends to win friends abroad.

Kerry will undoubtedly rip a page from the Moore/Shrum/Kennedy/Carter playbook and claim that the effort in Iraq is a diversionary tactic and hinders the destruction of al Qaeda. As the President has been saying in speeches all over the land this summer, he must once again — and forcefully —  count off the leadership of al Qaeda that have been captured and killed while the battle in Iraq was being fought simultaneously. It would be nice if the President would ask Kerry why he thinks the United States armed forces are incapable of doing more than one thing at a time.

This is no time to be nice and not worry about the media spinning themselves to death about not being 'presidential' (not that the President does worry about such things). Kerry has given the President enough material with which to beat him over the head for ten debates. But this is the debate most people will watch, and the debate that will, for all intents and purposes, decide the election. This is the time to forcefully make Kerry answer for his decades of deceit, pacifism and shallowness. Kerry is no friend of Bush, and no friend of America, and he needs to sustain an evening's worth of verbal roundhouses. If only Patton were around to administer the physical...    

The President has seldom failed to come through in the clutch. He made Al Gore look like the fool that he is in 2000, delivered an eloquent inaugural address the following January, and comforted a nation in the aftermath of the Islamafascist attacks of September 11. President Bush spelled out the case for the war on terrorism in his subsequent State of the Union addresses, and his 2002 speech to the United Nations. He voiced a stirring, strident defense of his administration at the Republican National Convention this past August. Now, in the final minutes of the 2004 campaign, yet another challenge awaits the President. Thursday night is winning time. 

Matthew May is a freelance writer and can be reached at