Last week President Bush found himself defending his record on national security without his usual protective cocoon of loyalty-tested audiences and cowed reporters. And the sound you heard was the scales' falling from millions of eyes.
Trying to undo the damage, Mr. Bush is now telling those loyalty-tested audiences that Senator John Kerry's use of the phrase "global test" means that he "would give foreign governments veto power over our national security decisions." He's lying, of course, as anyone can confirm by looking at what Mr. Kerry actually said. But it may still work - Mr. Bush's pre-debate rise in the polls is testimony to the effectiveness of smear tactics.
Still, something important happened on Thursday. Style probably mattered most: viewers were shocked by the contrast between Mr. Bush's manufactured image as a strong, resolute leader and his whiny, petulant behavior in the debate. But Mr. Bush would have lost even more badly if post-debate coverage had focused on substance.
Here's one underreported example: So far, Mr. Bush has paid no political price for his shameful penny-pinching on domestic security and his refusal to provide effective protection for America's ports and chemical plants. As Jonathan Chait wrote in The New Republic: "Bush's record on homeland security ought to be considered a scandal. Yet, not only is it not a scandal, it's not even a story."
But Mr. Kerry raised the issue, describing how the administration has failed to protect us against terrorist attacks. Mr. Bush's response? "I don't think we want to get to how he's going to pay for all these promises."
Oh, yes we do. According to Congressional Budget Office estimates, Mr. Bush's tax cuts, with their strong tilt toward the wealthy, are responsible for more than $270 billion of the 2004 budget deficit. Increased spending on homeland security accounts for only $20 billion. That shows the true priorities of the self-proclaimed "war president." Later, Mr. Bush, perhaps realizing his mistake, asserted, "Of course we're doing everything we can to protect America." But he had already conceded that he isn't.
It's also not clear whether voters have noticed the collapse of Mr. Bush's cover story for the disastrous decision to invade Iraq. In Coral Gables, Mr. Bush asserted that when Mr. Kerry voted to authorize the use of force against Saddam, he "looked at the same intelligence I looked at." But as The Times confirmed last weekend, the Bush administration suppressed intelligence that might have raised doubts in Congress.
The case for war rested crucially on one piece of evidence: Saddam's purchase of aluminum tubes that, according to Condoleezza Rice, were "only really suited for nuclear weapons programs." But the truth, never revealed to Congress, was that most of the government's experts considered the tubes unsuited for a nuclear program and identical to the tubes used by Iraq for other purposes. Yes, Virginia, we were misled into war.
Now it's Dick Cheney's turn.
Mr. Cheney's manufactured image is as much at odds with reality as Mr. Bush's. The vice president is portrayed as a hardheaded realist, someone you can trust with difficult decisions. But his actual record is one of irresponsibility and incompetence.
Case in point: Mr. Cheney completely misread the nature of the 2001 California energy crisis. Although he has stonewalled investigations into what went on in his task force, there's no real question that he placed his trust in the very companies whose market-rigging caused that crisis.
In tonight's debate, John Edwards will surely confront Mr. Cheney over that task force, over domestic policies and, of course, over Halliburton. But he can also use the occasion to ask more hard questions about national security.
After all, Mr. Cheney didn't just promise Americans that "we will, in fact, be welcomed as liberators" by the grateful Iraqis. He also played a central role in leading us to war on false pretenses.
No, that's not an overstatement. In August 2002, when Mr. Cheney declared "we now know Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons," he was being dishonest: the administration knew no such thing. He was also being irresponsible: his speech pre-empted an intelligence review that might have given dissenting experts a chance to make their case.
So here's Mr. Edwards's mission: to expose the real Dick Cheney, just as Mr. Kerry exposed the real George Bush.
Originally published in The New York Times, 10.5.04