Agnostic, atheist, Jew, Protestant, whatever

It's hard to know what criteria apply to scoring the presidential debates anymore, but it's a safe bet to say that when pundits are looking at last night's contest and comparing the president to Aristotle, we can call it a Bush win. Before the debate, I had heard lots of carping by conservatives about the faux town hall format, in which supposedly undecided voters usually pepper candidates with questions about what government can do for them, but that was not the thrust of most of the queries. The first question of the debate was, "Senator Kerry, after talking with several co-workers and family and friends, I asked the ones who said they were not voting for you, 'Why?' They said that you were too wishy-washy. Do you have a reply for them?"

And the pile-on continued:

"Senator Kerry, we have been fortunate that there have been no further terrorist attacks on American soil since 9/11. Why do you think this is? And if elected, what will you do to assure our safety?"

"Senator Kerry, you've stated your concern for the rising cost of health care, yet you chose a vice presidential candidate who has made millions of dollars successfully suing medical professionals. How do you reconcile this with the voters?"

"Senator Kerry, would you be willing to look directly into the camera and, using simple and unequivocal language, give the American people your solemn pledge not to sign any legislation that will increase the tax burden on families earning less than $200,000 a year during your first term?"

"Senator Kerry, thousands of people have already been cured or treated by the use of adult stem cells or umbilical cord stem cells. However, no one has been cured by using embryonic stem cells. Wouldn't it be wise to use stem cells obtained without the destruction of an embryo?"

"Senator Kerry, suppose you are speaking with a voter who believed abortion is murder and the voter asked for reassurance that his or her tax dollars would not go to support abortion, what would you say to that person?"

In answering the last question, Kerry tickled his tonsils with his toes. He allowed that he deeply respects "the belief about life and when it begins," because, you see, "I'm a Catholic, raised a Catholic. I was an altar boy. Religion has been a huge part of my life. It helped lead me through a war, leads me today." Just not when it comes to making decisions about what to vote for, apparently.

Kerry argued that he cannot "take what is an article of faith for me and legislate it for someone who doesn't share that article of faith, whether they be agnostic, atheist, Jew, Protestant, whatever. ... But I can counsel people. I can talk reasonably about life and about responsibility. I can talk to people, as my wife, Theresa, does, about making other choices, and about abstinence, and about all these other things that we ought to do as a responsible society." He also said that as president he would fund abortions for the poor and reinstate funds for abortions overseas.

Bush responded that Kerry could talk until he was blue in the face, but when it came down to it the Massachusetts senator was unwilling to do anything to promote a "culture of life" by curbing even the worst excesses of abortion. The president pointed out that Kerry voted against the ban on partial birth abortion, against parental notification laws, against the Unborn Victims of Violence Act.

Kerry's rebuttal began, "Well, again, the president just said, categorically, my opponent is against this, my opponent is against that. You know, it's just not that simple." He said that partial birth abortion should be allowed to save the health or life of the mother -- though the "health" part would make the ban useless -- and said that he voted against the parental notification law because "I'm not going to require a 16- or 17-year-old kid who's been raped by her father and who's pregnant to have to notify her father."

Slate's William Saletan, who called the first two debates for Kerry and Edwards, judged Kerry's performance this time a dismal failure. Having written a book on the struggles over abortion, he wrote, "I know something about abortion politics, so I can tell you how effective Kerry's answer was. It was awful."

My old boss Wlady Pleszczynski wrote in The American Spectator that the two pro-life questions "just about finished [Kerry] off," for two reasons. First because the questions "allowed Bush to drive home some key points." Second, they drew out the unappealing "NARAL side of Kerry which requires him to use the mother's health excuse as his reason for backing partial birth abortion and to oppose parental notification because all teen pregnancies apparently stem from incestuous rape." Pleszczynski concluded by asking "has there been a lovelier and sweeter young American at such an event than Sarah Degenhart, who asked the second pro-life question? You have to wonder what tax bracket she'll end up in when she gets to heaven."

He kids. Everybody knows there are no taxes in heaven.

[A footnote: Before liberal GetReligion readers take to the comments box to accuse me of spinning for Bush on this one, I should disclose that my dog in this fight was arrested last night.]

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