Political Titans Go Toe-to-Toe On Bush-Kerry

They came to talk strategy in a wartime election, six of New York’s brightest political lights, sitting within a few feet of each other at a round table hosted by The New York Observer on the Upper East Side. The aim was insight into this remarkable and divisive election from veterans of the highest level of American politics.

A standing-room-only crowd in the wood-paneled library at the House of the Redeemer got plenty of insight. But in the end, the friendly banter over political tactics and mores gave way to hard talk on the same issue that divides Americans lower down the political ladder.

“It’s amazing how this damn campaign keeps focusing,” said the moderator, Presidential biographer Richard Reeves. “No matter where you jump into the funnel, it comes out Iraq.”

The group’s two Republicans, former Massachusetts Governor William Weld and G.O.P. strategist Kieran Mahoney, did depart from their party’s line to criticize President Bush for failing to reach toward the middle.

“I think Bush’s biggest misstep was not to think there’s a center in American politics and to try to appeal to the people who elected this guy governor of Massachusetts and George Pataki governor of New York,” said Mr. Mahoney, gesturing to Mr. Weld, who was seated to his right at the Oct. 11 event.

“I’d go with what Kieran said on the President reaching the middle,” Mr. Weld agreed.

But if politics used to stop at the water’s edge, that’s where the hardball started among the panelists—former Governor Mario Cuomo, Mr. Weld, Democratic lawyer David Boies, political analyst John Ellis, Pataki advisor Mr. Mahoney and Democratic National Committee advisor Howard Wolfson. Genial debate over the Electoral College and the mechanics of polling quickly slipped into sharp attacks on President George W. Bush and quick parries by his defenders.

“He took a lot of lives that maybe he didn’t have to take,” Mr. Cuomo said.

Mr. Boies, who is promoting his recent memoir Courting Justice, sparred with Mr. Ellis over the effect of the Iraq invasion.

“I don’t see how anybody can deny the fact that our invasion of Iraq has stimulated additional hostility, additional recruitment [to Al Qaeda], additional danger. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth going in. But you can’t say that we’re safer today because of Iraq. You can hope that we’ll be safer 10 years from now,” Mr. Boies said.

“I think you can say that we’re safer today,” responded Mr. Ellis, who is also a fellow at the West Point Combating Terrorism Center, and who made a stronger claim than even Mr. Bush typically does. “I think the U.S. is out of the equation for them now,” he said of Al Qaeda and associated groups.

Mr. Mahoney was also unfazed by the prospect of tangling with one of the nation’s top trial lawyers, accusing Mr. Boies of indulging in hindsight. “If you suggest in advance that the negative outcome would take place [if] you do something, that’s an interesting argument and a political twist, but it’s not a substantive remark about what’s going on in Iraq,” Mr. Mahoney said.

“Let’s stick with what we know is a mistake, O.K.?” Mr. Boies responded, listing false American prewar assumptions and concluding, “Now it may still be that people think it was the right thing to do to go into Iraq, but I do not believe that we would have gone into Iraq if we’d known those things in advance.”

Two of the participants also offered an unusually close view into the two Presidential candidates and how they make their decisions. Mr. Ellis, who is the nephew of former President George H.W. Bush and the first cousin of the current President, said the notion of an isolated executive in his “bubble” is a cliché.

“If you have a large network of friends and sort of informal advisors and so on and so forth, you do have a lot of people coming at you every day with advice and jokes and stories,” Mr. Ellis said. “In this President Bush’s case, he has a network of people who sort of present him with other ideas and things to read and so on and so forth.”

Mr. Weld, Senator Kerry’s antagonist in the 1996 Massachusetts Senate race, said he thought the real John Kerry had finally emerged.

“I think that the John Kerry you’re seeing right now, the anti-war John Kerry, that’s the real John Kerry,” he said. “The vote where he was standing on one leg and craning his neck a little bit, I think, was the vote to authorize the use of force before the second [Persian Gulf] war.”

If there was anything the two sides of the table agreed on, it was the difficulty of predicting the outcome of the Nov. 2 balloting.

“Millions of new voters in swing states—no one knows who’s going to get these folks out, whether they’re going to come out, what motivates them,” Mr. Wolfson said. “I don’t think anybody here would venture a guess as to what that will do to polling models going forward.”

Mr. Mahoney concurred.

“I believe both parties are flying a little bit blind on this one,” he said.

RICHARD REEVES: With Governor Weld representing the incumbent and Governor Cuomo representing the loyal opposition: Is this the election of our lifetime, or is this just business as usual?

WILLIAM WELD: Well, it’s the election of our lifetime in terms of political theater. I mean it’s been obvious since March, I think, that this is a pay-to-get-in type of contest. Not only because it’s so evenly matched, but because the candidates are so totally different, not only in their ideology, but in their approach to the election. As I look at the debates, the contrast in style could not be more obvious.

I think that John Kerry, as I know too well for my sins, is the most articulate debater in American public life active on this stage to this day. The gentlemen to my right would give him a run for his money, but aside from that, I don’t really think of a lot of other company in that crowd.

I had a problem when I was debating John in that I didn’t listen closely enough to what he said, the middle of the ripostes back and forth. And they were well-written paragraphs that could have been drawn from a tractatus. He really is amazing in that sense and I think will have the upper hand in the debates. At the same, I think the President has laid down some pretty good markers which are going to come back at Senator Kerry in the final analysis, and perhaps just as voters are going to the booth.

How are you going to assemble a coalition of allies when you’re against the whole thing and say it’s a grand diversion? And that’s sort of maybe a hit below the water line in my estimation. But I wish the airwaves were not so rife with Bush-bashing and Kerry-bashing. I live in New York City, so I have to keep my mouth shut when I go out to dinner. I spend a fair amount of time in the investment business in the Midwest, and the laughter there in the coffee shops is in the opposite direction. I don’t think it should be so. I’ve known both nominees pretty well since every election since 1988, and there’s not a loser in the group. But that’s hard to prove in these degenerate days.

CUOMO: First of all, as to the nature of the debate—I think it’s awful, actually. How do we get our information in this campaign? Principally from three sources, all television. One is a couple of hundred million dollars worth of 28-second ads which in their nature have to be distorted; they’re so tight, they’re so small, and the subjects are so big.

And then two conventions, which are both exercises in political narcissism, which is you describe whatever is good about you and your candidate, you exaggerate it, [and] you omit anything that’s commendable about your adversary and exaggerate their faults. That was done better by the Republicans than the Democrats this time around, which accounted for them doing so well. And then the two debates or three debates. The best of the three possibilities.

Why not have an unconventional convention, three days of debates—Biden debates Colin Powell; have Clarke debate Rumsfeld, have Robert Rubin debate Snow on the deficit, etc. And then have the candidates debate. But not 30 seconds to answer the questions. I don’t measure the possibility of making an excellent President by glibness and memory, which is what these debates are, or theatricality if you’ve got the Clinton flair for theatricality. If you have President Bush’s great strength, that impressionism, he creates wonderful impressions with the way he moves and sounds—his utter sincerity. Even Ralph Walden Emerson’s “foolish consistency” you can convert into a virtue—you say “hard work” often enough and you might even be fooled into thinking he’s working hard. So all in all, there are better ways to do it, and I wish we could think about that.

KIERAN MAHONEY: Frankly, in a historical context, the Reagan-Carter election was much more momentous because it was dealing with Communism and the Cold War, which was frankly a larger issue, if perhaps less politically acute than how you deal with terrorism. And I think that the fundamental questions with regard to how to conduct that war are in fact the largest albatross that hangs on the Kerry Presidential campaign at the moment.

REEVES: This is the greatest democracy in the world—250 million people—how did two guys who went to school together end up running against each other, if our system is as diverse as we like to think it is?

JOHN ELLIS: I think because it’s not as diverse as we like to think it is, and you know a big thing about running for President today is that you have to raise hundreds of millions of dollars, and so people who have those networks, and are able to raise hundreds of millions of dollars, are the ones that emerge as the nominees. Bush raised $180 million; Kerry raised roughly the same amount. Equal amounts have been raised for both the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee, so you’re talking something like $550 million. You need wealthy networks to build that kind of wealth.

MAHONEY: The real question is what does it take to be the nominee of either party? And I don’t think its bequeathed exclusively to Yale students, but you need—if money nominated people, Howard Dean would be the nominee, and Bush with all the structural advantages of being an incumbent governor of Texas damn near lost to McCain, who raised most of his money through the Internet after an upset victory in New Hampshire, where he was underfunded, and I think that the modern American political dynamic is in fact much less hierarchical and much less money-oriented to become the nominee. Once you’re the nominee, obviously, the interests of both parties align behind you.

HOWARD WOLFSON: Just a quick thought on the explosion of Internet funding. It’s cheaper to raise money over the Internet, and it speaks to how engaged and interested people are in this election. They’re giving over the Internet. And Democrats have essentially raised as much as Republicans, despite expectations that we would not.

REEVES: I grew up in Jersey City, across the river, so the honesty and integrity, etc., of elections …. But I thought that was over. I think, like most Americans, I was shocked at the thought that dishonesty—electoral dishonesty—hadn’t kind of died with Mayor Daley, and anyway the Republicans were stealing votes in the south of Illinois, so you thought this is a great country. Are our elections honest?

DAVID BOIES: I think our elections are basically honest. I think that what has happened relates to how sharply divided the country is—and I don’t know if this is the most important election we’ve ever had, but in my lifetime it is the most sharply divided election we’ve ever had. There were differences obviously between Carter and Reagan, Goldwater and Johnson, but the country was not as sharply divided as it is here. Here you have probably 40 percent of the country that is not only not going to vote for the [other] candidate, but despises that candidate.

Part of that has to do with the negative advertising, part of that has to do with the nature of the issue involved. That division I think has led to much more partisan treatment of the elections. I think that in terms of stuffing ballot boxes and out-and-out fraud, I think there’s probably less of that than there used to be. But what you find—and, for example, what from my perspective you found in the last election in Florida—I think is different than what we have seen in prior cases. I don’t think that has to do with the fact that the people involved are less honest or less good; I think it has to do with how sharply the country is divided and how everybody is pushing for an advantage of what they think is the right side.

REEVES: Would you be surprised if one candidate or the other wins by six or seven points?

MAHONEY: I would be astonished if a candidate wins by more than five in this race. I just think, to David’s earlier point, we’ve been doing research for 30 years, we’ve never seen the polarization there is. Pew Research says that as well. Everybody I speak to in the business, and I speak to lots of people in the business, been around for a long time … the delta that’s largely created by Bush—not by the Democrats; it’s a reaction to Bush, fundamentally—is as large and deep as it’s ever been in American politics. You talked about Reagan playing to the middle. This is a President who has no interest whatsoever in doing that, and it’s really had a profound impact on both parties.

WOLFSON: We’ve had the largest increase in new voter registrations in a generation, if not ever, this last cycle. Both parties—more on the Democratic side, but also on the Republican side. You’ve got these 527’s, these independent organizations, mostly on the Democratic side, the progressive side. Millions of new voters in swing states—no one knows who’s going to get these folks out, whether they’re going to come out, what motivates them. So when pollsters attempt to look at these numbers, it’s very confusing, and I don’t think anybody here would venture a guess as to what that will do to polling models going forward.

REEVES: You agree with that?

MAHONEY: Professionally, I believe both parties are flying a little bit blind on this one, because it just never happened before and every situation’s new and unique now.

WELD: Let me ask Howard—I was struck by the answers that the two candidates gave to an abortion question in the second debate. President Bush said ‘No, we’re not going to have financing for abortions,’ and he talked about the partial-birth ban. Senator Kerry said, ‘I’m going to be President of all the people.’ You couldn’t really prove whether he was pro-choice or pro-life from that answer. I wondered, when I heard that, are the Democrats prospecting for voters absolutely in the middle there who might be turned off by a declarative statement there, and are the Republicans playing more to the base?

WOLFSON: Well, I do think Republicans are playing more to the base. But I don’t think there’s any confusion about Senator Kerry’s position on the issue of choice. I think voters in this country will know and do know that he’s solidly pro-choice. BOIES: In terms of the answer, though, he also said in that same answer that he did not think that people who could not afford that choice ought to have the money to pay for it. And he explicitly said that he was in favor of funding abortions for those who couldn’t afford it.

I also think that he made that very clear when he talked about the importance of the Supreme Court in this election, saying that this election can determine a woman’s right to choose more than any other election that we’ve had. This is an election that’s going to set the character of the United States Supreme Court for the next two and maybe two and a half decades, and if you think of the kinds of issues that are out there, from affirmative action to a woman’s right to choose and those kinds of issues, that is, I think, a lot of what is dividing the country, and I think Kerry was quite clear on where he stood on that.

REEVES: Bill, you’ve been in this business for a long time. I happened to have dinner last night with a guy who had run for President and began to talk about how debilitating it was. I said, ‘What is the worst thing about running for President?’ And he said, ‘The amount you have to lie.’ He said that you have to go to Michigan and lie about what you really believe about auto emissions, as Senator Kerry has backed off his positions because of Michigan. You have to go to Florida and say we’re going to sink Cuba into the sea whatever happens. You have to go to New York and, if people ask about Israel, you can’t tell them what you actually believe, you have to tell them what they want to hear. Is lying more acceptable today in politics than when you started, or in the whole society itself?

WELD: I really don’t think it’s more acceptable in politics, and of the three professions I’ve been in—politics, law and business—politics is the one where it’s most important to have your word be good. You get caught out absolutely dead if your word is not good, in my view. You know, I’ve been known as something of an enfant terrible in the Republican Party, and one of the things that that means is I have not gone out of my way to shade what I may have thought. I may be a prominent liberal on social issues and a prominent right-winger on crime and taxes issues, but I’ve always had fun with that, and I’ve as a result not found the process of standing for office to be draining.

REEVES: Is lying acceptable now in our society, even if you get caught?

CUOMO: It depends. There are a lot of things you can do with lying. For example, you can use the Jesuit definition: Lying is the withholding or distorting of truth to someone who has the right not to be deceived, and you can get exquisite about that. I think Bill is right.

MAHONEY: There’s a simple reason—it’s efficacy. I tell my candidates that if you say 20 things and one of them’s not true, that makes you a liar, and if you say three things and they’re all true, that makes you a truth-teller. And you have to realize that when you’re running in politics, it’s a theatrical piece, and one of the pieces of theater is, are you credible?

You were probably having dinner with a Democrat, because the Democratic Party frankly is out of step with the national electorate—more so than Republicans are. Kerry obfuscates, in my opinion, because if he were to tell the truth—the unvarnished kind of liberal truth—he would receive the base Democratic vote, which would leave him 20 points short of being the President of the United States.

REEVES: Can you give us examples of the unvarnished truth?

MAHONEY: Yeah, sure. He’s had four different positions, by my count, on Iraq.

CUOMO: Which one of them was wrong?

MAHONEY: The last two. When he said that he would have voted to go into Iraq regardless of the fact that they didn’t have weapons of mass destruction. He played that out for a month, it didn’t work, and then said it was the wrong war at the wrong time.

WOLFSON: That’s not what he said. He would have voted to give the President the authority, which is different from actually going into Iraq, as you know.

MAHONEY: But Howard, with all due respect, that vote was tantamount—and was well understood to be tantamount—to giving the President authorization.

WOLFSON: That’s not what the President told us. He gave the President the authority, and he said he was going to wait for the weapons inspectors to come back and work with the U.N., neither of which he did. So you know that’s not what happened.

MAHONEY: With all due respect, Howard Dean was against the war and Kerry was for the war at one juncture. He decided that he needed to trim his sails on that, and I think it was an appropriate decision, and I think that is a burden, frankly, that the Democrats generally have right now: that on those issues they tend to represent a minority opinion in the United States, and in particular in the swing states that are in play right now. And that leads to more dodging and weaving—which I think he’s excellent at, and I commend him for it.

CUOMO: On the question of truth-telling and the war, there’s two things that amaze me about the current discussion—really amaze me. How the $87 billion issue keeps coming up, Howard, and nobody ever says what Joe Conason said once in The Observer, and that is President Bush threatened five times to veto that bill. Which means that five times he said, ‘If you take it out of the pockets of the rich, I veto the bill.’ With that single stroke, he would have killed it. Kerry voted knowing that he wasn’t killing it, knowing that he was allowed to take a position for a point. And say, ‘Look, I’m against it because it should come out of the pockets of the rich—you’re giving them one trillion dollars over 11 years.’ That’s never been mentioned.

REEVES: Do you mean to say the President voted against it before he voted for it?

CUOMO: He did indeed. And here’s the other thing.

If you look at pages 125, 126, and 127 of Bob Graham’s book—and remember, Tommy Franks wrote his own—he quotes Tommy Franks specifically 14 months before Iraq. Now, Paul O’Neill says that President Bush brought up Iraq at the first meeting of the cabinet that he was at.

But here’s Tommy Franks—who later endorsed him, of course—saying the following to Bob Graham, on the question of how he’s doing in Afghanistan. He says, ‘We have the Army, the Army’s good, but the Army’s going to take a long time before we catch Osama. They have us on a manhunt now, that’s not what we do well. And now they’re taking forces from us for an action in Iraq, and that’s a mistake, because the European nations know more about the weapons of mass destruction than we do. Our intelligence is very bad. And when we are finished here, we should go to Somalia and Yemen, where we know Al Qaeda is, and deal with them before we go to Iraq.’ What about that? Is the President lying when he says that he didn’t get advice to the contrary?

ELLIS: First of all, German intelligence, French intelligence, Russian intelligence and Chinese intelligence all thought that there were weapons of mass destruction, chemical, biological and nuclear, in Iraq. We were not the only intelligence service that thought this. That’s the first thing.

The second thing is the President had a strategy going into the war against terror. The first was to attack Al Qaeda, which is the spearhead, the intellectual and ideological spearhead, of the Islamic jihad movement, if you want to call it that. And the idea was to do as much as possible to destroy the client/franchisee relationships that came down from Osama and his lieutenants to the various cells, which we did successfully in Afghanistan. We killed every single member of the 007 brigade—all 5,000 members of Osama’s private army. We have captured or killed roughly two-thirds of the Al Qaeda leadership. And it’s the belief of many people in the intelligence community that Osama’s dead. So we have done an excellent job militarily of disrupting the Al Qaeda networks.

WOLFSON: Why’s there a greater threat today than there was then?

ELLIS: There’s a greater threat because we are aware of the change in circumstances, I think. Once somebody drives a plane into the World Trade Center, then you begin to think ‘Gee, they could put chemical and biological agents in the subway.’

BOIES: That’s clearly part of it. But I don’t see how anybody can deny the fact that our invasion of Iraq has stimulated additional hostility, additional recruitment, additional danger. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth going in. But you can’t say that we’re safer today because of Iraq. You can hope that we’ll be safer 10 years from now.

ELLIS: I think you can say that we’re safer today. I think that the strategy of Al Qaeda has changed. I think that the strategy of the franchisees has changed. I think the U.S. is out of the equation for them now.

REEVES: John, I want to switch gears on something which you probably know more about than anyone here. I was amazed in the second debate by one small incident. That was the President saying to Senator Kerry that ‘You saw the same intelligence I saw.’ Now my experience—I don’t know Lincoln as well as I know modern Presidents—is that no one has as much intelligence as a President has. That’s what “eyes only” means. The President generally decides what intelligence Congress sees, and certainly what intelligence the American people end up seeing. I don’t know how close you are to your cousin, or whether you spend time there. But how isolated does a President—any President get—once they’re inside? Is your cousin the boy in the bubble?

ELLIS: I think every President is to some degree in the bubble. It was certainly the case of my uncle when he served from ’89 to ’93, and I think it’s certainly the case of President Bush, George W., partly just because of the increased security and so on and so forth. But if you have a large network of friends and sort of informal advisors and so on and so forth, you do have a lot of people coming at you every day with advice and jokes and stories and, in this President Bush’s case, he has a network of people who sort of present him with other ideas and things to read and so on and so forth.

CUOMO: Dick, I think the discussion about Iraq stops a little bit short. If you take the President’s rationale—‘O.K., I was wrong about weapons, I was wrong about complicity and I was wrong about imminence, but I was right that this guy’s bad and he might someday have had a nuclear weapon, and he killed his own people and we’re better off without him’—then that’s the end of the argument.’ And so presumably, if we say, ‘Yes, we are better off without him,’ then he was right.

But the real question for the American people is: If he had come to you and said to you, the President of the United States, ‘I’m going to go after Saddam. Now we know he doesn’t have [W.M.D.] now, but he might get them some day. And we know Al Qaeda’s not there now, but someday he might do business with Al Qaeda. And so I’m going to bring him down, because that will be good for the American people and the world. It will cost me at least a thousand of your sons and daughters. It will cost many thousands more wounded. It will take 25,000 innocent Iraqis and kill them. It will cost us $200 billion. We will antagonize much of the world. And we will be stuck not knowing what to do next in Iraq …. Do you agree I should be authorized, John Kerry?’

REEVES: David, I want to ask you a question. Where would the world be, where would the U.S.A. be, where would this campaign be, if we had not gone into Iraq?

BOIES: I think the country would be stronger, I think Bush would be stronger. Because the country clearly is safer because of what this administration did in Afghanistan. Regardless of what you think of the Iraqi war, the war in Afghanistan was the right war at the right time for the right reasons. And it has helped make this country safer. I agree with everything that you say about the attacks on Al Qaeda and the success in getting at Al Qaeda the way it existed. So I think that if you’d stopped at Afghanistan, you’d not gone into Iraq—and I agree, if we’d known, if we had realized there’s not weapons of mass destruction, there would not have been the urgency to go in; if we had known that there was not the complicity with Al Qaeda, there would not have been the urgency to go in. Remember what the French and the Germans were asking for. They were asking, ‘Give us some time to put more inspectors on the ground and see if we can solve the problem that way.’ And if we had known that there were no weapons of mass destruction, no complicity with Al Qaeda, I think everybody would have been in favor of doing it. I think that if that had happened, I think that this would not be a close election. I think Bush would be stronger, he would still be fighting the war on terror, he could still portray himself as a War President, but it would be a much more successful War President.

Now I think that he has divided the country on Iraq as much as he’s divided the country on domestic issues. And part of the division is that, while I think that the overwhelming majority of this country supports supporting the troops once they are in Iraq, I think that the argument where he says, ‘I was wrong on weapons of mass destruction, I was wrong on Al Qaeda connections, I was wrong that the mission was accomplished, and yet I would do it all the same,’ I think is a vulnerability that he didn’t have to have.

MAHONEY: All the stipulations by my Democratic friends—if we knew there were weapons of mass destruction, if we knew it was a mistake … that’s an interesting argument and a political twist, but it’s not a substantive remark about what’s going on in Iraq.

BOIES: Let’s stick with what we know is a mistake, O.K.? We know it was a mistake that there were weapons of mass destruction.

ELLIS: No, not quite correct. Wait, wait—we know that there are no nuclear weapons, or at least we think, we’re 99 percent sure, that there are no nuclear devices. We do not have that level of certainty on C.B.W. [chemical and biological weapons].

BOIES: Well, first of all, I think that most people have that level of certainty, but everybody has that level of certainty with respect to nuclear weapons, and the President of the United States said that was a threat. We know that was a mistake. We know that it was a mistake to have the allegations about the complicity with Al Qaeda that the President announced before we went to war. We know it was a mistake to say that the mission was accomplished in the May after the invasion. We know those things are mistakes, and I don’t think the American people think that those are not substantive.

Now, it may still be that people think it was the right thing to do to go into Iraq, but I do not believe that we would have gone into Iraq if we’d known those things in advance.

ELLIS: We probably would not have gotten in the vote if he had known those things in advance. But let’s be clear about some things here. One, Richard Preston who writes about chemical and biological warfare for The New Yorker and probably knows as much about it as anybody, said in the most recent book, Demon in the Freezer, that the Iraqis basically confessed to a chemical/biological warfare program in 1994. So you have a situation where what we now believe to be the case was that there was no nuclear program—that that was disabled after the first Gulf War for financial and other reasons—but that they’re sort of 50-50 split on whether there was a major C.B.W. program. Second, the President never said that Saddam Hussein was in concert with Osama Bin Laden. Every single person who worked for the President said that they were rivals for leadership roles in Iraq.

WOLFSON: That’s not what Dick Cheney said.

ELLIS: I beg to differ on that. But third, the West Point speech made clear what the strategy was: First, strike Al Qaeda, then strike an enabling state, O.K.? States that enable terrorism, states that are part of a network of terrorism—you can’t just strike Al Qaeda, you need to strike an enabling state. The West Point speech is clear on that. One of the reasons I think the President says he would do it over again is because he believes—you may not believe—but he believes that it’s important not just to get at the terrorist network, but to get at the enabling states.

REEVES: It’s amazing how this damn campaign keeps focusing. No matter where you jump into the funnel, it comes out Iraq.

QUESTIONER FROM THE FLOOR: I’d like to know what advice each side would give to their respective candidates on the third debate.

MAHONEY: Let me first of all suggest that in the course of our conversation here, we’ve focused exclusively on President Bush, and what I would suggest that President Bush do in the debate is focus almost entirely on Senator Kerry—and I think that was the strength of the Republican convention and the strength of his second debate experience. Because Senator Kerry has an historic record with regard to national-defense issues that places him among the most liberal in the United States Senate. He voted against the first Gulf War when Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait and had a history of invading his neighbors and had occupied—he voted against that. He consistently voted against defense spending throughout the decade. You raised the lack of body armor, and the fact of the matter is, there is a clear difference on national-defense issues. President Bush has been consistently supportive of increased funding for national-defense efforts, and Senator Kerry has been consistently in favor of lesser funding for national-defense efforts. This is a candidate who has had a decade, 20 years in the United States Senate, to show a consistent position on foreign policy and a campaign to do the same. He’s failed miserably in both things, and I think that the President of the United States needs to make the debate about Kerry and his failure in terms of consistency.

WOLFSON: Let me just respond to Kieran. He opened up with a line of attack on Senator Kerry’s record, which is the latest line of attack from the Republicans against Senator Kerry. It is interesting and I’ll be curious to see if they continue to do this that for the better part of a year they’ve been attacking Senator Kerry for being a flip-flopper and now they’re attacking Senator Kerry for being a committed lifelong liberal, and I’m not sure how exactly you square that circle, but I’ll leave that to the professionals on the other side.

REEVES: What should Kerry do in the third debate?

WELD: Well, I would advise the President to go after the points of substance that I think may constitute land mines for Senator Kerry between here and the end of the election, and that’s not who says what in debate, that’s not palaver—it’s how are you going to marshal a great coalition of allies when you’ve called this “a grand diversion” and it’s “the coalition of the bribed and coerced” and it’s “the wrong war, wrong place, wrong time.” It’s very hard to see how he’d command the entry of many new allies into the fray, and yet he says that’s the cornerstone of what he’s going to do in Iraq. I do think—and I like Senator Kerry, and I know him well, and I’m not a Kerry-basher—I do think that you’ve got to twist a little bit to have his position on the war on Iraq not seen as in some degree inconsistent. I think that the John Kerry you’re seeing right now, the anti-war John Kerry, that’s the real John Kerry. The vote where he was standing on one leg and craning his neck a little bit, I think, was the vote to authorize the use of force before the second war. I mean, he voted against the first war when you had an actual invasion.

CUOMO: Look, after all this discussion, after all the quibbling about how wrong everybody else was, there’s another question for the practical people: He was wrong. He took a lot of lives that maybe he didn’t have to take. He killed a lot of innocent people. Do you want to give him a second chance to do it? What guarantees you that he won’t be wrong again? What guarantees you that he won’t make exactly the same kind of mistake? What guarantees you that with a full heart he’s not saying to himself, ‘Now Syria is next—and maybe we should do this again’? All I know is, at the very best, we have had one of the most grotesque mistakes in the modern history of the Presidency, and now he’s saying ‘Give me another shot at it’—and that’s before you get to domestic issues.

REEVES: Remind me not to run against you. … I want to ask, can you tell us in one sentence, by the way everybody I think gulped and blinked when you said Kerry’s biggest mistake was picking Edwards, why do you think that?

ELLIS: I think the difficulty for the Kerry campaign has always to be on parity on national-security issues. And so I thought if he had chosen, say, General Zinni of the Marine Corps, that he would have been able to achieve a sort of instant parity on national-security issues. And Edwards is going to lose his home state and is a non-factor in this election.