Debating Dubya

George Bush will make lots of promises in his debates against John Kerry. How did the last set turn out?

| Thu Sep. 30, 2004 2:00 AM EDT

As John Kerry and George W. Bush get down to business in their series of three debates, it's worth taking a look back at the 2000 debates for a reminder of the positions Bush took in his three contests with Al Gore.

A number of the topics Bush and Gore spent much of their time debating -- the RU486 pill, the electoral defeat of Slobodan Milosevic, hate-crimes laws -- are unlikely to come up in this round, Kerry would do well to hold Bush accountable for some of his statements on other issues.

For example, Bush spent a fair portion of the 2000 debates criticizing the Clinton administration's "overstretching" of the military and deriding the practice of "nation building." Here are his responses from all three 2000 debates about when U.S. forces should be deployed:

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"Well, if it's in our vital national interests. And that means whether or not our territory is threatened or people could be harmed, whether or not our defense alliances are threatened, whether or not our friends in the Middle East are threatened. That would be a time to seriously consider the use of force. Secondly, whether or not the mission was clear, whether or not it was a clear understanding as to what the mission would be. Thirdly, whether or not we were prepared and trained to win; whether or not our forces were of high morale and high standing and well-equipped. And finally, whether or not there was an exit strategy." (First debate, 10/3/00)

"Somalia started off as a humanitarian mission and then changed into a nation-building mission, and that's where the mission went wrong. The mission was changed, and as a result, our nation paid a price. And so I don't think our troops ought to be used for what's called nation-building. I think our troops ought to be used to fight and win war." (Second debate, 10/11/00)

"The force must be strong enough so that the mission can be accomplished and the exit strategy needs to be well defined. I'm concerned that we're overdeployed around the world. See I think the mission has somewhat become fuzzy. Should I be fortunate enough to earn your confidence, the mission of the United States military will be to be prepared and ready to fight and win war. And, therefore, prevent war from happening in the first place."

Having drawn criticism as governor of Texas for not supporting a hate-crime bill prompted by the dragging death of James Byrd, Bush talked about the need to fight racism and racial profiling, in a way that doesn't square with his record on Guanatanamo Bay:

There is other forms of racial profiling that goes on in America. Arab-Americans are racially profiled in what's called secret evidence. People are stopped, and we've got to do something about that. My friend Senator Spencer Abraham of Michigan is pushing a law to make sure that, you know, Arab-Americans are treated with respect. So racial profiling isn't just an issue with local police forces. It's an issue throughout our society. And as we become a diverse society, we're going to have to deal with it more and more."

The "compassionate conservative" of 2000 also promised to work with groups like the Log Cabin Republicans, and he didn't sound like a guy who would lead a push to rewrite the constitution with a Federal Marriage Amendment or allow the firing of needed military translators because of their sexuality:

"I'm the kind of person--I don't hire or fire somebody based upon their sexual orientation. As a matter of fact, I'd like to take the issue a little further. I don't really think it's any of my concern how you conduct your sex life. And I think that's a private matter. And I think that's the way it ought to be. But I'm going to be respectful for people. I'll tolerate people."

Kerry also could ask Bush to explain why it took him three years to pass a prescription-drug benefit for seniors - and then a watered-down, Republican-driven one - after this criticism of the Clinton/Gore record:

"Eight years ago they campaigned on prescription drugs for seniors, and four years ago they campaigned on getting prescription drugs for seniors. And now they're campaigning on getting prescription drugs for seniors. It seems like they can't get it done. Now they may blame other folks, but it's time to get somebody in Washington who's is going to work with both Republicans and Democrats to get some positive things done when it comes to our seniorsSmy point has been as opposed to politicizing an issue like Medicare - in other words, holding it up as an issue, hoping somebody bites and then try to clobber them over the head with it for political purposes."

In the course of the 2000 debates, then-Gov. Bush also promised to close the gun-show loophole and require trigger locks on weapons, take global warming "very seriously," develop new technologies to lessen dependence on foreign oil, support a national Patients' Bill of Rights and rein in government spending - none of which he's done despite having a Republican-dominated legislature to work with.

And, perhaps most obviously, there were Bush's many promises to be a "uniter, not a divider" in both American politics and foreign policy:

"I've had a proud record of working with both Republicans and Democrats, which is what our nation needs. We need somebody who can come up to Washington and say, 'Look, let's forget all the politics and all the finger-pointing and get some positive things done on Medicare and prescription drugs and Social Security,' and so I take him for his word." (First debate)

"It really depends upon how our nation conducts itself in foreign policy. If we're an arrogant nation, they'll resent us. If we're a humble nation, but strong, they'll welcome us." (Third debate)

Starting Thursday night in Coral Gables, Bush will no doubt try to label John Kerry a "flip-flopper" who doesn't keep promises, but Bush's 2000 statements clash dramatically with his record. As voters consider whether to back Bush's promises for the next four years, they'd be wise to consider the ones from the last four.