IF I'M JOHN KERRY this morning, I'm not feeling so good. That first round with Bill Weld last night isn't exactly pumping me full of new confidence. I know I gave as good as I got, but -- sheesh, I got it pretty good. I'm used to fighting political amateurs like Jim Rappaport or Ray Shamie. This guy's a pro.
I can't believe I spent half the debate talking about taxes. Taxes! That's his issue. He kept going on about his 11 tax cuts, and even when I tried to take some air out of his balloon, I kept talking about his tax cuts, too.
"The governor has made a lot . . . of his tax cuts," I said. "And I think it's interesting: When you analyze his tax cuts, out of the 10 tax cuts that he has given, 96 cents on the dollar of those tax cuts goes to corporations or to wealthy individuals. Only 3.8 cents goes to the average individual who's sitting at home trying to make ends meet." He knows it's true and I know it's true and the policy wonks know it's true, but the only thing most people heard was me mentioning Weld's "tax cuts" four times in two sentences.
Then he hauls out my vote to raise the gas tax, and what do I say? "I voted for a 4.3-cent increase, absolutely, and I'm very proud of that vote." What was I thinking? Now I'm going to be hearing that sound bite in Weld commercials for the next seven months. And that 50-cents-a-gallon gasoline tax he says I "insisted on" -- why couldn't I come up with a better response than "We never voted on it"?
I should have changed the subject. I should have asked him what kind of fiscal conservative he is when state spending has gone up 30 percent -- $ 5 billion -- since he's been in office. I should have asked him to name a single state agency that has actually been "downsized" out of existence -- files emptied, doors locked, people gone. Come to think of it, I should have asked him why he only talks about shrinking the government when he's running for office.
I did zing him pretty good when he said something about "the reason I'm interested in my friend's job over there." I got him right back with: "Governor, you ought to be interested in your own job. You ran for it; you ought to do it." Ba-da bing! The audience loved that one. Of course, I won't be able to use it again. Next time he won't forget that I did the same thing myself -- ran for lieutenant governor in '82, then walked away from that job to run for the Senate in '84.
The problem with debating this guy is that even when I'm winning on points, I'm losing ground. Take that little missile on crime that I fired at him at the end. He's talking about the death penalty and how tough he is on criminals, and I turn it back on him with: "I remember you ran for governor saying you were going to take away the TV sets and have them crushing rocks. I haven't noticed any crushed pebbles around the streets of Massachusetts, nor have I noticed that TV sets have been taken away. In fact, you were given a grant by the federal government -- your choice of what to do with it -- and you spend it on yoga and meditation for prisoners!"
But what does that get me? The soft-on-crime types are with me anyway. The make-'em-crush-rock crowd is voting for him. So what if he didn't really make them bust rock? Everybody knows I wouldn't either.
Do I really have to do six more of these debates? I know I didn't make any major bloopers last night, but neither did he. And that's not good for me because -- I might as well face it -- voters like him. I've got to figure out a way to make people stop liking him. Which means I'd better be talking about something else in the next debate. Another six debates talking about taxes and crime, and I'm John Kerry, private citizen.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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