President Bush and Sen. John Kerry faced off for the second time Friday night, answering voter questions on Iraq and the War on Terror, as well as domestic issues such as Medicare, tax cuts and the controversial Patriot Act.
Bush continued to paint the Massachusetts senator as a flip-flopping liberal who would overtax Americans and be too lax in the War on Terror, while Kerry accused the president of adopting foreign policies that put America in more danger and for putting corporate interests above all else where domestic policy is concerned.
The debate at Washington University in St. Louis (search) was moderated by Charlie Gibson of ABC, who selected members of the audience to ask their questions. An equal number of foreign policy and domestic questions were asked of the two presidential candidates.
A third and final debate takes place Oct. 13 in Tempe, Ariz., and will focus on economic and domestic policy.
Iraq, War on Terror
Both men got what might be described as "unfriendly" questions from some members of the audience. Kerry, in the very first question of the night, was asked to respond to voters' concerns that he was too "wishy-washy."
"The president didn't find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, so he's really turned his campaign into a weapon of mass deception, and the result is you've been bombarded with messages suggesting that I've changed positions on this thing or the other," the junior senator from Massachusetts answered.
When Bush took his turn, he cited various ways Kerry has purportedly waffled on the war in Iraq and other issues.
"He says he voted for the $87 billion [supplemental Iraq war budget], voted against it right before he voted for it — that sends a confusing signal to people," Bush responded. "I see why people think he changes positions quite often, because he does."
The president said Kerry supported getting rid of Saddam Hussein (search) before the anti-war presidential candidate Howard Dean gained momentum among Democratic voters in 2003.
"I don't see how you can lead this country in a time of war, in a time of uncertainty, if you change your mind because of politics," Bush added.
A report by the chief U.S. arms inspector in Iraq released Wednesday, known as the "Duelfer report (search)," says no evidence was found that Saddam Hussein's regime was producing such weapons after 1991.
Bush said he "wasn't happy" when it was discovered that Saddam didn't actually possess those weapons, as documented in that report, "but Saddam Hussein is a unique threat and the world is better off with him not in power."
Kerry countered that although the hunt for Saddam landed the deposed dictator in jail, countries like North Korea and Iran have been furthering their nuclear capabilities virtually unchecked.
"The world is more dangerous today, it's more dangerous today because the president didn't make the right judgments," the Democrat said. "I've never changed my mind on Iraq — I thought Saddam Hussein was a threat, I've always thought Saddam Hussein was a threat ... but I would have used that force wisely ... not rush to war without a plan to win the peace."
Kerry also charged that Iraq has caused Bush to "take his eye off the ball and off of Usama bin Laden."
Bush said it's a "fundamental error to say the War on Terror is only Usama bin Laden," and not generally about keeping dangerous weapons out of terrorists' hands. And that war, he added, "is a global conflict that requires firm resolve."
Kerry slammed Bush on his administration's nonproliferation efforts, saying, "I'm going to lead the world in the greatest counter-proliferation effort and if we have to get tough with Iran, believe me, we will get tough." He said America has becomes "less safe" because Iran's nuclear threat has grown.
"That answer almost made me want to scowl," Bush replied, referring to criticism he received after last week's debate for making disgusted faces as Kerry was talking.
"I fully understand the threat," Bush said, noting that countries like Germany, France and England are getting on board to apply pressure to Iran to discontinue its nuclear program. Bush added that it's "naïve and dangerous" to think that bilateral negotiations with North Korea — versus the six-way talking going on now — will work.
It's Not About Being Popular
Bush was asked how he planned to mend relations with other countries that have been torn over the war in Iraq. Bush said it's not his job to always do what's popular, especially if it's not in the interest of the United States, whether it be on Iraq or his refusal to deal with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
"I recognize I've made some decisions that have caused people to not understand the great values of our country," the president said, noting that former President Ronald Reagan's tough stance on the Soviet Union wasn't popular in the 1980s, either. "I recognize that taking Saddam Hussein out was unpopular, but I made the decision because I thought it was in the right interest of our security."
The president also said that despite rumors spreading across the Internet that the draft will be reinstated, "We're not going to have a draft. Period." He added that military transformation will allow U.S. forces to be lighter and faster and will require less force en masse in any one country.
Kerry said the best way to go after terrorists is to have the best intelligence in the world, and global cooperation is needed for that — a cooperation that he says has been squelched with the U.S. 'go-it-alone' policies.
Bush argued that information sharing between countries and U.S. agencies has increased in the past few years and that the controversial Patriot Act has been "vital" in that effort, despite one audience member saying the law has "watered down" citizens' civil rights.
"I really don't think your rights are being watered down. In fact, I wouldn't have supported it if I thought that," Bush said, noting that the same tools used to go after white-collar criminals and drug dealers are being used to hunt down terrorists. "Every action being taken against terrorist require court order, requires scrutiny ... Our law enforcement must have every tool necessary to find and disrupt terrorists at home and abroad before they hurt us again. That's the task of the 21st century."
But Kerry listed a handful of U.S. officials who have criticized the act, adding that "people's right shave been abused."
Kerry and 97 other senators voted in favor of the act.
"That's not a flip-flop. I believe in the Patriot Act (search) — we need the things in that to coordinate the FBI and CIA, we need to be strong on terrorism," Kerry said. "But we can never let the terrorists change the Constitution in a way that disadvantages our rights."
On the Domestic Front
The two candidates spent a considerable amount of time not necessarily laying out their plans to cap medical malpractice (search) lawsuits or provide affordable health care, but taking pot-shots at the each other's plans in those policy areas.
Kerry appealed to voters to help him roll back Bush's tax cuts and said his campaign has a plan for tort reform that will help reduce medical malpractice lawsuits.
Kerry also said he would be in favor of a cap on awards given toward pain and suffering malpractice lawsuits and caps on attorneys' fees — a statement Bush jumped on.
"You said you're for capping punitive damages? That's odd — you should have shown up on the Senate floor and voted for it, then," the president said, adding that a bill to do just that has been stuck in the Senate since it's being blocked by trial lawyers, "and he [Kerry] put a trial lawyer on the ticket," Bush added, referring to running mate John Edwards (search), who made a fortune as a trial lawyer before becoming a politician.
Bush also said Kerry's "liberal" health care plan would lead to a government-sponsored health care plan that "would lead to rationing, it would ruin the quality of health care in America."
Bush said that while he hasn't yet banned allowing drugs to come from Canada, he will if it means it will keep tainted or unsafe drugs from Americans.
"When a drug comes in from Canada, I want to make sure it cures you, it doesn't kill you," Bush said.
Taxes and the Deficit
Kerry vowed to not raise taxes to fund other programs he's proposing to carry out if elected to the White House. His tax-cut plan includes raising the child-care credit by $1,000, giving a $4,000 tuition tax credit to parents to help fund their kids' college education and will lower health-care costs.
"Every part of my program, I've shown how I'm going to pay for it," Kerry said, adding that he's scaled back some of his own proposals to make up for the growing budget deficit he blamed Bush's administration for.
The $5.6 trillion surplus that was projected when Bush came to office has turned into a $2.6 trillion deficit.
"This is the biggest turnaround in the history of the country," Kerry said. "He's the first president in 72 years to lose jobs ... [and] this is the first time the United States of America had a tax cut when we're in war."
Bush said that if Kerry's elected, the senator will "tax everybody in here." He then said Kerry's Senate record is too liberal and "just not credible," particularly when it comes to lowering taxes, since the senator has voted for raising taxes over 80 times during his tenure there.
"Now he says he's going to be a fiscal conservative all of a sudden? It's just not credible," Bush said. "The fundamental question of this campaign is who's going to keep the economy going."Bush said Kerry's tax plan would seriously hurt 900,000 small businesses that pay taxes on an individual income level.
Kerry vowed once again to, if elected, close loopholes that allow U.S. companies to get tax breaks for sending work offshore, although he conceded that all outsourcing can't be stopped. He also vowed to create manufacturing and new job credits to make hiring within the United States more competitive.
Tackling Stem-Cell Research, Abortion
On the hot-button issue of how much federal funding should be made available to further research on embryonic stem cells, Kerry said it's possible for the U.S. government to conduct "ethically guided embryonic stem-cell research."
"I believe if we have the option, which scientists tell us we do, at curing Parkinson's, curing diabetes ... that's the nature of the human spirit. I think that's respecting life to reach for that cure," Kerry said.
The Bush administration has limited federal funding of embryonic stem cells (search), saying human life shouldn't be created just to be destroyed. The policy said no more than 70 lines of embryonic cells— all which are already existing; 22 of which are currently being used — can be funded with federal dollars.
"Embryonic stem-cell research requires the destruction of life to create a stem cell," Bush said, noting he's the first president to even allow federal funding for research on those cells. He also doubled the budget of the National Institutes of Health to $28 billion a year to pursue adult cell research. "I did so because I too hope we can discover cures from the stem cells ... but I think we've got to be very careful in balancing the ethics and the science."
Bush and Kerry also sparred over what sort of judges should be placed on the judicial bench. Bush said he wouldn't pick a Supreme Court judge, for example, who said the pledge of allegiance couldn't be said in school because the words "under God" are included.
"I think that's an example of letting personal opinion get in the decision making process," Bush said.
Kerry's answer: "I don't believe we need a good conservative judge and I don't believe we need a good liberal judge," but a judge who will interpret the law as he or she sees it.
Asked about abortion, Kerry, who supports a woman's right to have an abortion, noted that he was a Roman Catholic but said he could not let his faith influence his decision. In a very convoluted answer, he said the United States should not bar the use of federal money for family planning programs overseas.
"I'm trying to decipher that," Bush said when it was his turn to answer. "My answer is, we're not going to spend taxpayers' money on abortion. This is an issue that divides America but certainly, reasonable people can agree on how to reduce abortions in America."
Bush noted his support for a partial-birth abortion ban (search), parental notification laws and The Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which makes it a crime to harm a fetus during an assault on a pregnant woman. Kerry voted against all three of them."I think it is a worthy goal in America to have every child protected by law and welcomed by life," Bush said.
But Kerry argued that these issues aren't as black-and-white as the president made them out to be. For example, the senator said he wouldn't vote for a partial-birth-abortion ban if it didn't take into account bodily harm done to a mother if the abortion couldn't be performed.
"It's never quite as simple as the president wants you to believe," Kerry said.
But Bush shot back, saying you're either for the ban or you're not, and Kerry's "no" vote on the bill was his answer.
"Like I said, you can run but you can't hide," Bush said.
Who Can Best Lead?
In closing, Kerry stressed that he and the president have a "very different view on how to make America stronger and safer."
"I will never cede the authority of our country or our security to any other nation ... but I know as I think you do that our country is strongest when we lead the world, when we lead strong alliances ... we are not doing that today and I think we need to," Kerry said. Bush said the contest for the presidency is about the future, "who can lead, who can get things done."
"We've been through a lot together as a country," he said, including a recession, war and corporate scandals. "Yet think about where we are," and that 1.9 million jobs have been added within past 13 months, farm income is high and home ownership rate is at an all-time high "We're on the move."
He reiterated his post-Sept. 11 vow to not rest until America is safe.
"There's more work to be done,' he said. "We'll stay on the hunt for Al Qaeda ... we'll make sure they [terrorists] don't end up with the weapons of mass destruction ... the great threat to our country is that these haters end up with weapons of mass destruction."