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Columbia Spectator Staff

If presidential campaigns can be looked at as marathons, with
the now-constant polling of the nation indicating little more than
who has won the fickle favor of the undecided voters at any given
moment, then last Thursday's presidential debate can be
called a hundred-yeard dash—a one-on-one contest in which
there was an immediate differentiation between winner and loser.
The terminology of favorite and underdog loses all meaning when
advisory teams are not around to perfect messages and candidates
cannot hide behind spokespeople.

In the case of President Bush, his performance during the first
debate against Senator John Kerry allowed viewers to catch a
glimpse of the president, unsupported by his well-oiled campaign
team. Nothing would have been learned from the debate if Bush had
come off as strong as he does when appealing to the nation from the
Oval Office; but Kerry was on the offensive all night long, and we
caught a glimpse of the president we shouldn't return to
office: a man who is unwilling to admit that he is wrong.

Despite the recent release of a very negative series of reports
from the hawkish Center for Strategic & International Studies
that concluded that the situation in Iraq since liberation has
regressed in nearly all areas, the president has refused to admit
any error on his part. Major changes are not something he is
willing to consider in Iraq or in regard to any of his policies.
Speaking about the situation in Iraq late last month, Frederick
Barton, the co-director of the CSIS Post-Conflict Reconstruction
Project, said, "So many bad choices have been made over the
last year and a half that obviously the good options are
reduced." And while the CSIS's view is not purely a
negative one, only one that calls for major changes in policy, that
in itself is more than Bush is willing to accept. Admitting error
in Iraq would invalidate his black-and-white world view that says
there is right and there is wrong and nothing in between.

Kerry effectively picked up on this vibe with his most effective
rhetorical device, a four-word beauty criticizing Bush's
obsession with "more of the same." That phrase
effectively describes the entire Bush presidency—once he
heads down a path there is no turning back and little deviation
from the norm. A decision made once is a decision made forever.

During the debate, when Kerry accused Bush of going at Iraq
alone and offered a short list of the United States' allies
in the war—citing the United Kingdom and Australia—Bush
replied, "Well, actually, he forgot Poland." The point
Kerry made, that we have alienated too many traditional allies, was
lost on Bush. The true significance of the Poland comment is in its
symbolism as Bush's defense to Kerry's attacks on his
Iraq record—instead of addressing the regression of security
in Iraq, Bush declared that, "the way to win this is to be
steadfast and resolved and to follow through on the plan that
I've just outlined." Indeed, more of the same.

Bringing into the debate Colin Powell, who has gotten the short
end of a very short stick, Kerry referenced Powell's Pottery
Barn rule, which the senator expressed as, "If you break it,
you fix it. Now, if you break it, you made a mistake. It's
the wrong thing to do. But you own it. And then you've got to
fix it and do something with it." Kerry and his advisors
understand the necessity of allowing for flexibility and
adaptability in order to avoid piling mistake upon mistake, as Bush
has done in Iraq. When you discover that the fire you are trying to
put out is feeding off from oil, not wood, it is best to stop using
water to extinguish it. That's a lesson that the president
has refused or been incapable of learning.

Voters respect a willingness to admit to mistakes, especially
when such admissions are followed by new solutions and rewritten
courses of action. This election over the last few months has been
Bush's to win if he played the role of a good president. But
by refusing to be adaptable, he has moved closer to handing the
election to a man who is his polar opposite when it comes to
adaptability.

If the race stays as close until Nov. 2 as it is now—a
post-debate poll by Newsweek found that Bush's lead had
evaporated, with Kerry now up by two points—the mistake that
may finally sink President Bush is his refusal to accept that he
has made mistakes. The U.S.'s post-war reconstruction plan in
Iraq is only the starkest example of mistakes that President Bush
refuses to acknowledge and address. It doesn't take a
flip-flopper to recognize that if you don't admit to a
mistake, you only make matters worse.

The real decision between President Bush and Senator Kerry is
not who more closely fits your ideological viewpoint—people
who vote on ideology alone have long since decided—but who is
more adaptable, who is more willing to admit to mistakes, and who
is more likely to run an administration that values honesty and
openness. Looking back at the twilight of President Bush's
first administration, the evidence is conclusive that, even if he
won't admit it himself, he is no longer the man for the
job.

Brian Wagner is a Columbia College junior majoring in
political science.

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