Bush, Kerry Clash Over War on Terror, Budget in Second Debate

By Randy Hall | July 7, 2008 | 8:30 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - During the second debate of the 2004 election, President George W. Bush promised that he would not reinstitute the draft, and Sen. John Kerry pledged to do something the incumbent Republican "doesn't know how to do:" balance the budget.

Early in the town hall-style debate on Friday evening, one of the 140 audience members in the Field House at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., asked Bush if America could "police the world" without bringing back a military draft.

After noting that he'd heard about such rumors circulating on the Internet, the president stated emphatically that he would not reinstate the draft -- "period" -- because "an all-volunteer army works" and is best suited for fighting the wars of the 21st century.

While agreeing that he does not support a return of the draft, Kerry blamed the president's policies for "overextending the military" while "going it alone" in the world and promised to add 40,000 new forces to America's defense.

Bush responded angrily to Kerry's use of the phrase "going it alone," stating the term "denigrates the alliance" of more than 30 countries that are sharing the sacrifices while promoting liberty in such places as Afghanistan and Iraq.

'Stay on offense'

A woman in the audience then asked Kerry why no terrorist attacks have taken place on U.S. soil since 9/11, and the senator answered that he agrees with the president that it is necessary to go after the terrorists before they can strike again.

To do this, Kerry continued, requires the best intelligence and the best cooperation in the world, as well as better homeland security. The president, he charged, had chosen tax cuts for the wealthy over the best possible security for all Americans.

"The best way to defend America," Bush replied, "is to stay on offense." He then said he believed Kerry would not be able to find many allies to fight what the senator has called "the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time."

'Too wishy-washy'

The first question in the debate was a personal one for Kerry. Moderator Charlie Gibson of ABC News called on a woman who asked the senator to respond to her friends' claim that he's "too wishy-washy."

Kerry blamed such a perception on the Bush campaign. "When the president didn't find any weapons of mass destruction (WMDs)," the senator said, "his campaign became a weapon of mass deception" even though Kerry claimed he actually hadn't changed his mind on subjects like the war in Iraq.

Bush then expressed sympathy for the woman and her friends since Kerry "does change positions a lot." He then said he doesn't believe a person can lead this country in a time of war if he keeps sending confusing signals.

Another audience member asked the president if the attack on Iraq was still justified since no WMDs had been found.

While stating that diplomacy is always his first option, Bush noted that after 9/11, he had to take the "unique threat" posed by Saddam Hussein seriously since the former dictator could have given weapons and technology to other terrorists.

The president then stated that, based on the intelligence available at the time, "we all thought" the Iraqi tyrant had WMDs. Bush also said he was still hunting members of al Qaeda, 75 percent of whom have been brought to justice.

However, Kerry stated that he feels the world is now a more dangerous place because "the president didn't make the right judgments," including using American force wisely and not "rushing to war" while pushing traditional allies aside.

In discussing the future of Iraq, Bush described an Iraqi finance minister who came to the White House in a very optimistic mood because his country had been liberated from the rule of Saddam Hussein. "Then he turned on American TV, and he became very pessimistic," the president said. "We need to stand with him and his countrymen as they move from tyranny to free elections."

When Kerry accused Bush of "taking his eyes off the prize" of catching Osama bin Laden, the president responded that "the war on terror is not just with bin Laden. It's a global conflict that requires a firm resolve."

Unpopular in Europe?

Another question focused on how Bush intends to repair relations with other countries that have disagreed with us about prosecuting the war on terror. The president answered that he prefers to do what Ronald Reagan did when dealing with the Soviet Union. "I'd rather make decisions that are unpopular in Europe" but are right for America, Bush said.

Kerry charged that in a debate four years earlier, Bush pledged not to go to war without a viable exit strategy and enough troops to get the job done, claiming that the president broke that promise when he attacked Iraq without a plan to win the peace.

The discussion turned to Iran's nuclear capability, which Kerry called a "huge threat" that has grown while the president has been "preoccupied with Iraq." The senator charged that Bush has done nothing to halt the increase of nuclear weapons in North Korea and claimed that a Kerry administration would stem the tide of nuclear proliferation.

"That answer made me want to scowl," Bush replied before noting that he had been working toward six-party talks with North Korea instead of relying on the bilateral agreement that nation made with President Bill Clinton and then did not honor.

Domestic policy

Shifting to matters of domestic policy, another member of the audience asked Bush why he is blocking reimportation of cheaper drugs from Canada. "We want to make sure they're safe," the president answered.

Bush then noted several other ways to bring down the cost of medicine, such as speeding up research, giving seniors drug discount cards and adding prescription drug coverage to Medicare.

When Kerry charged that Bush was blocking drug reimportation to create windfall profits for drug companies, the president asked his Democratic opponent to name one thing regarding Medicare he'd accomplished during his 20 years in the Senate.

Kerry shot back: "Actually, Mr. President, in 1997, we fixed Medicare, and I was one of the people involved in it. We not only fixed Medicare and took it way out into the future, we did something that you don't know how to do: We balanced the budget."

'That's what liberals do'

In a discussion on the need for medical malpractice reform, Bush said the plan proposed at the senator's Web site would create government-sponsored health care. "That's what liberals do," the president said before claiming Kerry's plan would lead to rationing and "ruin the quality of health care in America."

Kerry responded: "The president is just trying to scare everybody here with throwing labels around. I mean, "compassionate conservative," what does that mean? Cutting 500,000 kids from after-school programs, cutting 365,000 kids from health care, running up the biggest deficits in American history.

"I mean, seriously -- labels don't mean anything," the senator continued. "What means something is: Do you have a plan?"

"You're right, what does matter is a plan," Bush replied. "He said he's for -- you're now for capping punitive damages? That's odd. You should have shown up on the floor in the Senate and voted for it then.

"Medical liability issues are a problem, a significant problem," the president added. "He's been in the United States Senate for 20 years, and he hasn't addressed it."

Taxing and spending

When asked why he hasn't vetoed a single spending bill during his time in the White House, Bush responded that the country had entered a recession six months before he came into office. "Second, we're at war. I'm gonna pay what it takes to win this war."

The president then claimed that the tax relief he proposed and the Congress passed has helped lift the nation out of the recession and added 1.9 million jobs in the past 13 months.

At that point, Kerry was asked by a man in the audience to look into the camera and promise not to raise taxes on families earning under $200,000 per year, which he did. The senator claimed that every part of his tax cut for the middle class would be paid for, and he had even scaled back some of his favorite programs already because of "the president's deficit."

Bush said Kerry's promise was "not credible" since the Democrat had voted 98 times to raise taxes and has been named the most liberal member of the United States Senate "because of his votes. And it's reality."

On the environment, Bush claimed his administration had been "a good steward of the land," while Kerry called it "one of the worst administrations in modern history."

'Need some wood?'

A lighter moment in the debate came when the topic moved to jobs. Kerry claimed that Bush considers himself a "small business" because he owns a timber company, to which the president replied: "I own a timber company? That's news to me. Need some wood?"

On another subject, Bush defended the USA PATRIOT Act against claims it has been used to "water down" the rights of American citizens, while Kerry said the law needs to be fixed so it isn't abused.

The president also defended his decision to limit stem cell research as the best way to "balance ethics and science," while the senator wanted to expand existing research lines in the hope of finding cures for such ailments as Parkinson's disease and diabetes.

When asked who he would nominate to serve on the Supreme Court, Bush replied: "I'm not telling," though he did say he favors "strict constructionists" since "we already have legislators to make laws." Kerry said that if he becomes president, he would "choose judges who would interpret the Constitution according to the law."

'I'm human'

For the final question of the debate, a woman noted that during his four years in the White House, Bush has made "thousands of decisions" and asked the president to list "three instances of wrong decisions."

"I'm human," Bush replied, noting that he's made some tactical errors along the way. "But regarding the big questions, I'll stand by my decisions because they're right" and said he was willing to let history judge his actions in such matters as the removal of Saddam Hussein from power and the passage of tax relief.

Not surprisingly, Kerry cited a "huge mistake" made by Bush: rushing to war without a plan to win the peace in Iraq.

Final comments

In his final statement, Kerry remarked that he and Bush "have a very different view about how to make America stronger and safer. I will never cede the authority of our country or our security to any other nation. I'll never give a veto over American security to any other entity -- not a nation, not a country, not an institution.

"But I know, as I think you do, that our country is strongest when we lead the world, when we lead strong alliances. And that's the way Eisenhower and Reagan and Kennedy and others did it. We are not doing that today. We need to."

In his closing remarks, Bush noted: "The great 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 -- been through a recession, corporate scandals, war.

"I vowed to the American people after that fateful day of September the 11th that we would not rest nor tire until we're safe. The 9/11 Commission put out a report that said America is safer but not yet safe. There is more work to be done.

"We'll stay on the hunt on al Qaeda. We'll deny sanctuary to these terrorists. We'll make sure they do not end up with weapons of mass destruction. It's the great nexus. The great threat to our country is that these haters end up with weapons of mass destruction.

"But our long-term security depends on our deep faith in liberty. And we'll continue to promote freedom around the world. Freedom is on the march. Tomorrow, Afghanistan will be voting for a president. In Iraq, we'll be having free elections, and a free society will make this world more peaceful."

The third and final presidential debate will be held on Wednesday, Oct. 13, in Tempe, Ariz., and will deal specifically with issues related to the U.S. economy and domestic policies.

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