FOR JOHN KERRY, the first presidential debate was an opportunity. He seized it and revived his flagging candidacy. For President Bush, the debate was a burden. He struggled through it, acting as if he had better things to do. But the second debate this Friday in St. Louis will find Bush in a different situation. Debating Kerry is no longer a burden. It's an opportunity for Bush to recover whatever ground he lost in the initial debate. Bush's history in campaign debates suggests his performance will improve this time. Despite the distractions of Iraq and the war on terrorism, his focus is likely to be concentrated solely on winning the debate--and a second White House term.
The notion that Bush had never lost a debate--until last week, if you count that a loss--is pure myth. During the debates in the Republican primaries in 2000, Bush didn't do particularly well. He didn't need to, since he was so far ahead of the other candidates. For Bush, the primary debates were a nuisance. But in debates with Vice President Al Gore, Bush didn't have the luxury of being indifferent. He knew an opportunity when he saw one and took advantage of it. It was Gore who regarded the three debates in 2000 as a burden. And the rule for debates, we now know, is the candidate who feels burdened, and acts that way, loses.
Losing the first debate in a presidential race is hardly fatal. I learned this first-hand as a panelist in the first debate in 1984 between President Reagan and Walter Mondale. Reagan performed like a zombie that night while Mondale had the best 90 minutes of his entire political career. Reagan fared better in the second debate and won reelection going away. Of course Reagan didn't have a controversial war like Iraq to defend, though his hard-line policies in the Cold War were widely condemned by liberals. And Reagan was a great public performer, period. That can't be said about Bush.
But the president has the gift of self-discipline--when he chooses to tap it. As a candidate for governor of Texas in 1994, he infuriated reporters by reciting his four-point agenda over and over and over, no matter what they asked about. His media adviser in that race, Don Sipple, said he had never worked for a more disciplined candidate. Against Gore six years later, Bush showed the same iron discipline. He refused to be rattled or become peevish when Gore sighed loudly or attempted to intimidate him by leaving his podium and walking over to Bush's. In the Gore debates, Bush displayed that trait which scholar Fred Greenstein of Princeton insists is the most important in a president--emotional intelligence.
That wasn't the case in last Thursday's debate. Bush forgot what has worked so well in his recent speeches, twitting Kerry and taking a you-won't-believe-this approach to Kerry's public statements. Crowds respond with laughter. At the Miami debate, however, Bush took a different tack. At times, he appeared indignant, and he lost what political commentator Mort Kondracke calls the "body language" contest. He was oblivious to how he might look when TV broadcasts of the debate turned to reaction shots of one candidate while the other was talking. This did not work to Bush's favor.
It wasn't a disastrous performance by Bush or even close to that. The point is, though, he can do better with a bit of self-discipline. Bush often uses repetition effectively, but it's not persuasive when the idea he repeats is, "It's hard work." We already knew the war in Iraq and fighting terrorists are hard work. It would have been better if Bush had cited Kerry's statement about having voted for the $87 billion to fund the troops in Iraq before voting against it--and cited it repeatedly. He could have done so in a wait'll-you-hear-this manner. The issues are grave, but it helps nonetheless to show a lighter touch.
He'll have an opportunity to do that on Friday night in the second debate. My guess is he'll seize it.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.