Bush Must “Turn It On” for Second Debate

Fred Barnes looks at George W. Bush’s past debate performances and notes an interesting trend.

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. . . . 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.

This assessment strikes me as correct, although it’s not one that’s particularly flattering to Bush. While the terms of the debate clearly favored Kerry, given that the focus was on Bush’s record rather than his and he came into it trailing in the polls. And Kerry is in full-time campaign mode whereas Bush still has to serve as president, including things like visiting hurricane victims when he arrives in Miami rather than taking the time to get a manicure. A debate is indeed a “burden” for the frontrunner, since the best he can hope for is to emerge still ahead.

Still, Bush knew coming into the debate that he faced these disadvantages and that this is a very tight race. He owed it to his supporters–and to the country, given that he contends we’ll be more secure in a second Bush administration than under Kerry–to give his best effort. He clearly didn’t do that.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. GP says:

    The problem for Bush is that the topic of the first debate was his best. His popularity is largely based in his foreign policies, not domestic. Conversely, Kerry has had painfully difficult, nuanced and conflicting views to understand on foreign policy. Bush had a lot of opportunity to attack Kerry, but didn’t.

    Kerry, on the domestic front, has had consistent and well thought out policies from the beginning of his campaign. Other than the “how do you pay for this question”, there are very few opportunities for Bush to attack Kerry. Yet, Kerry has endless opportunity to soundbyte his own policies and skewer the President on his own. And don’t forget, Bush hasn’t even put out much of a domestic policy agenda for the next four years. What is he going to talk about?

    The point being, the next two debates favor Kerry by far. Short of some Kerry blunder, I don’t see how Bush could take the upper hand in the “who won the debate” battle.

  2. Attila Girl says:

    We all know 1) that he’s capable of performing at a higher level than he did last week, and 2) he looooooves working at a perceived disadvantage. I still wonder if he consciously or unconsciously flubbed it so as to make Kerry overconfident for their next encounters.

  3. dondo says:

    Oh, come ON. “Kerry is in full-time campaign mode whereas Bush still has to serve as president, including things like [shaking hands with potential voters in a critical swing state and getting his teeth whitened].”

    You’re usually pretty level-headed, but that comment was just plain SILLY.

  4. James Joyner says:

    Dondo: Sure, Bush does campaign events. A lot of them. But Kerry DOES NOTHING BUT CAMPAIGN. He’s basically blown off his last two years in the Senate, missing almost all committee work and all but a handful of votes. Bush doesn’t have that luxury.

    Yes, Florida is a critical state. But he’s also president, which means if he’s there after a hurricane he’s got to put in appearances to demonstrate his concern.

  5. Keila says:

    I totally agree with this article and believe that Bush will do much better in this second debate. I have no doubt that he’s the best candidate for the president. He has what it takes to be the most prestigious, intellectual, wise and moral President.