By Dick Morris
October 11, 2004
It was Reagan-Mondale all over again. In the first debate of 1984, Walter Mondale soundly defeated Ronald Reagan, and in the process raised questions about the elderly president's metal acuity. In the first debate of 2004, Kerry's victory raised worries about President Bush's mental acuity. But in the second debate of his re-election year, Reagan rebounded through his humor to reassure the doubters. Twenty years later, Bush recovered through his aggressiveness to make clear that he is still the president, still the man.
Bush won even in the domestic-policy part of the debate - a victory that was as unlikely as John Kerry's win in last week's confrontation on foreign issues. By explaining his tax-cut policies and hanging John Edwards' trial-lawyer record around Kerry's neck, he rebutted the Democratic attacks and made his own record visible and showcased it compellingly.
But it was in the opening 38 minutes that focused on Iraq and the War on Terror that Bush won the key points. By coming out aggressively and attacking the bribery in the Oil-for-Food program, he showed the strength and vigor that Americans know is necessary to deal with the terrorist threat.
Bush won this debate by acing the issue of Iraq. He explained the rationale for the war and tied it to protecting homeland security. He defended his deficit by saying he was not willing either to raise taxes or to endanger our troops by underfunding the War on Terror.
The dignified, coiffured John Kerry came out behind his podium and paced the floor. But he was shown up by George W. Bush. He showed how superficial were his arguments and how contradictory was his record. In a forum that seemed more real for the participation of the voters, Bush made it clear that he is in charge and that he is protecting us in a way that John Kerry never could do.
Kerry's debating gimmicks, his briefing notes, his talking points all came up against Bush's presidential-ness - and came up short. He was reduced to quibbling while the president focused on national policy and our public interest.
The essential contradiction of Kerry's position on Iraq became clear when Bush demonstrated how facile was the Democrat's hope that he could attract allies or win the war while proclaiming it a mistake, a failure, and a distraction.
And in the off-camera moments, it was Kerry's turn to look angry and for the bags under his eyes to acquire a petulance and a peevishness which had formerly marred Bush's performance.
Bush seemed ready to pounce. When Kerry spoke, it was Bush who crept up behind and rebutted the Democrat's talking points. Even on the question of abortion - where I agree with Kerry and disagree with Bush - the president did a good job of casting himself as a centrist and labeling Kerry as a leftist.
The crowd seemed to reinvigorate Bush. He spoke with a dignity lacking in the first debate and a presidential bearing that was not there last time.
By labeling Kerry as the most liberal member of the Senate, he pushed the Democrat into the corner and showed him to be outside the mainstream of American politics.
Bush took control of the debate. The president took over. Kerry was reduced to the posture of an outsider, a pretender, an advocate contrasted with the president.
Will the debate influence the election? Bush's responses and his policies won. He will emerge stronger for this debate. A tied race will likely revert to a Bush edge. Can Bush maintain it? Can he go through the final debate, on domestic policy, and keep his advantage?
He had a good workout in this
debate. He learned how to handle Kerry not only on foreign issues,
but on domestic issues as well. Bush is on his way.
Dick Morris was an adviser to Bill Clinton for 20 years. Look for his new book, Rewriting History.
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