NO, PLEASE, ANYTHING BUT THAT….You kind of have to wonder if the Bush folks were played in the debate negotiations. I just got back from lunch with two individuals who were involved in the discussions for each side and the consensus opinion is that, contrary to the pre-debate CW, the set-up pretty much favored Kerry. And I won’t say the Democrats are pleased, but the Kerry guy joked, “We called over to the Bush campaign this morning and said on second thought, we’d be okay with just two debates.”

That, of course, was the sticking point of the negotiations. Jim Baker didn’t want more than two debates and the Kerry folks were willing to concede almost anything in order to get the full three. Or at least that’s what they said. Which led to the perception that they’d given away the farm (and taken hits for their candidate) in order to get three debates. In reality, the “concessions” worked in their favor. The Bush guy admitted today that, in hindsight, insisting on a foreign policy and national security focus for the first debate was a risk for the president (although it’s hard to argue that he would have been better off defending his domestic policy record right out of the box either–what this really shows is the extent to which Bush must play defense on all fronts.)

The time limits also worked in Kerry’s favor because they forced him to be succinct (much like the rush to get through his acceptance speech before the 11pm network cut-off time gave him momentum at the Convention), while also making clear that he had more to say on almost every topic. Bush, on the other hand, often stopped talking while he still had a green or yellow light and it appeared that he just wanted to get through the debate and off the stage as quickly as possible. Even the Bushie said the president is okay answering questions for a minute and then he starts to flounder for about thirty seconds before trying to toss off a closing line.

And just on a purely shallow level, the podium set-up (which was apparently less of an issue in negotiations than fulfilling Cheney’s request to sit across a table from Edwards) made Bush look fidgety and somewhat small, while rendering Kerry in control and presidential. He was there to engage; Bush was there to defend himself.

A few random observations: Although I did get tired of hearing Kerry mention “allies” and “alliances” and “the U.N.”, it didn’t bother me like it did my debate-watching companion, who was ready to toss the tv out the window. I thought Kerry’s constant reference to the fact that America is bearing “90% of the casualties and 90% of the cost” brought home the point that this isn’t an academic debate–there are real and devastating consequences to going it alone.

The repetition of “allies” wasn’t, as I’d believed, a wonky way of thinking about Iraq. A Stan Greenberg poll that was released last week asked Americans what bothered them most about the situation in Iraq. The idea that it diverts resources from a larger war on terror ranked 12th out of 12 concerns; the thought that it has alienated our allies was third. So maybe Kerry’s onto something.

Finally, people are all atwitter about Bush’s twitchy and grouchy demeanor while he listened to Kerry. I didn’t think it was all that surprising–it’s the real George W. Bush. But I think his tendency to become annoyed when challenged has been made much much worse by the bubble he’s been kept in for the past four years. No one on his staff talks to him like that. He’s just not used to direct verbal pounding. Even his campaign appearances out among “real Americans” are so carefully controlled that if someone gets through the loyalty pledge to actually step up and challenge him, they’re tackled and dragged away in a matter of seconds. Bill Clinton–who used to encounter all manner of hecklers on the campaign trail–was a master at sparring with protesters and putting them in their place while defending himself. Maybe that kind of practice would have been good for Bush.

Amy Sullivan

Amy Sullivan is a Chicago-based journalist who has written about religion, politics, and culture as a senior editor for Time, National Journal, and Yahoo. She was an editor at the Washington Monthly from 2004 to 2006.