When this campaign is over, Linda Grabel may become famous.
Grabel was the citizen-questioner at Friday's debate who asked President Bush an interesting question that may well set the tone for the rest of this campaign.
Noting that the president had made "thousands of decisions that have affected millions of lives," Grabel sensibly wanted this piece of information: "Please give three instances in which you came to realize you had made a wrong decision, and what you did to correct it."
The president's answer was notable in two ways. First, he spent many words not answering at all. He spoke vaguely about how historians might second-guess some of his decisions and that he'd take responsibility for them. He also asserted: "I'm human."
Second, when Bush finally did admit something, he said this: "I made some mistakes in appointing people, but I'm not going to name them. I don't want to hurt their feelings on national TV."
There, in brief, are the core reasons why polls suggest that undecided and independent voters are having a problem with this president. His tactic of never admitting mistakes is backfiring in light of events. And when asked to take responsibility, his first instinct was to direct attention to others by speaking of his supposedly mistaken appointments.
You wonder if the president was thinking about people such as former Treasury secretary Paul O'Neill, one of the first Bush insiders to call the president to account for his style of governing. Maybe Bush regrets naming Larry Lindsey as his top economic adviser, because Lindsey was honest in saying the war in Iraq would be expensive at a time when the administration was trying to suggest otherwise.
What a difference two debates can make. The first one created queasiness about Bush even in Republican ranks and established John Kerry's plausibility as a president. Bush did better in the second debate -- how could he not? -- and kept himself in the game. But taken together, the two debates have changed the campaign's main subject.
Less than two weeks ago -- it seems so much longer than that -- it appeared that the election would revolve almost entirely around Kerry's weaknesses and the endless repetition of the words "flip" and "flop." Bush's own record receded into the background.
Now, thanks to the debates and the flow of the news, voters are coming to terms with the administration's habits of denial and deflection. The administration glosses over the fact that its primary argument for war was not humanitarian -- that Saddam Hussein should be forced from power because he was a wretched dictator. He was that, but the core case was that Hussein needed to be confronted because he had weapons of mass destruction -- not that he longed for them.
But in Friday's debate, Bush made only the most modest concession to the findings of the Iraq Survey Group headed by Charles A. Duelfer that Hussein possessed no weapons of mass destruction. "I wasn't happy when we found out there wasn't weapons," Bush said, "and we've got an intelligence group together to figure out why."
But a president who pushed the country so hard to go to war on the basis of supposedly imminent threats owes his fellow citizens more than a desultory "oops." That's why Bush's refusal to admit mistakes matters. It suggests his belief that voters, even at election time, have no right to a clear and candid explanation of what went wrong, and why.
And when in doubt, the president blames somebody else. Almost all of the war's supporters believe that the United States put too few troops on the ground to keep order after Hussein's fall. What did Bush say about this in the debate? He recalled "sitting in the White House looking at those generals, saying, 'Do you have what you need in this war?' " and going to the White House basement and "asking them, 'Do we have the right plan with the right troop level?' And they looked me in the eye and said, 'Yes, sir, Mr. President.' "
Convenient, isn't it? If we don't have enough troops in Iraq, it's the fault of the generals, not of a commander in chief who doesn't seem to like answers other than "yes, sir." But in a democracy, voters don't have to say "yes, sir." And many of them, like Linda Grabel, are looking for even a smidgen of the humility Bush promised in the debates four years ago but now seems incapable of delivering.