Zing!

The other day, The New York Times reported that in their debate preparations, "Mr. Romney's team has concluded that debates are about creating moments and has equipped him with a series of zingers that he has memorized and has been practicing on aides since August." This then became the subject of predictable ridicule (check out #romneyzingers or #mittzingers on Twitter), but it actually does give us a window into the unfortunate state of the Romney campaign.

I'm sure they're feeling pretty tense up in Boston right now. Barack Obama has a small but stubborn lead in every poll, there's only a month left, and these debates are the best chance the campaign has at doing something dramatic. So if you were involved in Romney's debate prep, you probably wouldn't think that just showing your candidate to be smart and likeable will be enough to change the campaign's direction. Hence the pressure for zingers.

But it's tempting to learn the lessons of past debates a little too well, and that may be what is happening to the Romney campaign right now. Yes, debates are to a significant degree about "creating moments," insofar as "moments" are what reporters are looking for. It's true that reporters' interpretation of the debate ends up mattering as much or more than the debate itself, since most voters won't see it and those who do will largely forget the parts they aren't being reminded of over and over. But if you come out and announce that you're preparing zingers, then you've given the game away, and changed how any zingers Romney does manage to zing are going to be interpreted.

This is one of those things that depends on a mutual agreement between the campaigns and the press. Almost every great line from past debates was planned, but if the zinger is zingy enough, reporters will decide not to spend too much time exploring its provenance and focus instead on what effect it might have on the race. But once you've told reporters that you're preparing some zingers, the only possible response from the observers once the time comes is, "Oh, here's one of those zingers they prepared." It will be presented to readers and viewers of post-debate analysis not as "a clever line showing Mitt Romney's dextrous mind and raising real questions about President Obama," but "a line Mitt Romney practiced with his campaign advisors, and then delivered on cue." The Romney campaign has made it impossible for reporters to suspend their disbelief.

Is it possible that the Romney brain trust has crafted a line so brilliant, so biting, so devastating that Obama's re-election bid will crumble at its utterance? I guess it's possible, but it's hard to imagine that the Romney people genuinely believe they've come up with such a thing. But at this point, what else have they got?

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