When President Obama and Mitt Romney stride onto the stage at the University of Denver tonight, there will be a dramatic contrast between the former law school professor and the former private-equity executive.
Whichever candidate is best prepared to play the hero in this drama will win tonight and, most likely, on Election Night. Whoever merely memorizes zingers or crams for a quiz show may as well start drafting a concession speech.
Debate-prep is stagecraft. Bill Clinton understood this, and as a campaign speechwriter, I saw him perform masterfully. Of the other two nominees I worked for, Michael Dukakis prepared for policy seminars—not debates—with predictable results, while Walter Mondale rehearsed, stealthily but skillfully, for the one memorable moment when he upstaged the Gipper.
Last week I confessed that I don’t like presidential election season. I don’t like the trivialized reportage, the horse-race-ification of serious subjects, and the narrowed vision that settles in on policy folks during these months. I especially don’t like the question “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” This suggests two things to which I object: first, that the president is in charge of how well-off I am, when all of us know that American politics and global economics are far more complex . Second, that “better off” or “worse off” can be reduced to my current income and immediate financial prospects, even if those were dependent on the president. So I’m going to hijack that question for my own purposes and ask: Are women better off than we were four years ago—not just financially, and not just in ways affected by President Barack Obama’s administration, but overall?
In recent weeks, as Mitt Romney has been practicing his debate “zingers” and the Obama campaign has been “managing expectations” by portraying the president as the lousiest debater since Admiral Stockdale, plenty of pundits—progressive ones, mostly—have been assuring us that the importance of debates is seriously overblown.
Things are looking so bleak, all the color has left Mitt Romney's face. (Flickr/mnassal)
I'm sure that right about now Mitt Romney is drowning in unsolicited advice. That's what happens when you're behind—everybody from the consultants you weren't wise enough to employ to the donors funding your campaign to the guy who delivers your mail fancies themselves a political genius, and will be happy to tell you that all your problems would be solved if only you'd follow their advice. But I wonder: Is there anything all these people are currently telling Romney and the people who work for him that might actually help?
Thanks to a decision today by Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson, Pennsylvania's controversial voter-ID law will not be in effect in November. Though voters will be asked for one of the several allowable government-issued photo IDs at the polls, those who do not have such identification will still be able to cast the usual ballot. But the future of the law is still murky, and the legal battles will likely extend far beyond election day.
When Mitt Romney started his 2012 campaign, he basically assumed that all he had to do to win was point out to people that the economy was in the toilet. As it turns out, the voters already knew that and before giving him the keys to the White House, they want to know how he is going to fix the economy. Since he doesn't want to discuss his economic plan in any detail other than "tax cuts" and seems to be falling farther and farther behind, he is now considering broadening his attacks, hitting President Obama on energy, health care, taxes, and spending. Note that what he is talking about doing is more attacking. He is not planning to tell people why they should vote for him, just why they should not vote for Obama. For whatever reason, he can't get out of attack mode. The problem with that approach so far is that although he may convince people that Obama is far from perfect, he hasn't even tried to make the case that he is better.
Traditionally, re-election campaigns are about giving the incumbent either a passing or failing grade, and Romney still seems convinced that if people judge Obama a failure, they will vote for him by default. What he seems to have missed is that he is viewed in a very unfavorable light with an approve/disapprove rating under water. Relentless attacks on Obama without explaining why he is a better alternative don't seem to be doing the job for him, but he keeps trying.
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.
What a ruckus! NBC's David Gregory hosted the second debate between Massachusetts Senate candidates, sitting Republican Scott Brown and his Democratic challenger, Elizabeth Warren. If you want to call the interruption derby that devolved before the University of Massachusetts at Lowell students' eyes a debate. Gregory opened by asking Warren about the well-worn Cherokee heritage controversy. Warren repeated what she's said before—including in the last debate, which Brown opened by attacking her on the same issue. (Full disclosure: Warren's daughter, Amelia Warren Tyagi, is a member of The American Prospect’s board of directors and is chair of the board of the magazine’s publishing partner, Demos.)
Ask Americans about Jimmy Carter, and the most popular response may well be: “Um. Wait. Was he a president or something?” After all, the man left office more than three decades ago, long before many voters were born. Unlike the Reagan years, there was nothing definitional about Carter’s presidency—which was one of its problems. And unlike Bill Clinton, the Man from Plains didn’t preside over a boom time—which was another one of his problems. He’s been a swell ex-president, but normal people don’t pay much heed to ex-presidents, especially the ones who run around doing fine things for humanity (yawn). Sure, to some politicos, “Jimmy Carter” is still synonymous with a gloomy and failed presidency. But for everybody else, Jimmy Carter was yesterday’s news 20 years ago.
A primary debate spin room, only a fraction as busy as what we'll see in Denver. (Flickr/WEBN-TV)
Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will be debating on Wednesday night, and as Michael Calderone tells us, an absolutely incredible 3,000 journalists will be trooping out to Denver to be there when it happens. They won't actually be in the hall, though. They'll be in a nearby gym, watching it on TV like everyone else. But after the debate ends, they'll decamp to the "spin room, where partisans will dispense utterly predictable remarks on what just happened. "Governor Romney hit it out of the park, while President Obama couldn't justify his failures," a Romney staffer will say.
"If this Romney is elected, we will obviously have to shut down the nuclear program. He is so strong and resolute!" (Aslan Media)
In today's Wall Street Journal, Mitt Romney takes to the op-ed page to offer his vision for a new American policy in the Middle East. Apparently, the tragic recent events in Benghazi have convinced Romney and his advisors that something is going on over there, and though they aren't sure exactly what, it's definitely something, and therefore Romney ought to come and say something about it, to show everyone how wrong Barack Obama is. If you thought Romney was being vague about his domestic policy, that's nothing compared to what he has to say about foreign policy.
Both President Obama and Mitt Romney are preparing for the first debate Wednesday. Dozens of surrogates are preparing people for a miserable performance from their candidate. The idea is that if the candidate does not drool all over his tie, he can be declared the winner. It is not clear why they bother. People will watch the debate and decide what they think based on what they see, not based on how low the candidate's spinners have managed to set the bar.
DENVER, COLORADO—By the time his motorcade pulled up to Magness Arena on the campus of the University of Denver at 6:40 local time Wednesday evening, October 3, the president knew he had 20 minutes to make a decision.
The campaign of his opponent, Governor Mitt Romney, had so deteriorated that, for his part, Barack Obama understood there was a sound argument on behalf of running out the clock and not taking any great risks. The president is typically a prudent man, right up until the moment he does something notably risky, such as ordering the mission that killed Osama bin Laden in spite of virtually all of his inner circle advising against it (except CIA Director Leon Panetta). Now, with only moments until the debate began, the president could anticipate what might well be moderator Jim Lehrer’s opening question, for which the Obama campaign had prepared an innocuous response, counting on the near certainty that Governor Romney would offer a response even more useless.
Mitt Romney is using a campaign strategy of running out the clock, something appropriate for an incumbent who is ahead but not for a challenger who is behind. Numerous Republicans are pleading with him to break out and do something bold. Suggestions include going to the site of the Keystone XL pipeline that President Obama has put on hold and talk to unemployed workers who want to build it or even just going to diners and talking to voters. But Romney refuses to do these things, possibly because his handlers are afraid he will make a gaffe that becomes the news for a day or more. So he sticks to reciting his prepared remarks in carefully staged settings and avoids all retail politics.
While there had been endless discussion about whether Romney is conservative enough or too conservative or too rich or too secretive or too whatever, one aspect of the choice of him as nominee hasn't gotten much attention: He is not a good campaigner. While almost no one can match Bill Clinton when it comes to kissing babies and eating ethnic foods, candidates have to be able to communicate with voters somehow. Clinton was the master of retail politics and Obama can fill large arenas and give soaring speeches, but Romney is not good at any of this and it is starting to hurt him. One can envision him sitting around a board room table with his advisors carefully planning out his strategy in a businesslike way. Step 1: Collect vast amounts of money from wealthy donors. Step 2: Bludgeon the opposition to death with a deluge of negative television ads. Step 3: Avoid all spontaneous contact with the voters and just travel around giving a memorized speech. Only politics isn't business and techniques that work in one don't always work in the other.