How could Barack Obama have been so feeble a debater? Mitt Romney gave him one opening after another, but Obama stuck closely to prescripted talking points.
Romney’s strategy, as it has been throughout the campaign, was to lie, and for the most part Obama failed to call him on it. Romney essentially disavowed the tax and budget plan he has been running on for eighteen months, claiming that it was possible to cut tax rates and make up the difference by closing loopholes. Obama correctly pointed out that the arithmetic didn’t work. But Obama failed to challenge Romney to identify just which loopholes he would close.
On Social Security and Medicare, Romney gave Obama another opening that the president failed to maximize. Romney said that nobody at or near retirement age needed to fear any changes. The obvious implication is Social Security and Medicare cuts for younger people. Obama had a nice one-liner—"If you are 54 or 55, you might want to pay attention."—but he failed to drive the point home.
The first of three presidential debates will take place today at the University of Colorado in Denver and focus on domestic policy. Here's a list of the best pieces we've published about each candidate's domestic-policy agenda.
Yesterday, John Sides wrote about some interesting studies exploring the effect the media have on voter perceptions of presidential debates. One experiment showed that when you expose people to post-debate commentary, it significantly alters their perception of who won the debate. This is something researchers have known about at least since 1976, when the public at first didn't see Gerald Ford's "gaffe" about Eastern Europe not being under Soviet domination as any big deal (apparently, they realized he was speaking more aspirationally than anything else). Immediately after the debate polls showed the public evenly split on who had won, but after a few days of coverage of the "gaffe," the polls shifted dramatically, with many more people saying Carter had won.
As I've pointed out many times, what persists in our memory about presidential debates are only those moments reporters choose to keep reminding us about (I wrote about it in this book—still relevant eight years later!). But there's an important question to keep in mind when you consider the question of the media's influence: Does it matter?
In the year leading up to his capturing the Republican nomination for president, Mitt Romney participated in over 20 debates with his Republican opponents. A look back at those debates demonstrates many of the things that will hold Romney in good stead during his debates with Barack Obama: his ability to construct lengthy yet coherent answers to questions, his disciplined repetition of talking points, and his delivery of practiced zingers, to name a few. One also sees a candidate with vulnerabilities, particularly his tendency to stumble when under attack and forced to improvise. Some of his worst mistakes—offering to bet Rick Perry $10,000 to settle a quibble about what was in the book Romney wrote, or explaining how he told his landscaper, "you can't have any illegals working on our property. I'm running for office, for pete's sake, I can't have illegals"—come during those high-stress moments.
But Romney's greatest challenge may lie in appreciating the difference between the primary debates, at which he had so much practice, and a general election debate of a profoundly different type. As he no doubt understands, he has to be less of a partisan warrior. But more importantly, Romney will have to change the way he talks about his opponent.
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.
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.
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.
For most of American history, the idea of two presidential candidates debating was unheard of, though candidates for lesser offices did debate. James Madison and James Monroe traveled Virginia together debating for a House seat in 1788, and of course Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debated during their 1858 Senate campaign, though the Lincoln-Douglas debates resembled a pair of speeches much more than the debates we know today. In 1948, Republican presidential candidates Harold Stassen and Thomas Dewey debated on a radio broadcast carried across the country; eight years later, Democratic candidates Adlai Stevenson and Estes Kefauver did the same on television. But it was 1960, in the first general-election presidential debate, that the format was established in a form recognizable today.