Paul Waldman

How Debates Matter

Flickr/Natalie Maynor

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?

You're Not in the Debate Minor Leagues Now, Mitt

Mitt Romney and friends, pledging.

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.

Nowhere to Go

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?

Zing!

Flickr/webjones

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.

To the Spin Room!

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.

Foreign Policy Is Hard

"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.

Friday Music Break

XTC, Skylarking

For today's edition of Catchy Yet Blasphemous 80s Pop Tunes, we have XTC, with "Dear God." Have a good weekend, everybody.

Who's to Blame for Mitt Romney?

Old white conservative guys pretending to be excited about Mitt Romney. (Flickr/Newshour)

Who's to blame for Mitt Romney? That seems to be the question of the day out there on the interwebs. Politico tells us that the answer conservatives give when you ask them is, Mitt Romney is to blame. "Slowly and reluctantly, Republicans who love and work for Romney are concluding that for all his gifts as a leader, businessman and role model, he's just not a good political candidate in this era." Steve Kornacki counters that the problem isn't so much Mitt himself, it's the Republican party, which "never actually bothered to create a comprehensive post-Bush blueprint." Jonathan Chait notes that although some conservatives are now claiming Romney was foisted upon them by the establishment, nobody within the GOP really wanted Romney: "He won by default."

So who's right? They all are!

"You Didn't Build That" vs. the 47 Percent

Remember when "you didn't build that" was going to be the ticket to the White House for Mitt Romney? Seems like a long time ago, but for a while there the entire Romney campaign reoriented itself around this alleged gaffe that Barack Obama had committed. They printed banners about it, they organized events about it, they made TV ads about it, they made it the theme of their convention. And what happened? It just didn't work. The contrast with the Obama's campaign's favorite Romney gaffe, the secretly recorded "47 percent" video, is so striking it sums up everything that has gone wrong for the Romney campaign and right for the Obama campaign.

Will Wednesday Be a Game Changer? That's Debatable.

(AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)

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.

No, We Can't All Get Along

Change - get it? (Flickr/Rakka)

Mitt Romney seems to have decided to run an entire presidential campaign on quibbling semantic arguments, which is certainly a novel approach, but not one I'd recommend for future candidates. It's not that every campaign doesn't spend way too much time complaining about the words their opponent says, but he really has taken it to a totally different level; every day seems to bring a new expression of feigned outrage at something Barack Obama said.

Over at MSNBC's "Lean Forward" blog, I have a new piece about one of these inane back-and-forths that happened last week, when Obama said he learned you couldn't change Washington from the inside, and Romney got really peeved and promised he would change it from the inside. My point was essentially that if I hear one more pundit talk about the good old days when Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill would argue during the day, then in the evening share a beer and bellow some old Irish sea shanties, I think I'm going to lose it:

Obama Insufficiently Audacious for Press Corps

Barack Obama, lazing about. (White House/Pete Souza)

There are few deeper ironies than to hear campaign reporters complaining that candidates are not being substantive and detailed enough, and it seems that they now may be turning their wagging finger toward both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. Don't get me wrong—I'm all for substance, and there are some kinds of vagueness that have to be confronted. For instance, the fact that Romney says he can cut taxes but keep things revenue neutral by also cutting loopholes, yet steadfastly refuses to say which loopholes he'll eliminate, is just absurd and should be called out. Yet if he came out tomorrow with a dozen new lengthy policy papers, would the campaign reporters on his bus stay up late studying them so they could produce one policy-dense analysis after another? No, they wouldn't. Just as candidates often want to seem substantive without actually being substantive, the reporters want to judge substance without having to actually examine substance.

We Never Liked You, Anyway

(AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

As often as not, parties nominate candidates for president that pretty much all their own partisans acknowledge are less than inspiring. Democrats were so excited about Barack Obama in 2008 partly because their previous two nominees, John Kerry and Al Gore, rode to the nomination on a stirring sentiment of "Well, OK, I guess." The same happened to Republicans, who adored the easygoing George W. Bush after the grim candidacies of Bob Dole and Bush's father.

The Republicans' Foreign Policy Problem

textsfromhillaryclinton.tumbler.com

Pop quiz: if you had to describe the Obama foreign policy in one sentence, what would you say? Not easy, is it? Back in 2008, it was pretty simple: "Not Bush." Now back then, there was something called the "Bush doctrine," which may have had a subtle meaning to those working in the administration, but as far as the public was concerned mostly meant "invading lots of countries and making everyone in the world hate us." So it was easy to imagine Obama as a breath of foreign policy fresh air. He'd use a less-bumbling combination of diplomacy, "soft power," and carefully restrained force. He'd get us out of Iraq. Things would change for the better.

But now that Obama has been president for four years, "Not Bush" has lost its relevance. Obama's actual foreign policy is too complicated to sum up easily, and probably therefore too complicated for most voters to understand. We did get out of Iraq, but things don't seem to be going too well in Afghanistan; Obama has dramatically increased the use of drone strikes, which have solved some problems and created others; though opinions of America are somewhat better, lots of people still don't like us. It's a complex picture, and in the context of an election, the Obama campaign is going to react to most foreign policy questions with, "Remember that guy Osama bin Laden? He's dead."

True enough, but this complexity has left Republicans seemingly unable to critique the Obama foreign policy.

Getting to Know You, Getting to Know All About You

She's getting a bit displeased. (Flickr/Josh Janssen)

Seven months ago, I wrote a column explaining that my increasing irritation with Mitt Romney had made me understand how Republicans probably felt about Al Gore twelve years ago. The politician with the "authenticity" problem whose goals you share just seems awkward—undesirable from a strategic perspective, but hardly morally blameworthy—while the one from the other party seems irredeemably phony and dishonest. But I'm guessing lots of liberals, maybe most, feel the way I do, which is that is seems I like this guy less and less every day.

This has happened before. Before John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign, he seemed like a fairly reasonable person for a Republican, extremely conservative to be sure, but with an admirable willingness to buck his party every now and again and a refreshing honesty. But by the end of the race, I couldn't stand him, and I'm sure most liberals felt the same way. He had revealed himself to be unprincipled, petty, mean, and a whole bunch of other things. I concluded, with the help of copious evidence, that whatever positive feelings I had about him before were terribly mistaken. These days when I see him pop up on TV, my visceral reaction is, "Why do we care what you think, jerk?" So did John McCain change during the campaign? Or was it just that we got a better look at him? And is that what's happening with Romney?

Pages