Archives for: October 2012, 02
Debates do have the potential of changing national races. Rick Perry's crash into the brain break from Hell, oops, pretty much sank his chances to achieve a promotion from the Governorship. It reminded me of the first high school debate I saw as a teenager. Here's how I recalled it at the time:
The first debate I saw was divided into two teams. A young lady completed her presentation and her opponent, a hesitant teenage fellow, took a turn. He stood in front of his audience, examining his feet. Then he looked up and spoke. I remember his words well. "We have heard the other team present their case and their evidence." There was a pause of several seconds, then he cleared his throat and continued. "Now I would like to throw up for you on the floor... uh ... our side."
There is some debate about debates. Do they really affect the final decision of the electorate once candidates have become nominees? There is no sure way to know. In most elections, the candidate ahead before the debates was ahead after the debates. Reagan's there-you-go-again was a natural response to the awkward what-to-say-next of President Carter. Carter's daughter and nuclear proliferation, Gerald Ford's freeing of Poland, Richard Nixon's makeup, Al Gore's sigh, all contribute to stories that have gained the strength of legend. Not all myths are necessarily false, but there is no sure way to measure reality against what might have been.
Debates are said to be won or lost when measured against what is expected. John Kennedy was considered a lightweight, according to conventional wisdom. But he unexpectedly held his own against the sweaty, shifty eyed, Richard Nixon. Reagan was supposed to be an inexperienced stumbler when he pranced about the incumbent President, all but performing an Ali shuffle. Hard data does not show a great shift after either set of debates, but the stories acquire a greater strength with each retelling.
So both sides play a traditional expectations game. It's a game within a game. News organizations and their audiences discount the pre-debate spin. It's part of the cost of doing business, built into the expectations. Even the expectations game becomes measured against expectations. The story about who is winning the spin is itself spun, producing a sort of house of mirrors. Nobody believes any of it, but nobody dares to stop.
One story coming out of the Romney camp has Mitt Romney rehearsing what anonymous staffers are calling "zingers": one liners that will achieve memorable headlines. Unless those one liners are delivered perfectly, unless they play into an already perceived weakness, it's hard to see how they can work. President Obama is seen as strong on defense. The economy is mostly seen as recovering from Bush policies. Personal attacks are not likely to be productive. And, let's face it, public humor has not been Mitt Romney's strong point.
The zinger madness would be a nakedly stupid tactic for another reason. The surprise remark that zings into a bullseye can only work if it is seen as spontaneous. Announcing it days before to the New York Times is bridge burning in advance. The Empire of Japan did not send word ahead of its intentions for Pearl Harbor. Eisenhower did not broadcast his aims at Normandy. "Man, have I got a zinger for you," is not the way to deliver a punchline.
A more dangerous desperation move is portended by an alternate story. This one has Romney presenting evidence that President Obama knew in advance of attacks on our ambassador to Libya. Like Adlai Stevenson at the United Nations ("Don't wait for the translation. Yes or no"), he will devastate the weak kneed, naive, trusting, strength-is-provocative Commander-in-Chief. Seems unlikely to me, but then so did Watergate when it was first beginning to unravel.
If polls are to be believed, Mitt Romney needs more than a superb performance to become President. He needs for President Obama to go beyond swallowing his tongue. A Rick Perry performance won't be enough. He needs for the President to rip off his mask and reveal something truly horrible. "As I was saying to my fellow Kenyan socialist co-conspirators as we ate live kittens for breakfast ..." If something remarkably awful happens to the Republic for which the flag stands, and Mitt dampens his day-after gloating, it would boost his chances more than what is said on camera tomorrow evening.
Here are two predictions:
Unless both candidates doze off at the same time, the debates will be, at very least, mildly entertaining.
- Unless one of the candidates douses himself with holy water and melts on camera, the debates will not affect who wins.