Like many, hopefully most, Americans, I watched last night’s Presidential debate. As someone who took debate in high school, I must note these are not true debates. Classical debates focus on a single issue and often the debaters don’t even get to pick which side they’ll argue. What we saw last night was a joint press conference.
After the Kennedy/Nixon debates in 1960 (which TV viewers thought Kennedy won but radio listeners felt Nixon won) there no debates for the next three presidential elections. Televised presidential debates resumed in 1976 and have occurred with each election. Incumbent presidents have been involved in each of these with the exceptions of 1988, 2000, and 2008.
As I watched last night’s debate, it occurred to me that, with the exception of Clinton’s debates with Dole in 1996, each incumbent President has “lost” at least one debate with an opponent. Clinton, it must be noted, is a masterful extemporaneous speaker – perhaps the greatest since Martin Luther King. His ability to pull accurate data from his mind, form facts into a coherent argument, and wrap it all up into an statement that relates to ordinary people is uncanny. Judging from his speech at this year’s Democratic National Convention, which had lengthy improvised segments, his skills appear undiminished with age.
But enough waxing nostalgic about Clinton; let’s review some history:
1976 - Ford vs. Carter: At the second debate, devoted to foreign policy issues, Ford asserted with great conviction that “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration”, a comment that wouldn’t pass muster with a sixth grade student.
1980 - Carter vs. Reagan: Carter, who was already fighting exhaustion because of the Iranian Hostage Crisis, gave the impression of being irritated and put upon during the single debate he had with Reagan that year. He blundered by recounting how he asked his daughter, Amy, what she felt was the most important issue facing the world – which she said was nuclear proliferation, leading some to comment that Carter was getting foreign policy advice from a pre-adolescent child. When Carter commented about Reagan’s opposition to Medicare in the 1960s, Reagan’s reply “There you go again” disarmed the President – although Carter was in fact correct on the substance of his statement. Reagan clinched the debate when he asked Americans if there were better off today than four years previously. With that appeal, American voters saw not a B-movie actor, but a President.
1984 - Reagan vs. Mondale: Reagan, then 73, was so out of sorts during the first debate that commentators openly speculated whether he was physically or mentally up to the job. He fumbled facts, lost his train of thought, and when Mondale called Reagan out for the substance behind his “There you go again” line in 1980, Reagan was so nonplussed the proceedings nearly ground to a halt. Expectations were so lowered for the second debate that reporter Sam Donaldson said Reagan would win by default “if he doesn’t drool”. Reagan did not drool, and pulled out a few one liners to disarm Mondale, particularly when Reagan was asked about his age: “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience”. Mondale was so charmed that he never gave the obvious response: that he was 13 years older than Kennedy had been in 1960, and that with four years as an Attorney General, twelve years as a Senator, and four years as Vice President, Mondale was hardly “inexperienced”.
1992 - Bush vs. Clinton vs. Perot: All the candidates were well briefed and in command of the facts for the three debates this year. Bush, an already unpopular incumbent, reinforced the impression of being detached from the concerns of the American people when he was seen looking at his watch, seemingly impatient for the debate to be over. When he irritably responded to a question about the recession by saying “Message: I care”, it reinforced the impression that he didn’t care about the hardships many Americans were facing.
2004 - Bush vs. Kerry: The first debate was most notable for a mysterious bulge in Bush’s jacket and non-sequitur comments, leading some to believe he was receiving live-coaching; Bush’s scowling demeanor during that debate didn’t help; nor did his irrelevant comment about the Dred Scott decision or his pleading that the presidency was “hard work” – a comment that was lampooned on Saturday Night Live.
2012 - Obama vs. Romney: It may be a bit early to dissect this one, but it’s clear that Obama’s professorial style was no contest for Romney’s jabbing – something finely honed after five consecutive years running for President. Obama is, at heart, a thinker – not an improviser like Bill Clinton. Obama’s style is not well served by the “gotcha” atmosphere that pervades today’s debates. Also, I believe Obama is very wary of appearing to be an “angry black man”, a demeanor that could potentially turn off independents. On the other hand, we’ve seen this from Obama before, where he at first appears weak, only to draw his opponent in and land a haymaker – in boxing this is called the Rope-a-Dope. Whatever the case, Obama he needs to step up his game for the next two debates. The fact is, the audience is more persuaded by the style exhibited in these debates - and that's been the case since 1960. It remains to be seen whether the mainstream media will call out Romney for the the frequent and egregious falsehoods he told - and how that will pan out in the election.
Finally, I must comment on last night’s moderator, Jim Lehrer. I’ve long respected him as a news anchor and debate moderator, but he was out of sorts last night and completely snowed under by Governor Romney. If Mr. Lehrer is unable or unwilling to enforce the rules, it’s time to put him out to pasture and find someone with the backbone to do so.