By Bob Cesca: I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m thoroughly excited about the first presidential debate tomorrow night. I can sense it coming down Main Street: something harrowing will in fact occur on that stage and given what we know about the candidates and the expectations leading up to the event, there’s a solid chance Mitt Romney will say a few things that will be ridiculous or embarrassing or both.
It’s difficult to know in advance whether a potential Romney moment of awkwardness will hurt his chances at this point, but it certainly won’t help. Meanwhile, after reviewing the videos of the general election debates four years ago as well as the “Question Time” debates in 2010, I’m reasonably certain that the president will emerge unscathed and, perhaps, solidify his lead in the polls.
But what’s heightened the anticipation for this debate is the news that Romney, the unfunniest man in politics, has spent the last five or six or seven weeks rehearsing jokes and jabs — “zingers” — in preparation for the debate. On top of that, the overall stakes for Romney to deliver an historic performance couldn’t be greater given how much the Republican Party and the conservative base has pointed to the debates as the last opportunity for Romney to reverse his fortunes and win the election. Even the most poised, confident, experienced political Jedi on the level of, say, Bill Clinton would have an extraordinarily difficult time meeting those expectations, and yet the Romney campaign believes these scripted “zingers” will do the trick.
Arguably the harshest zinger in televised debate history occurred in 1988 when Democratic vice presidential nominee Lloyd Bentsen hit Dan Quayle with the “you’re no Jack Kennedy” line. It wasn’t a jokey zinger, necessarily, but it utterly destroyed Quayle who appeared physically stunned on camera. He walked right into the punch and simply couldn’t recover. But it was nothing more than a vice presidential debate and George H.W. Bush and Dan Quayle easily won the election anyway. The most powerful zinger in the history of zingers was ultimately ineffectual, though it certainly didn’t help Quayle’s reputation as a political idiot who was totally out of his depth.
Frankly, Bentsen looked like the creepy undertaker character from the Poltergeist movies so the line had severity and heft behind it. I can only imagine a similar line from jittery space alien Mitt Romney who would surely accompany it with an over-rehearsed stiff-necked gesture of some sort. It’s a foregone conclusion that the president, who’s been accused of everything from a terrorist sleeper cell to the world’s only mixed-race Hawaii-born liberal Nazi, would either laugh it off or respond in a tough yet dignified way that would make Romney appear un-presidential and lacking seriousness. Put another way, I really can’t envision even the most cutting zinger having any effect whatsoever on this president.
What we’ve observed about this president more than any other trait is a level of political discipline unlike anyone to hold the office in recent memory. In spite of the Romney campaign’s misguided calculation that the president might come off as pissy or annoyed when nailed by one of Romney’s finely crafted zingers, the president simply won’t take the bait.
By the way, I can’t recall a single debate in which the candidate with a polling lead entering the debates actually failed to win the election because of a debate, with the 2000 Bush versus Gore election as the obvious outlier.
Speaking of Bush, I’m old enough to remember the Kerry versus Bush debates in 2004 and specifically how John Kerry mopped the floor with Bush who, in the first debate, seemed peeved, pissed and annoyed. (The Daily Banter’s Oliver Willis also wrote about this topic here.) In the second debate, a town hall style format, Bush aggressively approached moderator Charlie Gibson, got up in his face and went totally bananas about Poland’s then-president Aleksander Kwasniewski, and how no one seems to remember his participation in the “Coalition of the Willing.” The president was completely unhinged (as far as debate decorum goes). But in the end, no one seemed to notice how off-putting and obnoxious this was for a president in a nationally televised debate. In the third debate, Bush appeared drunk or high or both, with a glazed half-grin stare as if he had just received electroconvulsive therapy, which was only made worse by mysterious chunks of white spooge that had accumulated on the corners of his askew, smirky mouth.
This was the president running for re-election, and the challenger, John Kerry, appeared considerably more presidential and won all of those debates. With ease. The contrast between Kerry’s statesman-like performance and Bush’s unpolished cowboy act was an astonishing reminder, after four years of Bush, what “presidential” actually meant. Yet it really didn’t change the outcome of the election. Bush claimed a mandate after he achieved more votes than any presidential candidate in history up to that point (Kerry received the second highest number of votes). So Mitt Romney will have to come up with something Earth-shatteringly amazing to even make a dent. And we can all rest assured knowing that President Obama won’t flip his shpadoinkle and shout down the moderator about Aleksander Kwasniewski.
In reviewing past debate zingers and the like, I’ve determined that zingers are not only irrelevant, but they mostly suck.
“There you go again?” Reagan used this twice no one has adequately explained to me why or how this resonated as a pivotal moment in presidential history. The same goes for Michael Dukakis’ line: “If Bush keeps it up, he’s going to be the Joe Isuzu of American politics.” Painfully bad. Shelf life: two minutes at most.
Okay, granted, zingers are fun in the moment. But they’re a waste of time. Personality, sharpness and presidential gravitas are considerably more meaningful, and Romney probably should’ve been rehearsing the art of not looking like a spastic, Uncanny Valley CG cartoon of Thurston Howell instead of occupying his limited resources by memorizing what amounts to empty calories. Whenever I confront an undecided voter who can’t really distinguish between the candidates (yes, these people exist in droves), I present the following scenario: Who would you rather have in the Situation Room during the Cuban Missile Crisis? A thoughtful, wonky, even-keeled, disciplined pragmatist or an unpredictably awkward empty-suit waffler who’s beholden to the far-right base of his party and, as such, has been forced to reboot his campaign three times in so many weeks? This is Mitt Romney, irrespective of who he appears to be today or tomorrow night, and his mission should’ve been to burnish the rough edges of his weirdness instead of memorizing “zingers” and risking a headlong dick-move into more of the same.
Unless the president loses all composure for the first time in his political life and, say, gives Romney a purple nurple on stage, the polls won’t change significantly after the first debate. And given how Romney is the one planning to — or being forced to by high expectations — go on the offensive with zingers and verbal nurples, it’s possible that he’ll take a hit from the debates. Although I wouldn’t count on it. The only thing that will change the polls and the election at this point would be an unmitigated disaster for the president’s campaign or a total Romney trainwreck on television not unlike his “47 Percent” remarks. All of that said, I still can’t wait to see how this plays out. I assure you, there will plenty to talk about on Thursday.