Watching the lead up over the past week or so to tonight’s presidential debate, I noticed several recurring themes:
- Endless references to the history of televised debates, and the familiar narrative that the 1960 debates made television the true game-changer.
- Repeated references to the memorable moments in TV debate history
- Kennedy’s fresh-faced appearance and Nixon’s wan, sweaty, scary-man image (conveniently reinforced by images of his disgrace 14 years later)
- Ford’s famous “Soviet domination of Eastern Europe” gaffe
- Reagan’s unforgettable destruction of Carter with the line, “There you go again.”
- How could any of us who saw it forget–“You’re no Jack Kennedy.”
- The Gore “Sigh”
- The media outlets’ strange, obsessive hope that there would be some “moment” that would capture the imagination and dominate the headlines like a gaffe of some sort
It is also fascinating to me how the media sets the agenda, not only for the debates themselves, but also for how the debates are supposed to be interpreted after the fact. Let’s face it, most people will decide their thoughts on the debates based what the talking heads tell them during the first 12-24 hours after the Obamas and Romneys exited the stage.
Here are some of the key aspects of the narrative for the first debate, as the media mouths are framing it:
- Romney won this one, hands-down. Obama in trouble.
- Romney lied his head off and Obama let him get away with it.
- Romney certainly won, but debates don’t matter that much to elections. Observe–
- Kerry beat Bush like a drum in the 2004 debates, but Kerry still lost the election (ignore the fact that Bush’s approval rating was around 52 percent this time in ’04, with a 6 percent spread between approve/disapprove, while Obama’s is around 48 percent with less than a point between his approve/disapprove numbers)
- Debates haven’t mattered to elections since 1960
- Most voters have their minds made up anyway
- Romney won the debate and we will now see him begin to overtake Obama in the swing states.
- Obama compared to George HW Bush in 1992 looking at his watch in that campaign’s third debate
All of these points have some truth to them, but they are all very simplistic accounts at this point. Romney definitely had a better showing tonight than Obama. But no one has seen an election like this one in recent times, with the following combination of realities: 1) both domestic and international issues in such dire conditions, 2) an incumbent with so many liabilities but an electorate generally willing to give him more time, 3) a challenger with so many forces in his favor but whose unforced errors continue to bedevil him, and 4) a race so tight that predictions of its outcome demand a level of tentativeness as to almost make them futile.
There are still 3 more debates: the VP debate and two more presidential debates. This one was important, but note particularly that there is still the foreign policy debate ahead. Obama will have a stronger showing in that one because, as the incumbent, he will have an impossible home court advantage. He has more information on world affairs than Romney on an exponential scale. He has relationships with world leaders, and he has occupied the world stage for four years. He will be stronger in that debate, and will likely win it. Then it will be the Republicans turn to hand-wring and fret about “worst. performance. ever.”
Democrats can take comfort in the fact that their man still has plenty more opportunities to correct his night tonight. And he will, of that be certain. Republicans can take refuge in the hope that maybe Romney has turned the corner as a candidate, and they can put the painful September follies behind them.
November 6 approaches.