OP-ED | What Have We Learned from the Debates?
It’s been treat week for the junkiest of Connecticut political junkies. Four debates - a Presidential, a Vice Presidential, and two US Senate debates - dotted the October calendar like postseason baseball games. After campaigns fought largely over the airwaves, the debates are exciting because the candidates are forced to engage each other. The debates can be instructional because the candidates are forced to stand for themselves on their own without the safety of staff or scripts (mostly).
Or, at least, this is what the debates are supposed to be. Here’s a brief review of what we have learned from them so far.
1. Mitt Romney - he looks and feels like a President
Mitt Romney — the man and the campaign — had the look of a man and a campaign on the ropes in the days leading up to the first Presidential debate. After the “talk first, figure out who got shot later” Libya press conference, and the 47 percent video, and the resulting sag in poll numbers, some Republicans began to steel themselves for four more years of President Obama.
But once Mr. Romney stood and delivered on the stage in Denver and looked more Presidential than the President standing next to him, everything changed. Mr. Romney felt like a President of the United States. That feeling manifested itself in places where it had rarely gone — like the set of MSNBC’s post-debate coverage. It wasn’t always welcome, but it was there.
2. Barack Obama and the 10 Percent Theory
During last season’s NBA finals, sports writer Bill Simmons posited his “10 Percent Theory” to explain the play of Oklahoma City’s star guard Russell Westbrook. In a nutshell, it suggests that NBA players use 90 percent of their potential and the holes in their game represent the other 10 percent.
Here’s my theory: Mr. Obama is the Russell Westbrook of American politics. Something like 90 percent of the time, he’s a terrific political player. He gives speeches that only the staunchest opponents can resist. He can gladhand. He can wow.
But there is a 10 percent to the President’s game that people tend to overlook. Mr. Obama’s debate performances against Hillary Clinton during the 2008 Democratic primary season often underwhelmed observers. His “that’s above my pay grade” response on rights for the unborn at Saddleback Church was panned. During the “healthcare summer” of 2009 when the Tea Party ramped up and Democratic members of Congress subjected themselves to rhetorical firing squads on the President’s behalf, he seemed unbothered.
In Denver, the president had his 10 percent moment.
3. Is there anything we get from Chris Murphy or Linda McMahon in an hour debate that we don’t get in 30 second ads?
4. Clash of the Moderators
Jim Lehrer was criticized, mostly by the left, for letting Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama debate at the debate. On the other hand, Vice Presidential debate moderator Martha Raddatz seemed to want to run for Vice President, too, injecting herself into the discussion at every possible turn.
A better example was set by CNN’s Bernard Shaw back in that 2000 Vice Presidential debate. He asked questions, kept time, and facilitated rebuttals without getting in the way of the discussion. It was masterful because it was modest.
5. The statesmen are gone
You shouldn’t go running without warming, and there is no harm in warming up for debates, either. I warmed up for the Vice Presidential debate by replaying the 2000 VP debate between Dick Cheney and Sen. Joe Lieberman.
It is a mostly forgotten debate because it lacked a highlight moment like the one during Bentsen-Quayle in 1988, but it was instructive. While Mr. Cheney and Mr. Lieberman clearly disagreed and probably weren’t going for beers afterward, they weren’t disagreeable. They had an even-tempered debate of the issues without giggles, grins, or zingers.
After watching the two U.S. Senate debates that will determine Mr. Lieberman’s replacement, the contrast in quality was unmistakable.
The paragon of debate virtue remains the famous 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates between Abraham Lincoln and Sen. Stephen A. Douglas. In those days, the contenders for high office traveled from town to town in seven high-profile exchanges, each one lasting three hours. One candidate spoke for the first hour, followed by 90 minutes for the opposing candidate, and 30 minutes of rebuttal from the first speaker. Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Douglas spent the time disagreeing on their day’s biggest issue, slavery, and the whole range of challenges that faced a growing American nation. Today our challenges are no smaller or less divisive, nor are our views less passionately held. But is there anyone that wants to see Chris Murphy and Linda McMahon attempt that format? Goodness no.
Heath W. Fahle is the Policy Director of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy and a former Executive Director of the Connecticut Republican Party. Contact Heath about this article by visiting www.heathwfahle.com.