03 October 2012

Preparing for the First Presidential Debate in Denver

Tonight is the first of the three scheduled head-to-head debates between incumbent Democrat President Barack Obama and Republican Presidential nominee Governor Mitt Romney (R-MA).  These debates are the only times that voters are able to see both candidates on the same stage.  So it is not just the candidate’s articulation of the issues, but also how they comport themselves.

Depending upon the debate rules, these encounters can sometimes seem more like side-by-side press conferences.  This is less likely when there are only two candidates on stage.  Moderator Jim Lehrer who formerly anchored PBS’s NewsHour before retiring  have promised that the first three segments will touch on the economy, with the remaining questions to center on health care, governance and the role of government. 

Both candidates have been engaged in several days of intense debate preparation and have tried to lower expectations.  Governor Romney engaged in twenty debates among Republican Presidential nominee challengers during the primaries, whereas President Obama has not needed to verbally spar since October 2008.  Still the public believes that Mr. Obama’s oratory abilities will outshine the GOP challenger.  

Both White House and Obama 2012 campaign spokesmen have strived to lower expectations for incumbent candidate Obama.  Aside from being rusty in the practice of debating, the Obama camp has also floated the idea that the President is too busy handling pressing situations in the Middle East to concentrate on debate preparation. Maybe Obama PR flack Jen Psaki meant the Maghreb, where an Ambassador and three special operations soldiers were assassinated in Benghazi, Libya on 9/11/2012.  Well, Mr. Obama has been spending several days at the Westin Lake Las Vegas resort, which has both a Mid East theme AND a golf course–perfect!  

Alas, Mr. Obama revealed that he found debate preparation to be a drag.   Barack Obama’s debate preparations has been aided by former White House Communications Director Anita Dunn, who as also aided with First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” Campaign.  So perhaps if the President goes off script, Mr. Obama may refer to Ms. Dunn’s favorite political philosopher–Mao Tse Tung

People often do not remember many policy points from debates, but impressions drawn from debates influence their outlooks.  The Lamestream Media has spent the better part of September trumpeting perceived flaws by candidate Romney, including the old footage of the 47% and parroting Obama talking points that Romney shoots first and aims later on the violence in Egypt and Libya.  Even though all of the Presidential debates are chocked full of liberal questioners, history has shown that Mr. Romney’s appearance on the same stage as the President will elevate his stature among the electorate. 

[L] John Kennedy  [R] Richard Nixon during 1960 debate
Appearance can definitely matter.  Although those who listened to the 1960 Presidential debates on the radio thought that then Vice President Richard Nixon bested then Senator John Kennedy (D-MA).  But Nixon’s pasty pallor (he had been hospitalized) along with his five-o’clock shadow and grey suit did not look good on black-and-white television.  Hence TV viewers thought that Kennedy won.  

[L] George HW Bush, [C] Ross Perot [R] Bill Clinton in '92 debate 
During the 1992 Richmond Virginia Townhall Presidential Debate, viewers took note of President George Herbert Walker Bush looking down at his watch during the debate.  This gesture was intended to remind the moderator that then Governor Bill Clinton (D-AK) had exceeded his allotted time.  But the public interpreted this as detachment and reflected poorly upon the incumbent’s re-election candidacy.  

And who can forget Vice President Al Gore’s bizarre  behavior during debates, crowding his opponent then Governor George W. Bush (R-TX) during town hall forums exchanges and giving audible sighs during his opponents answers.  Viewers did not put their disdain in a “lock box”.  In fact, it was so laughable that Saturday Night Live mocked it.

SNL Parody of 2000 Debate [L] fake Al Gore [R] Fake George W. Bush 

There is a theory which postulates that likability is a key factor for people on choosing Presidents.  After all, once elected, the President of the United States is in our homes every day through television appearances.  Thus  low-information voters want someone who will not be too irritating to see every day. 

1976 Debate [L] Jimmy Carter [R] Gerald Ford
Another thing that people take away from debates are flubs.  During the 1976 Presidential Debates, incumbent President Gerald R. Ford claimed that “Poland was free”.  What he meant to say is that the Polish peoples’ spirit of freedom could never be taken away.  But that bad quote was out there and did not help Ford win.  

1988 Debate [L] George H.W. Bush [R] Michael Dukakis
Then there are gaffes which may contain the right answer but are instances that the candidate does not successfully sell himself.  In 1988, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis gave a straight but dispassionate answer on the Death Penalty when he was asked how he would feel if his wife was raped. Later, Dukakis gave a legalese reply to a question about a proposed Flag Burning Amendment which some pundits claimed won the hearts and minds of fourteen lawyers while losing three million votes.  

Viewers tend to remember zingers in debates, which often are prescripted but a candidate needs to be able to sell it.  In 1984, the 73 year old incumbent President Ronald Reagan had a shaky appearance in the first Presidential debate, which raised concerns among the media that the old man may not have been up to continue the job.  So as the second debate began, Mr. Reagan famously promised not to exploit former Vice President Walter Mondale’s youthfulness and inexperience in the campaign.

1984 Presidential Debate  [L] Ronald Reagan jokes with [R] Walter Mondale

That bon mot caused even Mr Mondale to crack up, which allayed any concerns and sealed the deal with the electorate. 

For those of you who consider politics to be just infotainment, you might consider the drinking game for the Presidential debates

As fun as that sounds, that won't be the way that I watch the Denver Debate.  I will be covering the debate by live blogging it under the  CalamityDC alias on Twitter using the #DenverDebate hashtag.  

I encourage people interested in public affairs to join in the live comments.  It used to be that political junkies would wait to watch the spin-rooms after the main event to listen to pundits tell you what to think.  Now with the advent of social media, parroting the pontification of pundits is unnecessary and your real time opinions can be shared.

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