Some preliminary thoughts on the coming presidential debates, the first of which is Oct. 3, in 3½ weeks:
1. People will be watching. Convention viewership may have been down, but almost every voter who can, will watch at least some of the debates. Three reasons. First, nothing else has moved the needle, the race has been neck and neck for months. Second, a lot of people will use the debates to test and double-test their preliminary judgments. Is Romney really strong enough for this job? Is Obama really who I want to stick with? Third, it’s a contest, it’s combat. Someone will cross the goal line, one of them will beat the other. Someone will emerge the champ, or at least an undamaged contender. Unlike a convention, a debate is something a candidate can win right before your eyes.
So: everyone will watch. What do they hope for? They’d like to think by the end, “That guy is a president” and turn it off and go to bed, resolved. They will also accept, “My guy didn’t screw up! It was a tie, but he didn’t lose, I’ll watch the next one.”
2. Everyone says Obama has the advantage because he’s a wonderful debater. It’s not true. There’s no evidence he’s ever been a wonderful debater. He won the election in 2008, so people think, retrospectively, that he was great at debate. But he wasn’t, he just never lost an inch to John McCain and seemed steadier, less scattered. But he never said anything interesting. In all the 2008 Democratic primary season and then in his presidential debates with Mr. McCain, Obama never offered a memorable moment or said a memorable thing, with one exception. That was when he said, in response to a facetious comment by Hillary Clinton, “You’re likable enough, Hillary.” And that was memorable, in retrospect, because he let his inner rhymes-with-witch come out. What Mr. Obama tends to be is unruffled, steady and cool. But this can also come across as passive, uninterested and unforthcoming.
3. The incumbent labors at a disadvantage in many respects. The first is that he has a record to defend. He’s not promising a better future, he’s saying he did a good enough job to merit re-election, which will usher in a better future. Everyone knows the economic facts: There’s a lot that needs defending.
Second, all modern presidents are disoriented to some degree by the presidency, and the biggest way they become disoriented is that for 3½ years everyone around them has bowed to them, murmured compliments, been awed by them. No one ever pushes back hard, puts down, fiercely challenges or insults a president. Everyone around a president comforts him: “The problems you face with such steely grace—Sir, I don’t know how you do it.” This happens not only because White Houses are heavily staffed by suckups, courtiers and frightened people, it’s because White House staffers – and the presidents they serve – now hold too great a historical consciousness of the presidency. They’re too much in awe of it. They’ve all read their Lincoln, their FDR. This man is their Lincoln, their FDR. He’ll be in the history books. Anyway, they treat him with much too much reverance and deference. (With Lincoln, people on the street used to walk right into the house and ask him for a job. They thought he worked for them! It helped keep his head screwed on right. It helped him become: Lincoln.)
What does this mean in terms of debate? A challenger who pushes back hard, who shows he is not awed, not that impressed, who never crosses the line into rudeness but holds the line on real, sharp disagreement and lack of reverence, can startle the incumbent, rattle his cage, gain an advantage. Remember when John Kerry went hard after President Bush in the debates in 2004? Mr. Bush wound up spluttering: “It is hard work, it is hard work!” Mitt Romney should keep all this in mind.
Does the incumbent have an advantage? Sure. Everyone already knows him. Everyone knows he’s been president the past 3½ years and the world didn’t blow up. Everyone knows he has a baseline ability to be president because he’s been president.
4. Too much has been made of likability. Mr. Romney should not be thinking about that. America is in a crisis. It needs to get out of it, shake it off, move forward. Americans want leadership. What Mitt Romney has to show is command, talent, resolve. He has to move with firmness, strength. Americans don’t really want someone they’d like to go out and have a beer with, they want someone who can help them afford a beer. First things first. Romney at this point should just forget likability—let’s just say he’s likable enough. He needs people to see certainty, guts, ability and heft. Americans are tired of trying to like these guys, they want to respect them. They’d like to feel honest awe.