Watching the 1980 presidential debate between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, the Baltimore Sun’s chief political writer, Carl Leubsdorf, turned to me for a little validation. I was well-known around the Sun newsroom for my disdain for the hapless Carter.
“I can’t judge Reagan objectively,” said Leubsdorf, who was covering his first presidential election at the Sun since succeeding “major league asshole” Adam Clymer on the job. “Did he seem pretty out of it to you?”
I agreed, and Leubsdorf felt better about the story he had just written.
Unfortunately, he went to the wrong source. I hadn’t been watching the debate, but just following it by reading the transcripts off the Associated Press wire. On paper, Carter’s clear, precise sentences contrasted sharply to Reagan’s meandering speech, which was bereft of structure when transcribed. What the transcript did not show was Reagan’s style and warmth.
And therein lies a lesson for Albert Gore Jr. as he prepares for his presidential campaign debates with George W. Bush. The race is not always to the swift.
With the decline of the presidential conventions, “debating” has taken on an outsized importance in campaigns as the moment when the candidates get their most sustained attention from the electorate. The recent skirmishing on the subject, with Bush trying unsuccessfully to maneuver Gore into a series of secret debates, reflects the significance they have taken on.
Gore, with his experience and past successes, and Bush, with his apparent cranial numbness, are both trying to play for maximum advantage, which is the nature of campaigns. No judgment should be attached to their tactics, as campaigns are about winning, not sportsmanship.
But although Gore is thought to have the advantage, there is more at risk for him than is generally recognized. There has been some recent commentary that the debates could embarrass Gore, that Bush could win by virtue of his greater charm and the electorate’s lower expectations for him. But the peril goes even beyond that.
The real risk for Gore is that the American people are not very good judges of debates. Any review of debate history is full of examples where important public judgments about the candidates were based on superficial or utterly wrong-headed considerations. Things that should be important get ignored; things that are unimportant take on inflated significance.
Most famous, of course, is John Kennedy’s debate “victory” over Richard Nixon in 1960 in which the tanned and rested Kennedy made a better public impression than a gaunt and badly made-up Nixon. One of the interesting wrinkles was the polling judgment: A Gallup survey found that while people who watched the debate on TV clearly judged Kennedy the winner, those who listened on the radio thought Nixon was the certain victor. In other words, Kennedy won on looks, Nixon on substance. Unfortunately for Nixon, many more people watched on TV than listened on the radio.
Nixon had the additional Gore-like problem of higher expectations. Having triumphed in a number of previous political debates, Nixon expected to thrash Kennedy and was left scrambling after the debate to repair the damage to his reputation. Indeed, in the two subsequent debates, Nixon’s performance was generally judged better than Kennedy’s, but the damage was already done.
The most striking Tennessee example came in the 1984 congressional debate between Democrat Bart Gordon and his Republican opponent Joe Simpkins (former Banner publisher Irby Simpkins’ brother) in the 6th District race to succeed Gore. “Since you’ve proposed three constitutional amendments in your campaign,” Gordon asked his opponent, “could you tell us what the process is for amending the constitution and how long it takes?”
The purpose of the question was to expose Simpkins’ solutions for dealing with immediate problems as much too slow to be relevant. That point was never made, however. The moment revealed a more fundamental Simpkins flaw. In a stumblebum performance, Simpkins spent the next three minutes unsuccessfully trying to explain the amendment process and revealing just how little a clue the congressional candidate had about how government worked. Gordon won easily and still holds the seat.
After the Kennedy and Nixon showdowns, the next presidential general election debates came in 1976 and are most famous for proving what everyone expectedthat Gerald Ford was a bit of a dim bulb. Ford’s refusal to correct himself after stumbling into the assertion that Eastern Europe was not dominated by the Soviet Union undermined his claims to intelligence, and in this instance, the public reaction was on the mark.
Subsequent debates were less edifying. Ronald Reagan is generally regarded the winner over Jimmy Carter in 1980 for having brushed off his opponent’s critique on some point with a genial “there you go again.” Lost to historyand the debate’s audiencewas that Carter, and not Reagan, had been factually correct on the point at issue. Indeed, it was a well Reagan dipped in once too often. When he tried the same trick against Walter Mondale four years later, a well-briefed Mondale, expecting the gimmick, had a prepared response that staggered the Gipper.
Reagan’s more successful debating moment, of course, came in a fairly scripted closing statement in which he asked “are you better off than you were four years ago?” It didn’t represent great, light-on-his-feet debating, but Reagan had chosen the moment with the biggest audience to deploy the best rhetorical flourish of the campaign.
Audiences tend to see what they want to see, which, of course, is Bush’s best hope for this year’s contest. After Reagan’s first debate with Mondale in 1984, polling showed the public judging it a toss up. A week later, after extended news coverage featuring repeated montages of Reagan’s many dazed and confused moments during that debate, polling showed Mondale the “winner” by a 3-1 margin. But Mondale’s glory was temporary. He went down in flames in the second debate when Reagan refused to capitalize “for political purposes on my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” It was a hysterically funny moment, and even Mondale had no choice but to laugh. But Reagan basically won the right to try to swap arms for hostages in a second term on the basis of that joke.
In 1988, the notoriously inarticulate elder George Bush was the hands-down winner. Michael Dukakis offered a droning and unemotional explanation for his opposition to capital punishment in response to a question about how he would feel about the death penalty if his wife had been raped and murdered. In effect, Dukakis was deemed unfit for the presidency because he did not react to a stupid hypothetical question with an emotional outburst. Actually, Dukakis seemed to be the only person involved who actually did have a grip on reality.
That same election cycle brought another of America’s famous debate eventsLloyd Bentsen’s disdainful dismissal of Dan Quayle. The sally pretty much put an end to Quayle’s hopes of ever being taken seriously as a national political figure, even though being characterized as “no Jack Kennedy” is not an entirely negative judgment and despite the fact that Quayle himself had a much more productive congressional career than Bentsen.
Four years later, Bush was a victim of audience and media ignorance in the most memorable moment of the debates. An audience member asked if he personally knew anyone who had “been hurt by the national debt.” The question was misstated; the questioner clearly meant the budget deficit, but Bush was not quick-witted enough to correct the questioner and answer the easier query. The consequences of the national debt, after all, are less clear and not unalterably negative. Instead, he first tried to deal with the question as asked, saying lamely, “You mean by having to pay higher interest rates?”
Although Bush’s response was correct in terms of economic theory, the questioner was as confused by the situation as Bush was. He then changed tack and started talking about not needing to know anyone personally to understand the consequences of a problem. Bush looked horribly out of touch in contrast to the theatrically empathetic Clinton, and it became the defining moment of the campaign. Bush self-destructed in response to a question his questioner hadn’t even understood.
The lesson for Gore here as he contemplates his debates with Bush is to understand just how dangerous the territory really is. Nobody doubts at this point that Gore is brighter and better informed than Bush. But that isn’t going to be what determines who “wins” or “loses” in the debates. After all, the judges are the voters, who, for the most part, are neither as bright nor as informed as Bush.
Tisk tisk tisk
I was at Cleopatra it was awsoooooooooome
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