Are We Ready for the Debates?

 Photo by Alan Clanton

Are We Ready for the Debates?

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review Editor

The presidential debate schedule has been set since late July of this year, but other than the fact that the arrival of the first debate is drawing closer (October 3), there has been little attention paid in the mainstream media for the important role these televised forums could play in a contest that is shaping up to remain close through Election Day.

As has been the arrangement since 1987, debates between presidential candidates are sponsored, planned and executed by the non-partisan, not-for-profit Commission on Presidential Debates, co-chaired currently by Frank Fahrenkopf, Jr. and Michael McCurry. And with rare exceptions in that 25 year period, all major television networks participate by broadcasting the debates.

The first post-nomination debate is planned for Wednesday, October 3 beginning at 9:00 p.m. eastern time (8:00 central) at the University of Denver. Jim Lehrer, executive editor of PBS’s NewsHour, will serve as moderator for the debate, which will be divided into six major segments covering all manner of domestic policy. (Foreign policy issues will be discussed at a later debate scheduled for October 22). The candidates will face each other inside the 80,000 square foot Magness Arena, in the Daniel C. Ritchie Center, a huge arena most commonly used for basketball, hockey and graduations.

It is on this stage when voters will see—for the first time—a direct match-up between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney. And it is in this venue when undecided Americans will have an opportunity to begin making up their minds, and that is assuming they decide to tune in to watch the debate at all.

In extremely tight political contests, or in presidential races in which there are large numbers of voters who remain undecided, debates can have a powerful effect. Certainly this year the most frequent historical analogy takes us back to the fall of 1980, when challenger Ronald Reagan and incumbent Jimmy Carter faced off in a debate just one week prior to the election, an otherwise uneventful match-up until the very end when Reagan posed a gently rhetorical question to those watching on TV.

Indeed, in Tampa a few weeks ago the Republicans wasted no opportunity to remind the partisans present—as well as viewers watching the GOP convention on TV—that this election is a referendum on Barack Obama’s handling of the economy. And what better historical example than Reagan’s oft-repeated question to voters: are you better off today than you were four years ago? (see, “The Big 80s are Back, and With a Vengeance,” September 8, 2012).

Reagan’s famous debate remarks have been paraphrased, quoted, misquoted and kicked around so often and by so many lately that I spent one full hour last week poring through my library of books and newsmagazines in search of verification of Reagan’s exact words and precise context. I found it in the form of two books and three ancient newsmagazines from that era, as well as—incredibly—my handwritten notes on a yellow legal pad still stashed in my file cabinet under the heading “Reagan Campaign 80 Misc Stuff.” (I also have the entire debate on a Betamax tape somewhere in my garage, but that tape is meaningless since my Sony Beta player-recorder died back in 1991).

Republicans quoted and paraphrased Reagan frequently during the GOP convention, so much so that Democrats gathered in Charlotte the next week felt obliged to answer the challenge directly, reframing it—as often as possible—as a laundry list of reasons why Americans are better off than they were four year ago. Even now, television ads for both sides recalibrate the question more, pro-Romney ads advising viewers to consider the fact that we are not better off, pro-Obama ads telling voters that in fact we are better off.

The Gipper, rest in peace, has been quoted more in the last two weeks than in the previous two decades combined.

Reagan’s attempt to help clarify the issue for voters on the eve of the 1980 election—which came at a time when there were still millions of voters mired in the neutral or undecided positions, unwilling to reward Carter with four more years in the White House, but also uneasy and unsure of Reagan’s temperament and caliber—may have in fact been the decisive factor in the outcome of that election.

But not all debates produce such a clear shift in momentum or redirection. The contemporary treatment is that debates produce easy-to-digest sound bites—gotcha moments which can be endlessly replayed on CNN and Fox News and scrutinized ad nauseam by the analysts and chattering classes. In this sense, debates sometimes become distractions, diverting attention from the issues most voters find relevant to their lives, and, for that matter, their ability to decide at the ballot box. Was Gerald Ford’s 1976 pratfall—misplacing Poland on the democratic side of the Iron Curtain—more important than the harsh economic realities of inflation and market stagnation, or, for that matter, the transcendent issue of trust between Americans and their elected officials in the early post-Watergate years? Was Jimmy Carter’s strange reference in 1980 to his conversation the night before with daughter Amy about nuclear weapons of the same critical importance as our uneasy relationship at that moment with the Soviet Union? Hardly, but these sideshow moments nevertheless became dominant elements in much of the mainstream reporting in the days and weeks after the debates.

Campaign managers sometimes dread debates for reasons of timing and momentum, for as the events draw closer, preparation for debates syphon energy and talking points away from a candidate’s message, requiring the candidate and his top surrogates to offer up predictions and engage in the dangerous calculus of raised or lowered expectations. A candidate with a history of poor debate skills will want expectations to be low, so that any reasonable performance can be defined as a “win.” Top-notch debaters sometimes attempt to lower expectations as well, a device for cushioning the damage in the event that they mishandle a question or commit a gaffe.

In 1980, pre-debate spin by elite Democrats and contemptuous Carter campaign officials so lowered the expectations for Reagan (the Carter people were quietly referring to Reagan as an empty suit and a hollow phrase-maker) that when Reagan finally appeared on the stage in Cleveland and held his own with style and clarity, Carter himself seemed surprised. Years later, the early consensus press opinion on Sarah Palin was so low in the days before her 2008 debate with Joe Biden that it had the odd effect of making her actual performance seem passable, even strong at times. Biden merely had to avoid making a mistake, but Palin’s performance was considered by many who tuned in to be a "win" simply because she had committed no major blunders.

Post-debate analysis can often backfire on candidates, and the voting public, and sometimes for strange reasons. A small brouhaha erupted in 1980 when it was revealed that a phone-in instant poll conducted by ABC News and Nightline With Ted Koppel—the results of which showed a huge win for Reagan in his debate with Carter that very night—was flawed by technical problems, jammed phone lines, and even rumors of mischief by both sides. The debate over the unscientific poll seemed, for a critical period of two or three days, to have become a central talking point, eliciting editorial outrage from The New York Times and The Washington Post, along with complaints by both sets of political partisans. ABC had merely thought the phone-in poll a clever way to boost ratings. [i]

Debates also unleash psychological warfare between rival political camps, drawing in journalists and reporters who too easily become distracted by the gamesmanship—a phenomenon known as debating the debates. In the post-nomination period in 1992, handlers for President George H.W. Bush, miffed at early proposals for a debate with a single moderator (as opposed to a panel of three or four as had been the case with Bush’s 1988 face-offs with Michael Dukakis), advised the President to refuse to debate and withdraw from further negotiations with the Clinton camp. Bush’s subsequent stonewalling on the subject irked Clinton, who essentially accused Bush of dodging a confrontation. The media dutifully began to report a stream of stories about the “debate over the debates,” effectively diverting attention from the pressing issues of the economy, trade and foreign policy. [ii]

President Obama and challenger Romney face no such sideshow issues at the moment at least. Both camps seem willing to debate and are, for the most part, in general agreement with the formats as proposed by the Commission. (See the complete list below).

President Obama learned to make the most of the debate formats when he was a candidate in the Democratic contests in 2007 and 2008. At first plodding and stiff in his early debates, especially when contrasted to the more seasoned litigators and combatants like Hillary Clinton or John Edwards, Obama quickly adapted to the competitive venues. In the middle-to-late debates, as the field narrowed, winnowing away Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd, Joe Biden and others, Obama grew into the role of a savvy stage debater, avoiding traps, diffusing or controlling anger, and not letting Hillary Clinton’s aggressive style rattle him. By the time the field had narrowed to just Clinton and Obama, the future president had mastered the format and made it his own, creating the now indelible picture of a leader unfazed and unflappable, slow to anger and cool under fire.

Romney, like Obama, is a formidable personage on stage, prepared and well-versed, and typically poised and comfortable with himself. Unlike Obama’s 2008 opponent John McCain, who favored loose, town hall formats where the Arizona Senator could meander about with a wireless hand-held microphone, Romney is most at ease with a more conventional debate posture. Romney has proven his mettle in these confrontations over a long arc of time: from his early challenge to Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, debates in which the young Romney proved he could hold his own with a somewhat underprepared Kennedy; to his dozen or so GOP debates during 2007 and 2008, contests which included the challenge of outshining Mike Huckabee, Rudy Giuliani and others; to his performance in the roughly 30 debates with his nine or ten Republican rivals beginning in the summer of 2011.

Those dozens of debates last summer and early this year effectively served the former Massachusetts governor well. Despite the fact that the process tended to favor base appeal—that is, televised contests which forced the GOP narrative sometimes stridently to the right (including Romney himself)—Romney was better for the wear by the time the last of the debates had concluded back in early spring this year. Romney managed, finally, to outlast formidable insurgencies by Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, both of whom had used the debates to their advantage. Despite a couple of glitches when he wandered off script or off message (the infamous ten thousand dollar challenge to Rick Perry comes too easily to mind) Romney was patient, gracious and consistent. And, always well prepared.

So in early October Romney will step onto that stage in Denver and face off against an incumbent president who possesses an unflappable coolness and evenhandedness—even under extreme pressure—that comes about as naturally to him as any other politician since John F. Kennedy.

Ironically, current events may hurt Romney and help President Obama in the first debate. Ten days of violence and unrest in Libya, Egypt and other Arab nations have redirected much of the national narrative back toward foreign policy and international relations. Though he was correct in his analysis, Romney nevertheless took heavy flak from reporters and analysts—as well as Democrats—for weighing in with an opinion, any opinion, when events turned bloody in the Middle East in response to an obscure anti-Islam movie trailer. This means that Romney, like many presidential challengers in the past—from Wendell Willkie to Richard Nixon—will receive criticism whether he weighs in on the issue or chooses to remain silent. However, since the first debate covers primarily domestic policy, Romney may still find himself on a level playing field despite the current crisis in the Islamic world.

The question is really this: are we ready for these debates? Post-nomination debates are sometimes like Super Bowl games—weeks of glittery pre-match hype followed by a couple of hours of ho-hum play and a few fair-to-middling exchanges of the lead. Reporters and TV news analysts want those knock-out punches and razzle-dazzle—the stuff they can argue about over the next few days.

What voters will tune in to watch, however, is not the theatrics, but the substance.

Here’s a quick look at the four scheduled debates:

October 3, 2012: Domestic Policy Debate. University of Denver; Denver, Colorado. Moderator, Jim Lehrer of NewsHour on PBS. 9:00-10:30 p.m. eastern time. This debate will be divided into six time slots, each segment approximately 15 minutes in length. The moderator will have discretion as to what the subjects and specific topics will be, but these will be announced a few weeks ahead of time. After an opening question in each of the six segments, candidates will have a fixed two minutes to respond, after which time the moderator will manage the discussion until time to move on to the next segment. Topics can range from taxation to government spending, health care, Medicare and Social Security, general economic issues, as well as social issues such as abortion.

October 11, 2012: Vice-presidential debate; covering both domestic policy and foreign affairs. Centre College; Danville, Kentucky. Moderator, Martha Raddatz of ABC News. 9:00—10:30 p.m. Joe Biden and Paul Ryan will face off on a wide range of topics, ranging from foreign policy and national security to economic issues to social issues. This debate will also be carried by most of the major TV networks.

October 16, 2012: Presidential debate set in a town hall type forum. Hofstra University; Hempstead, New York. Moderator, Candy Crowley, Political Correspondent with CNN. Citizens can ask questions directly to the candidates. Candidates then have two minutes for a response. Participants in the town meeting will be selected from among independent and undecided voters by the Gallup organization. 9:00-10:30 p.m.

October 22, 2012: Foreign Policy Debate. Lynn University; Boca Raton, Florida. Moderator, Bob Schieffer, CBS News. 9:00-10:30 p.m. Similar to the first debate in format, except that in this venue the candidates may end up seated rather than standing. Topics will include the full spectrum of foreign policy: homeland security, border security, Middle East, China, North Korea, Russia; Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan; the European markets and trade with other nations. Schieffer, as moderator, has discretion to guide or redirect the conversation.

For more information on the debates, refer to the following websites:

Commission on Presidential Debates:

University of Denver:

[i] Source: Shirley, Craig, “Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America,” Intercollegiate Studies Institute Books, copyright 2009.

[ii] Source: Royer, Charles T., editor, “Campaign for President: The Managers Look at ’92,” Hollis Publishing, copyright 1994, The Institute of Politics.