What Will The Debates Look Like? — James Fallows Has Some Ideas

James Fallows of The Atlantic has written a comprehensive, fascinating preview of this Fall’s presidential debates between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. The entire article is worth reading. Fallows watched the entire run of Romney’s former political debate performances and draws some interesting conclusions.

1) Have you heard about watching debates with the sound off?: Fallows raises the importance of watching debates with the sound off to monitor body language. This is one of those nuggets of wisdom that is always introduced as “little known” even though every article ever about the presidential debate season mentions it. Fallows carefully walks us through the poor visuals of the other Republican candidates, which certainly contributed to the demise of their campaigns. But I think he overplays Romney’s presence. Having watched those debates again, I think Mitt Romney appeared wooden and strained more often than he appeared relaxed and in control. Fallows had to cherry-pick a bit to find the images of Romney confident and relaxed. In fact, he was so bad at debating throughout the primary season that, before the Florida primary, articles were routinely written about Romney’s poor performances.

The Massachusetts Senate debates against Ted Kennedy were not as successful for Mitt Romney as Fallows suggests. He points out that Romney was running close behind Kennedy for awhile in the 1994 Senate race, but once the two debated Kennedy pulled away. Even though Fallows identifies a few strong moments for Romney, the more the public saw Romney debating, the less they liked him (obviously other factors, including Bain Capital attack ads, contributed). To the tune of turning his 2 point deficit into a 17 point rout in the course of month.

2) Romney is well-prepared…and sometimes that’s the problem: Mitt Romney is very prepared and very skilled at keeping a number of facts, figures, and zingers in his head. Fallows is impressed with Romney’s preparation, which many candidates cannot match. Unfortunately, Romney is not particularly skilled at delivering these facts in a natural, smooth manner (which may be the greatest political skill of one Barack Obama). For example, check out this clip from an early debate this season (at the 1:19 mark).

That was supposed to be his knock-out line. It was clearly scripted and it was pretty tight. And yet he couldn’t get through it without giving Gingrich a springboard to punch back. Fallows specifically applauds Romney’s 1994 response to Ted Kennedy’s line that he knew the damage guns can cause. While Fallows thought Romney’s prepared response was strong, I thought his delivery smacked of callous insensitivity (at 1:38 mark of the video imbedded in the Fallows article). A more calm, sympathetic response could have made that a powerful response, but as is I thought it highlights Romney’s overarching inability to convey (or even feel) human empathy.

Preparation is all well and good, but for a candidate accused of appearing wooden, memorization can be as much of a curse as a blessing. In the midst of a fluid debate, trying to force in a factoid “square peg, round hole” style only exacerbates that negative quality.

3) Like “Bloody Mary,” Say The Same Thing 3 Times: This is related to the preparation issue. If an opponent hits Romney on the same topic 3 times, he will begin repeating himself and floundering. The best example of this came in Romney’s otherwise very successful Florida debate when Rick Santorum pushed Mitt Romney on his support for the individual mandate solution to health care. Romney’s first response is fair enough. His second is strained, but generally successful. By the third attack from Santorum, Romney reverts to simply describing the Massachusetts plan to avoid simply repeating himself and as he does so Santorum’s charge that Romney cannot identify a single difference with Obamacare becomes more and more obvious.

4) Obama not as good as we remember: This is one of the best points Fallows makes. Barack Obama is a tremendous public speaker, but his debate performances were merely adequate. Robbed of the ability to control the entire discourse with his own rhetoric, Obama is a good, but not excellent debate presence. That said, I think Barack Obama has grown a great deal since 2008 when it comes to presence. Since FDR, how many Presidents have appeared more presidential entering a reelection than during their initial run? I’d say Bill Clinton and Barack Obama…and that’s about it. Ike, Nixon, and Reagan just kind of held their own in their reelections. It’s not as though they seemed more presidential the second time around. Truman, Carter and both Bushes seemed to be befuddled and limping into reelection campaigns. Clinton looked gray-haired and confident by 1996 and Obama is now the face that sat in the Situation Room while Seals killed bin Laden. Only the craziest of critics persist in calling Barack Obama an “Amateur.” Standing next to a wooden Romney, Obama could look even more formidable. If Mitt Romney is going to prevail in these debates he will need much more than simple preparation.

All in all, Fallows has written an amazingly well-researched and interesting article about a subject we’ll be talking about on this site for awhile.

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