Slugfest

This year’s presidential debates could have as decisive an effect on the election outcome as any since 1980, if not 1960. Mitt Romney brings formidable advantages to the contests—but he has one big weakness that President Obama can exploit.
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Alison Jackson

By the fall of 1994, Edward Kennedy, then 62 years old, had spent more than half his life in the U.S. Senate. He had cruised to reelection five times after his only even slightly competitive race—the first one, which was a special election to fill the seat once held by his brother John­—nine months after he reached the constitutional minimum age of 30. But in 1994, Mitt Romney thought the time could be right to dethrone Kennedy. Romney was 47 years old and already rich from his years at Bain & Company and Bain Capital. The now-famous photo of him and other Bain Capital executives grinning as they clutched and bit wads of cash was 10 years in the past; under Romney as its CEO, Bain Capital had been a stunning success, beginning a 15-year run of returns five times greater than the overall stock market’s through that period. The year was shaping up as a very good one for Republicans. A Boston Globe poll in late September showed Kennedy barely in the lead over Romney, 48 percent to 46; another poll showed Romney ahead. A Newsday story was headlined “Kennedy in Fight of His Political Life.”

As it turned out, of course, Kennedy held on. Romney got 41 percent of the vote, which was more than any challenger before or after but still not even close to Kennedy’s 58 percent. Romney now looks back and says he knew he never had a chance and was running mainly because he felt a civic duty to stand up against “a man who I thought by virtue of the policies of the liberal welfare state had created a permanent underclass in America.” Romney put some $3 million of his own money into the race. He said of Kennedy at a Republican-primary debate early this year, “I was happy that he had to take a mortgage out on his house to ultimately defeat me.”

But while the race was under way, Romney fought like a man trying hard to win. The Romney who took on Teddy Kennedy 18 years ago remains a highly useful guide to the candidate who will stand next to Barack Obama in the three debates scheduled this fall. Romney’s record then and in the years since suggests that if Obama is taking anything for granted about these encounters, he is making a mistake.


 

 

VIDEO: Fallows discusses clips that demonstrate Romney's debating strengths and weaknesses.


Mitt Romney is far less effective as a big-speech orator than Barack Obama, and in many other aspects of campaigning he displays what appear to be laboriously studied moves rather than anything that comes naturally. But debates are and have been his strength. He grew up enjoying “big, boisterous arguments about everything around the dinner table,” according to his campaign strategist and main debate-prep specialist, Stuart Stevens. “He loves the dialectic of arguing the different sides, and he’s most uncomfortable when no one is disagreeing with him.” He will enter this fall’s encounters with very recent, successful experience in a very wide range of formats and challenges.

In none of the Republican-primary debates was Romney judged the big loser; in many he was the clear winner, and as the campaign wore on, the dominant image from the debates was of a confident Romney, standing with a slight smile on his face and his hands resting easily in his pockets, looking on with calm amusement as the lesser figures squabbled among themselves and sometimes lashed out at him.

Civics teachers won’t want to hear this, but the easiest way to judge “victory” in many debates is to watch with the sound turned off, so you can assess the candidates’ ease, tenseness, humor, and other traits signaled by their body language. By this standard, Ron Paul, with his chronically ill-fitting suits, often looked cranky; Rick Santorum often looked angry; Rick Perry initially looked pole­axed and confused; Jon Huntsman looked nervous; Newt Ging­rich looked overexcited—and so on through the list until we reach Mitt Romney, who almost always looked at ease. (As did Herman Cain, illustrating that body language is not everything.) Romney looked like the grown-up—the winner, the obvious candidate—with or without sound. “He is as good as it gets in debating,” former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, who was the first major contender to drop out of the Republican race, told me. “He is poised, prepared, smart, strategic—tactical, too.”

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Election 2012
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Rhetorical Questions
An analysis of Barack Obama's performance during the 2008 primary debates
by James Fallows

The past two cycles of general-election debates have been anticlimactic. Everyone expected the college-debate whiz John Kerry to outperform the aphasic-seeming George W. Bush. He did, but it didn’t matter. For John McCain, the world financial crisis, plus his selection of Sarah Palin, was bringing his campaign down around him before he even stepped on a stage with Barack Obama. The only memorable aspect of their debates was McCain’s short-lived attempt to get out of them so that he could devote his full attention to developing financial-rescue policies.

This year’s exchanges have the potential to be different, and more dramatic. Romney is very strong as a debater but has also shown two repeated weaknesses: a thin command of policy details, and an awkwardness when taken by surprise.

When the subject is one he’s prepared for, he rarely falters. When it’s not, or when an exchange goes on longer or in a different direction than expected, many of his ad-libbed responses turn out to be mistakes (“I’ll bet you $10,000!”). Thus the Romney team has the impossible challenge of trying to imagine every question or attack line that might come up in debates with Obama, while the Obama team tries to imagine what Romney’s might have missed. This kind of chess game is always part of debate preparation, but it is unusually important this year, because the gap between Romney at his best and at his worst is so wide.

Barack Obama got himself in trouble only once during his primary and general-election debates four years ago. That was in January 2008, just after Obama’s surprise victory in the Iowa caucuses, when a questioner at a New Hampshire debate asked Hillary Clinton about polls showing that people respected her but didn’t like her. She handled the question with perfect comic-dramatic poise and timing. First she feigned a crushed look and said that her feelings were hurt. Then she said, with melodramatic jokey pluck, “I’ll try to go on!” Finally she said of Obama, warmly, “He’s very likable! I agree with that.” Then, a moment later, and charmingly, “I don’t think I’m that bad.” Obama, obviously off balance, said in reply, “You’re likable enough, Hillary”—a line that was presumably meant to sound light but came across as coldly supercilious, in part because he didn’t even look at her when delivering it. Maybe this was the moment when Obama realized that jock-style put-down banter, common among men in certain circumstances and often associated with both Obama and George W. Bush, comes across very differently when applied by a man to a woman. Or maybe he just made a mistake—one of the very few in his hundreds of hours before cameras during his presidential campaign.

Obama got better, steadier, and more relaxed-seeming as the 2008 debates went on. But they were never his strength, compared with formal speeches, and his team surely realizes that many circumstances of this year’s debates will work to his disadvantage.

“The history is that challengers tend to profit, particularly in the first debate,” David Axelrod, Obama’s chief campaign strategist, told me in June. “Just the act of being on the stage with a president is an elevating thing.” This sounds like a small matter, but through the years, analysis of debate reactions has shown that the public takes a candidate more seriously after seeing him, for the first time, on equal footing with an incumbent president. The most famous example here, and the one whose implications are most ominous for Obama, is the sole debate between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, in 1980. Every objective factor was working against Carter at that point: the economy was terrible, his attempted rescue mission to free American hostages in Iran had been a disastrous failure, he’d had to fend off a challenge in his own party by Teddy Kennedy. But still the polls showed a very close race between Carter and Reagan, until that debate, just one week before Election Day. Reagan’s sunny demeanor—­loose and expansive, while Carter was tight and tense—apparently reassured voters who had given up on Carter but worried that Reagan was too extreme. Tracking-poll results changed immediately. A week later, Reagan carried 44 states.

As a campaigner and orator, Mitt Romney is no Ronald Reagan. But the great danger for Obama is a set of debates (not to mention an entire campaign) that follows the 1980 pattern.

In this year’s debates, Barack Obama’s most inspiring and powerful message as a candidate will no longer be available to him. Four years ago, “Change we can believe in” suggested that things could be different and much better with him in charge. Now even his most fervent backers doubt how much better things are likely to get in a second Obama term. His critics put the same point more harshly. “This time, the president won’t have the luxury of making stuff up and speaking aspirationally,” Tim Pawlenty told me on a campaign swing through Pennsylvania with Romney in June. “He actually has to defend his record and attach facts to it.”

One more factor is working against Obama in the debates. When the economy is bad and an incumbent is beset, the challenger’s task is simplified. He doesn’t need to belabor the case against the incumbent. Reality has already done that; everyone knows what’s wrong with the president they have now. All the challenger has to do is say: “Look me over. I’ll be okay in this job. You can feel comfortable with me.” This is what Ronald Reagan did in 1980, and Bill Clinton in 1992. Meanwhile, the incumbent has to work twice as hard, in order to make two arguments at once. He must prove something about himself: that, while battered, he’s still energetic, visionary, and up to the job. He must also prove something about his opponent: that he is bad for the country, unready, and overall worse.

And he must do all this without seeming defensive or tense; while appearing easily in command to those who see images without hearing words; and, in Obama’s uniquely straitjacketed case, while avoiding the slightest hint of being an “angry black man.” A carefully deployed flash of anger can be an important debating tool for the right candidate—one who doesn’t seem, Dole- or Gingrich-like, to be irritable overall. Bill Clinton gave one example in 1992 during a primary debate, after Jerry Brown accused him of favoring Hillary Clinton’s law firm with Arkansas state business. Clinton shot back, furious: “You ought to be ashamed of yourself for jumping on my wife. You’re not worth being on the same platform as my wife.” It worked because it seemed genuine and was not Clinton’s standard tone. Racial imagery gives Barack Obama much less leeway for even justified rage, and he has disciplined himself to avoid such displays. (See Ta-Nehisi Coates’s essay “Fear of a Black President” on this subject.)

If economic trends are bad enough—or, improbably, good enough—to turn the election into a runaway, we might look back and say that the debates didn’t matter. But in what gives every sign of being a close, bitter, expensive, and mostly negative contest, the way these men interact onstage could make a major difference. Debates played an undeniable role in the victory of John F. Kennedy over Richard Nixon, in 1960; of Jimmy Carter over Gerald Ford, in 1976; of Ronald Reagan over Carter, in 1980; of Bill Clinton over George H. W. Bush, in 1992; and of George W. Bush over Al Gore, in 2000. (Lyndon Johnson refused to debate in 1964, as did Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972.) This year’s results could add to that list.

Let’s consider the skills Mitt Romney will bring to this contest, starting with those on display during his challenge to Teddy Kennedy, 18 years ago.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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