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.

What Romney Showed Us in 1994

I’ve gone back to see the videos of those debates, as part of a recent immersion in the omnibus Romney debate archive. This collection also includes his three head-to-head debates against the Democratic nominee, state Treasurer Shannon O’Brien, during Romney’s successful run for the governorship of Massachusetts, in 2002, plus debates with the minor-­party nominees that year; his debates with John McCain, Mike Huckabee, Fred Thompson, Rudy Giuliani, and others during his unsuccessful presidential run in 2008; and the 27 sessions, totaling what seems like a million hours, from the current cycle’s primary debates, which started back in May 2011 with one in South Carolina sponsored by Fox News. (I admit it: I did a lot of skipping through this year’s batch, most of which I’d seen in real time.)

The first Mitt Romney–Edward Kennedy debate was held in Boston, at Faneuil Hall, two weeks before the election. Press accounts generally held that Kennedy “won,” and on the strength of that and powerful anti-Romney ads, he rapidly opened up a big lead. In part this was because the Romney team had misplayed the ever-important “expectations” game. “Romney had so insistently demanded debates that he got expectations right through the roof,” Robert Shrum, Kennedy’s chief strategist during the campaign, told me recently. “Their message was that Kennedy was old and out of it,” so even at less than his best, Kennedy could look “surprisingly” good. In retrospect, the quick swing of support to Kennedy also has the feel of a public looking for an excuse to forgive a wayward but familiar figure after giving him an instructive scare. On the merits, though, Romney was strong.

The very first question, from Sally Jacobs of The Boston Globe, was mercilessly blunt. “Senator, you are the fourth-most-senior member of the United States Senate,” she said. “Your opponent is a novice who has never held or even run for office. Why is this race even close?”Kennedy stared down at the lectern, shifted his weight back and forth, didn’t say anything for a few seconds. He looked bad: overweight, creased, baggy-suited, downcast. He eventually came up with an answer, about the hundreds of thousands of jobs Massachusetts had lost. “When there is loss of jobs, there is uncertainty,” he said. “When there is uncertainty there is anxiety, and when there is anxiety there is a willingness to listen to simple easy answers”—like those he said his opponent would present. The moderator, Ken Bode, turned and said, “Mr. Romney?” Romney leaned forward and began talking as soon as Bode was done. He looked good: lean and angular, the tallest man on the stage, a full head of perfectly combed all-dark hair we would now liken to Don Draper’s, body language suggesting engagement rather than withdrawal. He looked directly at Jacobs and said, “Sally, the real answer to your question is that people in Massachusetts have been watching, for 32 years, Senator Kennedy. They appreciate what he has done, but they recognize that our world has changed and that the answers of the 1960s aren’t working anymore.” Within 15 seconds, Romney had laid out the frame for his entire argument: that it was possible to love Teddy Kennedy but recognize that his time had passed, and that the “real” answers weren’t the ones Kennedy could present. This is instantly recognizable as his frame for the 2012 presidential race as well: his opponent is likable but not up to the job. In the next 15 seconds of his answer in that Boston debate, he got out the rest of his case: “People recognize that government jobs just can’t do it for Massachusetts. We need private-sector jobs. And so they are looking for people who have skill and experience in the private sector, who know how to help create jobs, who will do the work of traveling from state to state and around the country to bring jobs to Massachusetts.”Through the rest of that evening and in the follow-up debate two days later, Romney did not succeed in breaking Teddy Kennedy’s connection with the people who had voted for him six times before. But he did his level best, with a variety of tools and tactics he has relied on ever since.

• He came prepared to attack—in his first debate, with criticism of the Kennedy family for not offering health-care coverage to some workers at its Merchandise Mart business, in Chicago (“The height of hypocrisy!”). Kennedy fumed, and answered (Shrum says Kennedy had known this attack was coming), and later even tried to turn it to his advantage with a banner-wave of the Kennedy heritage: “My family didn’t go into politics to make money, and quite frankly, we have paid the price.” Still, any time Kennedy spent on this topic was a negative for him.

• He came prepared to defend, as he did in the opening debate with the second question, which was whether Massachusetts could afford to lose the clout that went with Kennedy’s seniority in Washington: “This idea of clout sometimes gets overstated … The taxpayers of Massachusetts are seeing through that … We are the ones paying for all that pork.”

• He anticipated many of Kennedy’s arguments and had counters ready that would work at more than the logical level. In the second debate, an angry Kennedy wound up his argument about gun control by saying, “I’m not yielding to anyone about guns in our society. I know enough about them.” Romney, unflapped, immediately came back, “You do know enough about it, Senator. You’ve raised that before. That’s the last resort each time this question comes up. But it’s not necessary here.” Going directly at Kennedy on the family-tragedy front was risky, but Romney didn’t blink.

• He had thought about how to condescend, and politely insult. In the second debate, in western Massachusetts, Kennedy’s face lit up when a questioner began, “I first met and talked with you back in 1962—” Kennedy immediately and happily broke in: “I remember very well! It was North Adams, at the Fall Foliage Festival.” Kennedy might actually have remembered, or might simply have been joking about the idea that he would remember. Either way, the man was charmed. A few minutes later, answering a question about welfare reform, Romney said of Kennedy: “He’s been there 32 years … He knows not only the trees, and the forest, but he knows the leaves, one by one. In my view, the last thing we need is to have someone who’s been there all this time forming this plan, trying to reform it one more time.”

• He even showed a flash of sly wit. In the first debate, Kennedy was asked to describe his greatest personal failings. Somberly, he said that he had not always “lived up to all the expectations” of the people of Massachusetts, but that his life had changed with his recent marriage to his second wife, Victoria. When the question came to Romney, he acted as if he was ready to keep going about Kennedy’s failings, and then said, with a faux-innocent grin, “I presume about myself?”

• He was unwaveringly on message and brought every question on every topic back to his main theme: Senator Kennedy was great for his time; that time has passed; I know about business, which is what we need.

“He has strong core family values, and religious values,” a man who worked with Romney during his years as governor told me. “But he doesn’t really have core policy values.”

Romney also showed weaknesses that have persisted, even though he managed to minimize their effects in this year’s primary debates. His analysis of any policy rarely moved past the level of abstraction: the problem is too much regulation, so the solution is less regulation, lower taxes, and more incentives for small-business growth. In his Kennedy debates and afterward, this reliance on generalities seemed to reflect both a political and a professional outlook. Politically, a Republican skepticism of govern­ment in general reduces the incentive to learn the fine points of difference among public programs. Professionally, Romney’s background as a consultant and private-equity investor has conditioned him to offer his managerial skills and analytic ability, and to worry about specific answers only after he’s been signed on to deal with a troubled enterprise. Robert Walker, a former congressman from Pennsylvania who chaired the Ging­rich campaign in this year’s primaries, said that Romney’s trademark avoidance of detail arose from this aspect of his background. “Businessmen and consultants like to sell in glowing generalities, because they are never sure what unexpected things they’ll find when they dig into your problems,” he told me.

In the 1994 debates, Romney’s evident lack of interest in the work of governing roused Kennedy to one of his best unscripted moments. Kennedy was arguing that however Massachusetts voters might feel about Romney himself, they should remember that in adding one more Republican to the Senate, they would be bringing Strom Thurmond, Jesse Helms, and the rest of the party that much closer to Senate control. “The fact of the matter is party discipline,” he said, warming to a discussion of the Senate functions to which he had devoted his life and for which Romney displayed a lofty “It’s all politics” disdain.

“Is that how you run your operation down there?,” Romney asked dismissively. “You bet it is!,” Kennedy said with uncharacteristic speed and emphasis. “That’s exactly how.” Kennedy was in effect saying that his hands-on experience in government was more relevant to the job of being a senator than whatever Romney had learned in private equity. Romney, apparently taken by surprise, had no good comeback. “I think other politicians get the feeling that he looks down on them, as politicians,” Steve Bogden, a policy aide and speechwriter who worked for John McCain in the 2008 campaign and for Jon Huntsman this year, told me. “They pick up that he feels he is a better person for not having been in politics”—a way he still views and presents himself, despite having run once for senator, once (successfully) for governor, and twice for president in the past 18 years.

If you were to watch Romney’s debates against Shannon O’Brien for the governorship in 2002, you’d see a less dramatic (because of the absence of Ted Kennedy) version of the same traits. So too with Romney’s primary debates four years ago. His strengths, again, are faultless preparation, crisp and precise expression, a readiness both to attack and to defend, and an ability to stay purely on message. His weaknesses are thin factual knowledge on many policy issues, a preference to talk in generalities—and a palpable awkwardness when caught unprepared and forced to improvise.

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James Fallows is an Atlantic national correspondent. His latest book, China Airborne, was published in May. 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.

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