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.
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.