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Saturday, October 20, 2012

Just Do It Over (10c)—First and Second Presidential Debates

One year ago on Round and Square (20 October 2011)—Styling Culture: Exhausted Words and Phrases
Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square topic "Just Do It Over"
[a] No debate RF
This is a part of a three-post mini-series on presidential debate "do-overs." Click here for others:
Debate Do-Over 1               Debate Do-Over 2               Debate Do-Over 3 

So how about the second debate, the do-over?   

Gerald Ford never recovered, not the least because I am defining "first debate" as "first full debate," and there was only one in 1976 without almost thirty minutes of candidates standing around uncomfortably as they waited for the television audio to be restored. That, in itself, became the story. In the next contest, Ford had perhaps the worst single moment in presidential debate history when he said that Eastern Europe was not under the yoke of Soviet domination. The rest of October and early November did not go well. In 1980, Ronald Reagan said to President Carter, with a little shake of the head and a smile, "there you go again." There was only one debate between Carter and Reagan that year, and it was over (in historical retrospect) by the time he concluded with the question "are you better off today than you were four years ago?"
[b] Discussion RF

As we saw in our first post, Fritz Mondale, in 1984, seemed to expose a lackluster President Reagan, and Reagan found himself in immediate trouble. If you aren't sure how surprised people were back then, just listen to the closing statements. There was a strangely distant and distracted quality to Reagan's few minutes spent talking (in)directly to the electorate. 

Now we get into the heart of the second debate "do-over" problem. Have you heard about (or did you watch) the second debate in 1984? Wow. When did the newly vigorous, seventy-four year old president show up? Where was that guy in the first debate? Why didn't he show up the first time? He put many nervous followers at ease with a jaunty little exchange early on. Deep stuff. All was forgotten in moments.

Why didn't that guy show up the first time? This is what many people were asking.  

In 1992, it is as though George H.W. Bush never showed up at all, but Ross Perot hurt him worse than Bill Clinton did. Clinton's 1996 performance is the single, shining moment of presidential success in this kind of première. Next incumbent time around, in 2004, George W. Bush lost all three debates. Even so, the second one was generally considered to be better than the first, and to put him back into the game (it's hard to forget that he won a close contest in the end). Now, in 2012, incumbent Obama did better in the second debate than the first.

What does it all mean?
[c] 1976 RF

Since I can't predict the future, and it is clear that a few incumbents with bad first debates actually won their elections, I will concentrate on one key point. If you go back to the news accounts in 1980, 1984, 1996, 2004, and 2012, you will hear a common refrain (the exception is 1992, when Bush was not perceived to be ahead). "The president could have put it away with a terrific first debate." In other words, yesterday's scenario ("Obama could have won it all if he had done well") has been shared by the followers of almost incumbents since debates began. Except for Clinton, everyone failed, and the races tightened in ways that made supporters uncomfortable on the incumbent's side and giddy on the challenger's. 

In other words, every single race tightened...even ones that were not perceived to be very close before the debate (and one of which, 1984, still turned into landslide). Is it possible that almost all races are just going to tighten, that first debates will go badly (and if they don't, it has as much to do with the challenger's inadequacies as anything else)? 

As you saw yesterday, this is starting to look like the basic terrain of October politics in presidential years. 

I am beginning to think that the best hope for an incumbent in the first debate is to look presidential and above-it-all (almost exactly the approach taken by most incumbents)...and just hope for the challenger to fail. It almost never works, so how about the second idea? Show up with all the piss-and-vinegar of those great second debates, but just do it in the first one. Sorry, as I discussed with regard to the current election in yesterday's post, I don't think it will work. It is one thing to cast off the empyrean aplomb bestowed by the great office and to mop the rhetorical floor with an opponent after having failed the first time around. All bets are off then, and you're fighting for your legacy. It is quite another thing entirely for the holder of the land's greatest office to prance around like a fighting chicken in the first debate
[d] Bubble RF

How does the incumbent look presidential and win the first debate? Run against Bob Dole.* Otherwise, I think s/he will lose, and then have the "luxury" of a do-over, when the gloves can come off. Argue with me all that you want, but I am sensing a bipartisan quandary here that evades easy solutions. Perhaps it is possible to bring the president out of the bubble. That, too, will require serious work in the future, if incumbents down the road are to avoid the modern (1960, and 1976-2012) history of presidential debates. Coming out of the bubble is the easy part, even though even that has never really worked very well. I really wonder how a sitting president can calibrate the "tone" of that first debate without going over the line and seeming "unpresidential."
*Don't forget: I love Bob Dole.

Isn't it funny that the tone is unproblematic in the second debate, as long as the incumbent fails in the first?

You may agree or disagree with my approach. Let me know your opinion ( I think that these matters are structural far more than they are personal, and it is a much larger issue than partisan politicians can even begin to comprehend. It is going to matter a great deal in future campaigns. Are those administrations-to-be just going to walk into the same structural traps again? A lot rides on that first debate...and the second.

We'll see how it the earliest in 2016, and possibly in 2020 or 2024 (or so). 

Incumbents only get one chance to make a first...second impression. There is so much here for cultural analysis that we'll be busy for years.

This is a part of a three-post mini-series on presidential debate "do-overs." Click here for others:
Debate Do-Over 1               Debate Do-Over 2               Debate Do-Over 3
[e] Cultural RF

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