”You can say anything you want during a debate and 80 million people hear it,” observed Peter Teeley, press secretary to Vice President Bush. If reporters then document that a candidate spoke untruthfully, ”so what?”
—New York Times, November 1, 1984
Barring a total meltdown—such as forgetting to wear pants or calling for war with Canada—there was no way Mitt Romney wasn’t going to be declared the winner of his first debate with President Obama.
As a TV show, the debates resemble “American Idol” for politicians. They give the nation’s esteemed political media—TV news channels in particular—their best chance to exercise power. And what TV networks need is a close presidential race, driving up ratings and enhancing their self-importance.
For that to happen, Romney had to win.
It’s also true that with the exception of Clinton-Dole in 1996, incumbent presidents have been declared first debate losers every time. Ronald Reagan performed so badly in 1984 that observers wondered if he’d grown senile. (We now know his Alzheimer’s disease was in its beginning stages.) George W. Bush sank in the polls after his first contest with John Kerry.
It’s also a lot harder being president than a mere candidate. President Obama isn’t the first incumbent to find prepping for a TV show a trivial annoyance amid the 24/7 demands of the White House. (Not to mention of the campaign itself.) He’s probably not the first to underestimate his opponent either.
That said, Obama’s oddly phlegmatic performance in Denver gave TV handicappers exactly what they needed to market the campaign as a cliffhanger. The president appeared alternately bored and mildly annoyed—too professorial by half.
New York Times columnist Charles Blow mentioned Xanax; I was thinking Ambien. My mother-in-law in Texas thought Obama acted like a whipped dog. Democrats of a certain age who keep hoping to see the president channel his inner Harry S. Truman found him impersonating Illinois’ own Adlai Stevenson instead—too cerebral to take his own side in a fight.
Was it only last month that journalists wrote profiles describing Obama as competitive to the point of cockiness? Where did that guy go?
An awful lot of it was “mere theatrics,” as it’s tempting to say. On paper, Obama did substantively better. But scary as it is, a TV game show is exactly how Americans choose the so-called “Leader of the Free World.” How can the president’s “handlers” not have reminded him to speak directly into the camera? To look his opponent in the eye?
But the president’s biggest problem with Mitt Romney was the same one Newt Gingrich (of all people) complained about during the GOP debates: the extreme difficulty of debating a clever liar.