If history is our guide, tonight’s debate will probably help the challenger — Mitt Romney — yet it will not go on to affect the outcome of the race. However, as we learned from the election of Barack Obama, history isn’t always the best guide.
Much of the media would love to see this race — which dramatically favors the president’s re-election — tighten, driving high ratings/views/clicks for the rest of the month. So the stakes are high and every word will be carefully scrutinized.
Of all the highlights of the 2008 campaign, few took place in the presidential debates. President Obama famously quipped “You’re likable enough, Hillary,” in a primary debate — which has come to be regarded as a gaffe that made him seem dismissive. Against John McCain, the then-senator from Illinois managed to come off as less removed and more presidential. But his answers were long and his persona wasn’t as sharp as it is when on the stump.
Mitt Romney’s debate performance in the primary race improved after he picked up Michele Bachmann’s coach for the Florida debate. Facing a suddenly subdued Newt Gingrich, who was dreaming of moon bases, Romney punched hard and seemed sharp. That performance combined with a monstrous financial advantage helped the former governor of Massachusetts recover after his loss in Florida and successfully marginalize Gingrich.
Here are 10 things you can expect tonight:
1. The president will try to force Romney to do something Romney has been reluctant do since he lost to Ted Kennedy in 1994: Be specific.
Romney has teased out specifics on his tax plan and immigration over the past few days. But huge question marks remain about what government programs he’d cut, which — if any — deductions he’d eliminate to pay for his tax plan or how his foreign policy would differ from the president’s.
2. No zingers.
This weekend the Romney campaign leaked out that Governor Romney had been trying out zingers on his staff for a month. This was probably a smokescreen. For a candidate who desperately needs to improve his likability, putdowns are a terrible idea. Ronald Reagan could get away with zingers because of pure charm. From Romney, they’ll feel like unnecessary insults from your boss.
3. You’ll hear Romney say the word “failed” a lot.
The Romney campaign has not yet given up the narrative that began when right-wing pundits started calling the stimulus “failed” even before it was fully implemented. Even as the housing recovery has finally begun and the country has recovered all the private sector jobs lost since the president took office, the Romney campaign has stuck with this premise. Expect Romney to stick to attacking the president’s record while only offering vague platitudes about the “freedom” he’d offer in the future.
4. Romney will repeatedly reference Vice President Biden’s latest “gaffe.”
Republicans clearly think that Joe Biden’s recent remark that the middle class has been “buried” in the past four years is a political winner for them. Romney will quote the vice president in an effort to paint the Obama administration as a failure, and he’ll probably do it more than once. If our second prediction is wrong, and Romney does bust out a zinger, this will likely be the topic.
5. Debunked lies.
Romney has had no problem repeating lies that have been debunked by any mainstream outlet that bothers to debunk lies. You can expect to hear the lie that the president apologized for America, cut $716 billion from Medicare and took the work out of welfare. These points must focus group so well that Romney is willing to take the heat for repeating them.
6. Romney will say the words “My campaign is about 100 percent of the American people.”
Romney’s infamous “47 percent” video — and the broader narrative that he is a sneering plutocrat who wants to fire you and potentially give you cancer — is killing him in the polls. Romney will almost certainly confront the controversy head on.
7. President Obama will talk about George W. Bush (without talking about George W. Bush).
Obama’s primary line of attack will be that Romney’s economic plans would essentially represent a third term of the Bush administration. Obama tends not to refer to his predecessor by name, however, so expect to hear the words “the same old policies that got us into this mess in the first place” more than once.
8. Someone will accuse China of cheating.
Both President Obama and Romney have made attacks against China a staple of the campaign in recent weeks, and both will likely try to score points at the expense of the world’s second largest economy. Expect Romney to label Chinas as a “currency manipulator” at least once, and Obama to reference the trade enforcement case that he filed against China in September.
9. No matter what happens, both parties will blame Jim Lehrer.
As long as there are debates, there will be partisans on both sides of the aisle who believe that the moderator is biased against their favored candidate. No matter who “wins” tonight’s debate, Democrats will accuse Jim Lehrer of being in the tank for Romney, and Republicans will accuse him (and the rest of the “liberal media”) of carrying water for Obama.
10. Barring a full meltdown, the media will say Romney won and right-wingers still won’t be satisfied.
The fact that Mitt Romney has to stand there and let the president speak will upset many right-wingers who have hated and tried to delegitimize this president for years. But the fact that Romney stood toe to toe with the president of the United States without insulting 47 percent of America will be enough for most of the media to declare that he won. It pays to be the challenger in this situation. But unless Romney makes some birther references or constantly shouts “STOP MAKING US EUROPE!” over and over, he won’t please the many Tea Partiers, who never liked him in the first place.