Debate Prep 2012: For Voters and Candidates

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 10-2-12

As holiday-weary Israelis wonder whether they will ever be productive again, Americans are preparing to watch their presidential candidates sweat.  Just as Tishrei is holiday-saturation month for Jews, every four years October is debate month in American presidential politics. Tonight, October 3, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama will debate domestic policy in Colorado.  On October 11, their vice presidential running mates, Paul Ryan and Joe Biden, will debate in Kentucky. Five days later on October 16, voters at a town meeting in New York will question the two presidential candidates about any issues and on October 22 – two weeks before Election Day – Obama and Romney will debate foreign policy in Florida.
These debates – which are more like side-by-side press conferences with some exchanges – are usually the political equivalent of military service: long bouts of boredom punctuated by bursts of melodrama.  Usually, they reinforce media narratives and voter impressions. But they have sometimes changed outcomes, particularly in 1980, when Ronald Reagan’s aw shucks, “there you go again” dismissal of President Jimmy Carter’s attacks triggered a Reagan surge – and the largest last minute switch in poll results since polling began in the 1930s.
Treating history as an authoritative Tarot Card rather than a subtle source of wisdom, Mitt Romney’s supporters have been touting that ten-point swing as proof that the Republicans will win. The 1980 moment appeals more broadly to Republicans as indication that a gaffe-prone, ridiculed, seemingly out-of-touch former governor can defeat an earnest Democratic incumbent afflicted by a sagging economy, Middle East troubles, and accusations that the twin pillars of his foreign policy are appeasement and apology not power and pride.
The 1980 debate should sober Obama and buoy Romney.  In his recent book, The Candidate: What It Takes to Win — and Hold – the White House, Professor Samuel Popkin, an occasional Democratic campaign adviser, recalls his failure coaching Carter in 1980. Playing Reagan in debate “prep,” Popkin echoed the Republican’s devastating anti-Carter criticisms. Popkin describes the kind of careful criticism Romney should launch against Obama, knowing that if the challenger is too aggressive he looks angry and insolent but if he is too deferential he seems weak and intimidated.  Reagan, Popkin writes, “resorted to more subtle, coded criticisms that were harder to defend against. He appeared respectful of the office and the president, suggesting that Carter was hamstrung by defeatist Democrats in Congress.”  This approach forced Carter to rebut the premise – and plaintively claim he was strong – or the conclusion — by insisting Democrats were not defeatists. “Contesting one point left him tacitly conceding the other,” Popkin writes.
Obama’s caveat is in Carter’s reaction.  Offended and embarrassed by the criticism, Carter ended the session after eleven minutes.  Popkin as Reagan had pierced Carter’s “presidential aura,” unnerving everyone in the room.  Trying to dispel the tension, Carter’s chief domestic policy advisor, Stuart Eizenstat, himself Jewish, resorted to ethnic humor by pointing to Popkin and joking, “You didn’t know Governor Reagan was Jewish, did you?” Popkin, who quickly replied “Well, Governor Reagan is from Hollywood,” realized that many of Carter’s people, including the aggrieved president, were unfamiliar with Reagan’s attacks because the majesty of the presidency insulated Carter from serious criticism or serious study of his challenger.
Of course, in an ideal world the debates would emphasize issue flashpoints not gaffe-hunting.   In Denver, Romney should, Reagan-style, subtly question President Obama as to when he as president will take responsibility for the anemic recovery and lingering unemployment rather than scapegoating his predecessor.  At Hofstra University, Romney should ask Obama to explain to the voters present and the American people how his increasing reliance on the heavy hand of federal regulations and big government does not reflect doubt in the traditional invisible hand of individual entrepreneurial Americans and the markets themselves. And in Boca Raton, Romney should prod Obama on the Arab Spring, asking him at what point he would concede that his policy failed rather than simply dismissing the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the murder of American diplomats in Libya, and other Obama-orchestrated disasters as “bumps in the road.”  In response, Obama should emphasize his successes in halting the economic freefall, his faith in American ingenuity guided by the government’s occasional, competent, and gentle helping hand, and his muscular defense of American interests in hunting down Osama Bin Laden, boosting troops in Afghanistan, and reprimanding Egypt’s president for delays in defending America’s Cairo embassy. Meanwhile, reporters and voters should push both candidates to explain what sacrifices they will demand from Americans, where they will deviate from their party’s orthodoxy, how they will end partisanship, and what bold solutions they have to American debt, demoralization, and decline.
While such substantive exchanges would allow Americans to weigh the candidates’ dueling philosophies and records, it is more likely that the debates’ verdict will pivot around some theatrical moment. Since televised presidential debates began in 1960, when John Kennedy’s aristocratic calm contrasted with Richard Nixon’s sweaty, herky-jerky intensity, style has usually upstaged substance in debate reporting and debate perceptions.
It is too easy just to blame the press – although broadcasters and reporters will be seeking “gotcha” moments when a candidate stumbles and “grand slams” when a candidate dominates. Moreover, American voters respond more to debate theatrics than polemics. The mass reaction reflects one of the realities of modern leadership, which too many academics ignore and editorialists lament:  image rules, style counts, a successful president or prime minister must communicate effectively not just administer smoothly.
This season, as the American campaign peaks and the silliness surges, it will be easy to mock American politics. How lucky Israelis are that in the Jewish state politics is substantive, straightforward, serious, and scrupulous….
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents:  George Washington to Barack Obama,”  his next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism” will be published by Oxford University Press in the fall.
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Center Field: And the prize goes to…

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 3-14-10

Eli Yishai seized the ‘Amir Peretz’ prize for his blunder during the Biden visit, for which he should be fired.

Who will pay for the Biden blunder? So far, it seems that only Israel and the Jewish people will. This was a classic lose-lose from left to right. Those who desire territorial compromise lamented the derailing of Vice President Joe Biden’s goodwill tour, thanks to the announcement of 1,600 new housing units being built in east Jerusalem. Those who hope to continue building settlements under the radar screen, as well as those who distinguish east Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank, are now going to see more American scrutiny and more diplomatic clumping of Jerusalem with the other territories which Israel won in 1967. This rank incompetence put the issue of a united Jerusalem in the American government’s crosshairs, not just in the occasional media spotlight.

In a sane political system, heads would roll. If he had any class, Interior Minister Eli Yishai would resign even before the prime minister fired him. Last week, Yishai seized the “Amir Peretz” prize from Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman for the cabinet member least qualified for his essential post but only there because of the country’s dysfunctional political system.

Alas, instead of paying for his mistake, Yishai is keeping his job while his Shas allies remain as unrepentant as ever. “The prime minister remembers who gave [Binyamin] Netanyahu his job,” one source “close to Yishai” told The Jerusalem Post, still demanding payback for Shas’s refusal to join Tzipi Livni’s proposed Kadima government in October 2008. Such arrogance reducesthe prime minister to a head waiter, simply serving his political allies the goodies they demand at the snap of their fingers.

An executive unable to fire is neutered, like a conductor barred from waving a baton, or a rabbi banned from teaching. Some South American countries under US sway were once banana republics; Netanyahu’s government – like too many Israeli governments – risks becoming a doughnut democracy with no power in the center and too many greasy pols circling around. Netanyahu should fire Yishai – even if it means having his government fall.

WHILE IT is always hard to predict the future, let alone the Israeli political scene, if Netanyahu faced down Yishai on this issue, he and the Likud probably would emerge stronger, even if new elections resulted. The public would applaud Netanyahu for showing some spine, especially if he framed the issue as an attempt to end government by blackmail.

And if, while leading boldly, Netanyahu proclaimed that his government would not fracture the Jewish people by stirring up the who-is-a-Jew hornet’s nest, he would improve his standing in the Jewish world and Jewish history too. The fact that some politicians and the Chief Rabbinate have even suggested blocking those converted abroad from being recognized under the Law of Return is outrageous. They forget Naomi’s welcome of Ruth in the Bible. More practically, politicians cannot complain about lacking allies in the world and then target or embarrass Israel’s most loyal friends, meaning the American government and Diaspora Jewry.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration’s continuing overreaction to the Biden blow-up will box Netanyahu into a corner and prevent him from doing what he needs to do. Apparently Biden’s delaying of a private dinner with Netanyahu, lecturing him about the slight, getting repeated apologies for the unintended offense fromthe prime minister and reprimanding Israel again during his Tel Aviv University speech did not satisfy President Barack Obama. The president also had to have Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denounce Israel’s misstep as “insulting” and have his government “condemn” its actions.

As Elliott Abrams, a former George W. Bush administration official and senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, noted in The Washington Post, “The verb ‘condemn’ is customarily reserved by US officials for acts of murder and terrorism – not acts of housing.” One wonders whether certain Obama administration officials are enjoying Israel’s stumble just a little too much – and using this to put the screws on the Jewish state.

Even so, there is no excuse for giving Obama this opportunity. The stakes are too high for such low-level sloppiness. Can anyone, anywhere in Israel’s vast, overstaffed, overpaid, underperforming bureaucracy claim ignorance either as to the timing or the sensitivity of Biden’s trip? My children knew about the trip. Anyone who gets a salary from the people and was in the dark about the trip or the impact such an announcement would have made should be fired too – and without the typical cushy government severance package.

LAST WEEK in Jerusalem, my friend and colleague Saul Singer officially launched Start-Up Nation, the book he coauthored with Dan Senor about Israel’s economic miracle. Taking advantage of the excitement the book has generated, Singer generously turned his hometown launch into a fund-raiser for the Jerusalem Circus, which builds trust between young Arabs and Jews who must support one another while standing on each other’s shoulders or catching one another as they jump.

Singer linked the creative, impressive, world class hi-tech entrepreneurship his book describes with the equally path-breaking social entrepreneurship the Jerusalem Circus and many other worthy initiatives represent. I left thinking: How tragic that a country which produces such brilliant computer wizards, such visionary social activists, is stuck with so many political clowns who turn the government into a circus.

Eli Yishai’s Biden-based boobery has presented Netanyahu’s doughnut democracy with its ultimate test. Here is an opportunity for Netanyahu to lead – and emerge more popular, more powerful, and more able to deliver the quality governance the people of Israel need and deserve.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.

Hillary lacks that vision thing

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, August 28, 2008

Hillary Clinton reacts after...

Hillary Clinton reacts after her call for the nomination of Sen. Barack Obama by acclamation was seconded at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.
Photo: AP

Remembering the two great convention concessions of modern times – Ronald Reagan’s speech in 1976 after losing to Gerald Ford and Ted Kennedy’s speech in 1980, after losing to Jimmy Carter, Hillary Clinton’s Denver speech fell flat.

What was missing was what George H.W. Bush infamously dismissed as “that vision thing.” Reagan’s address, speculating about how future Americans would judge the Americans of 1976, inspired his supporters with a powerful vision of a smaller government but a more confident nation reviving economically, facing down the Soviets and managing the nuclear threat.

Kennedy’s oration eloquently argued the opposite, dreaming of a future liberalism as confident, humane and popular as his brothers’ ideology had been.

Both speeches helped shape the discourse of the times, allowing each candidate’s ideas to transcend the campaigning failures – and in Reagan’s case it launched his successful 1980 run. Both speeches can be taught decades from now as coherent and compelling ideological road maps that millions of Americans happily followed.

Instead, Hillary Clinton mostly provided a laundry list. She ticked off various programs she advocated, particular policies she liked, and specific individuals she met on the campaign trail. She did what she needed to do, getting in a few good shots against George W. Bush and John McCain, urging her disappointed supporters to vote for Barack Obama.

In fairness, she was also commanding, charismatic, and quite moving when she linked her campaign to women’s historic aspirations for equality. But even when she spoke about women’s rights – and quoted Harriet Tubman so effectively – she offered no vision of what women could do for America as women, she triggered no thoughts deeper than “it’s our turn,” and “our time has come.”

The speech once again illustrated one of the reasons why Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the nomination failed in the first place. There was no overriding idea propelling her candidacy forward, nothing deeper than “it’s MY turn,” and “MY time has come.”

Observers can argue about whether Barack Obama is an old-fashioned liberal or a post-baby-boomer synthesizer transcending the black-white, red-blue divisions of yesteryear. But at least there is something substantive behind his various stands, some broader, deeper, thought-provoking and soul-expanding message.

Hillary’s speech was that of the diligent grade grubber not the romantic poet, of the hardworking ant not the soaring eagle. It was in keeping with her history as Bill Clinton’s dutiful behind-the-scenes supporter rather than a Clintonesque riffer who can at once charm and inspire, making Americans feel good about themselves while being challenged to think about how to better their nation.

And speaking of duty, Hillary Clinton fulfilled her obligation to Barack Obama and the Democratic Party. In fact, she was far more gracious – and far less destructive – than Reagan was in 1976 or Kennedy was in 1980. Still, it was quite obvious that she was following the party script not speaking from her heart. She had specific compliments for Michelle Obama and Joe Biden, Obama’s life-mate and running mate, but was quite vague when it came to Obama himself. Hillary Clinton endorsed Barack Obama generically as a fellow Democrat not specifically as a candidate.

Of course, the whole scene must have been excruciating for her, and she deserves credit for handling it so well. In fact, watching her, it was striking how far she had evolved from the brittle, insecure, angry woman she was when she debuted on the national stage in 1992.

Hillary Clinton seems to be having a great time as her own woman, as her own politician – her opening riff about the pride she took in her various roles mentioned “mother” but skipped over “wife.” If she could only find a little more poetry in her prose-laden politics, if she could only learn to bring the various pieces of her policy jigsaw puzzle together into a compelling package, she could be an even more formidable politician – and a greater threat to both of the current candidates.

Just another conventional politician

JPost.com, August 25, 2008

Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., left,...

Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., left, talks with Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., prior to the start of the first Democratic presidential primary debate of the 2008 election
Photo: AP/J. Scott Applewhite , AP

It is possible that liberals, conservatives and centrists who are not blinded by Obamania may all be able to agree that Joe Biden was a terrible choice as a running mate. Despite his contempt for George W. Bush, Obama seemed to be channeling Bush’s Cheney choice with this pick – trying to show that he really was not as inexperienced and unprepared as critics suggested. But Dick Cheney in 2000 had at least one thing over Joe Biden – Cheney had not just run a presidential nominating campaign that demonstrated how unpopular he was.

It was one of the interesting anomalies of the 2008 Democratic race. There were three Washington veterans with decades of experience who went absolutely nowhere during the campaign. Senator Joe Biden, Senator Chris Dodd, and Governor Bill Richardson failed to get any traction, despite decades of governing and countless days and nights of hobnobbing with Beltway insiders. The three frontrunners, John Edwards, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama had far better claims to outsider status – Edwards served only one term in the Senate, Clinton was just starting her second term, and Barack Obama was the most famous Senate freshman in decades.

Biden was a particular embarrassment on the campaign trail, shaming himself and his institution with his awkward, seemingly condescending remarks describing Obama as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” After winning 9,000 votes and finishing fifth in Iowa, Biden left the race, proving how little American voters are impressed by a three-decade Senatorial resume. Obama’s ability to forgive Biden’s gaffe suggests a personal grace and generosity that is nice to see in politics; but this choice may fuel questions about Obama’s political and policy judgment.

Beyond this stunning – and recent – political failure, Biden’s supposed foreign policy experience may alienate both liberals and conservatives. Liberals will note that, unlike Obama, Biden voted for the war in Iraq – just as Hillary Clinton and John McCain did. Thus, in the future, Obama will have to be a little more cautious when he mocks McCain’s judgment about initially supporting the war.

At the same time, conservatives will note Biden’s failure to support the surge. This suggests that for all the media hype about Biden’s brilliance in overseas matters, he is just a conventional, finger-to-the-wind type, buffeted by the political trends of the moment. Holding fifty-plus Senate hearings and appearing repeatedly on Sunday morning television shows reveals a mastery of the Washington game not the intricacies of foreign affairs.

At the same time, centrists will mourn the fact that Joe Biden is neither a fresh face nor a bridge-builder. He lacks Obama’s outsider credentials and McCain’s track record in seeking bipartisan solutions. Biden is a good Democratic soldier, who has consistently stayed within party boundaries and helped create today’s destructive, angry, overly-charged Washington quagmire. In fact – and this we are told is part of his appeal – Biden knows how to throw hard political punches, as demonstrated by his partisanship during the Robert Bork and Samuel Alito hearings.

Regarding the Middle East, Biden is equally conventional – and unimaginative. In a reflection of just how standard it remains to embrace Israel from both sides of the aisle, Biden has declared his love for the Jewish State as enthusiastically as anyone. The fact that he has declared “I am a Zionist,” suggests that Zionism may be a less politically controversial term in the United States than in Israel itself.

But Biden has demonstrated no particular insight on the issue, beyond supporting “the peace process,” in whatever form the Palestinians appear ready to accept. And the fact that he has been among the Senators least alarmed about Iran, most open to negotiating with the Mullahs, and voted against declaring Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a terrorist group is worrisome – and a reflection of the potential direction of an Obama-Biden administration.

To be fair, Biden seems to be a decent man who has demonstrated tremendous personal grit over the years. The poignant story of the tragic loss of his first wife and daughter in an automobile accident shortly before he entered the Senate, his ability to raise his two boys on his own and eventually start a new family, his comeback from two brain aneurysms, and his record of thirty years in Washington without a major scandal – or it seems, a big payday – are all extremely admirable. But virtue does not always guarantee votes – as George H.W. Bush learned when Bill Clinton defeated him in 1992.

In fact, speaking of Clinton, Obama would have done much better had he learned from Clinton in 1992. That year, amid doubts about Clinton’s youth and inexperience, Clinton showed great moxie in refusing to nominate an elder statesman to compensate for his supposed weaknesses.

Instead, Clinton thrilled voters by choosing another young Southern politician, Al Gore. This vice-presidential choice reinforced Clinton’s message of change; Obama’s choice, unfortunately, muddied the waters, suggesting that, at the end of the day, 2008 is going to be another conventional campaign and Obama may be just another conventional politician, like his new best friend, Joe Biden.