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.

Where were Obama the dreamer and McCain the war hero?

By GIL TROY, Jerusalem Post, 10-16-08

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama and Republican candidate Sen. John McCain face off during a presidential debate in New York last week.
Photo: AP

Americans want to believe that debates elevate our candidates. As we anticipate each presidential debate, we resurrect the legend of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas nobly debating the great issues of the day in pre-Civil War Illinois. Television, that great modern mythmaking machine, feeds the grandiose expectations, even if the names of Lincoln and Douglas are rarely evoked.

And the sets, drenched as they are in patriotic imagery, festooned as they are with eagles and banners, quite literally set the stage for the candidates to achieve political immortality. Of course, there is a counter “Gotcha” tradition of seeking the knockout blow, the cutting remark, the effective counter-jab. Modern debates have been defined more by quick thrusts of a sharp elbow than by sweeping statesmanlike visions.

What seems so memorable about these three presidential debates in 2008 is that they were simply not memorable, neither grandiose nor cutting. It is hard to identify one central idea, one dramatic moment, one defining soundbite that will be replayed repeatedly – or even remembered. Moreover – and more disturbing for both candidates – the debates seemed to banish both candidates’ better selves. In four-and-a-half hours of debates, it was hard to detect many traces of Barack Obama the dreamer or John McCain the war hero.

By contrast, the national conventions – although often dismissed as anachronistic – allowed the two candidates to present themselves as they hope to be known, and remembered. John McCain ended his rather pedestrian Republican National Convention address with a moving memoir about how his years as a prisoner-of-war helped him discover community, nationalism, the reliance of one individual on another. It was hard to walk away from watching the speech without appreciating McCain’s heroism, humility, and humanity, whether or not you agreed with his policies.

Alas, during the debates, the heroism has been on hold. McCain has been – as he was most notably in this third debate – more prickly than patriotic, more choppy than smooth, more of a worried candidate in search of a persona and a strategy than a centered demigod who knows who he is and what he represents. In his opening remarks on Wednesday tonight, he chose yet again to bash Wall Street and Washington – without at all suggesting that Main Street Americans had also joined in the profligacy. Again and again, his remarks seemed more calculated for political advantage than motivated by a constructive patriotism.

Similarly, despite encouragement to be more down-to-earth and less lofty, Barack Obama delivered an acceptance address at the 2008 Democratic Convention in Denver that was dramatic enough to remind supporters of his extraordinary 2004 Democratic National Convention debut. The grand stadium setting, and the historic nature of his ascension as the first black major party nominee, created another “Yes We Can” moment in a near-miraculous and quite meteoric rise to the top of American society.

Unfortunately, the Barack Obama on display in the debates frequently seemed too sober to dream, too cool to be a poet, too programmed to inspire. To Obama’s good fortune, his calm served his cause – it made him look unruffled, reliable, presidential. But it suggested that if Obama wins, it will feel more like a victory by default than a clear, personal triumph or a mandate for much of anything. He has kept his more electrifying, inspirational self carefully bottled, preferring to let McCain – and the Republicans – stumble. His great achievement in the fall campaign has been his buoyancy, his professionalism, his steadiness. Americans are yearning, however, for some inspiration, some encouragement, some ebullience.

While the first debate did reassure, demonstrating that both these candidates were competent and idealistic men of character, the overall effect after three debates diminished them both. Like weary boxers in the fifteenth round, the two candidates fought each other to a draw – and at this point, the tie helps Obama the front-runner in most polls.

But after weeks now of devastating economic news, with foreign policy challenges in Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and elsewhere still looming, it is legitimate to miss Obama the dreamer and McCain the hero.

This campaign, more than most, requires candidates offering vision and reassurance. Still, with any luck – and in keeping with the rhythms of American politics – the buildup from Election Day to Inauguration Day will allow whoever wins to resurrect his better self as Americans rally around their new leader and turn to him to fulfill their dreams ever so heroically.