Saturday, September 29, 2012


The New York Times tells us about two presidential candidates' debate prep -- and this has me worried a little bit:
Mr. Romney's team has concluded that debates are about creating moments and has equipped him with a series of zingers that he has memorized and has been practicing on aides since August.
I'm sure Fox and Drudge and the New York Post already have the list of zingers, and already have a plan, coordinated with the Romney campaign, to declare one of them the line of the evening, the one that embodied Romney's decisive victory, with the backup choices rank-ordered in case Romney never manages to deliver Choice #1, or in case it falls flat.

That doesn't worry me too much, because the right lives in its own reality; I'm a bit more worried about the mainstream press -- if Romney competently delivers a zinger or two, Chuck Todd will no doubt replicate the restaurant scene from When Harry Met Sally, and he won't be faking. People like him will declare Romney the victor as a result.

On the other hand, Romney's well-rehearsed zingers will probably seem well-rehearsed -- in fact, overly rehearsed. And the people tasked with crafting the zingers are probably the same geniuses who gave us all those unappealing speeches at the Republican convention. The zingers will probably be written to appeal primarily to the GOP base, like everything else in this campaign. So maybe there's no reason to worry.

I'm also concerned that the Romney people have figured out one of their candidate's biggest weaknesses:
... Mitt Romney's team has been working to make sure he avoids coming off as a scold. His sparring partner, Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, channeling Mr. Obama, has gone after him repeatedly, to the point of being nasty. The goal is to get Mr. Romney agitated and then teach him how to keep his composure, look presidential.
But that could just mean that instead of displaying his usual angry, aggrieved, put-upon self, Romney will come off as a guy clearly struggling to conceal how angry, aggrieved, and put-upon he is. I don't think he can bury those traits completely.

And he seems to be preparing for an Obama who's not likely to show up:
Mr. Romney's aides recall Mr. Obama's tart "you're likable enough" line to Mrs. Clinton in 2008 and hope to goad him into a similarly churlish moment. Mr. Romney will win, the advisers said, if he can force Mr. Obama to come across as condescending or smug.

To prepare Mr. Romney, Mr. Portman has played Mr. Obama combatively, attacking Mr. Romney as a rich man who does not care about average Americans. Evidently, he has gotten under the candidate's skin. "We get the chance to debate one another, and after the hour and a half or so is over, I want to kick him out of the room," Mr. Romney said recently.
It's unimaginable to me that Obama would make it personal in that way. He'll probably say very nice things about Romney and his family as people. He's extremely unlikely to launch personal attacks on Romney for his wealth. For one thing, he doesn't have to -- we all know Romney's biography. For another, it's just not Obama's style.

"You're likable enough" was a bad moment, though it was a rare bad moment. It was directed against someone a candidate in whom a lot of voters had an emotional investment. (Even a lot of '08 Obama supporters had good feelings about Hillary, and would have cheered on her barrier-breaking if we weren't cheering on Obama's.) Romney's likely to poll in the high 40s, but no one is rooting for him as a person the way a lot of people rooted for Hillary Clinton, and still root for her.

I supported Obama in '08, but I understand why some people saw that moment as the Big Man on Campus condescending to the girl in school who'd never be asked to sit at his cafeteria table. But Romney, even as the challenger to Obama, seems like the overdog in every way: white, richer, older, even more physically substantial. Apart from, say, Wall Streeters, who's going to empathize with him if Obama does attack him personally? It would be like empathizing with Mr. Potter from It's a Wonderful Life.

So maybe there's nothing to worry about.


Victor said...

Remember, this won't be Mitt debating the Republican dwarves: Douchy, Jesusy, Loony, Cheesy, Dumby, and Newt.

Four years ago, Obama had to debate some pretty good politicians and debaters, so I feel pretty good about him taking on Stiffy.

Plus, the audience for these debates won't be mostly Republicans looking at their candidates, with blood-lust in their eyes, or handfuls of Democrats tuning with a mixture of horror, and shit's-and-giggles.

It'll be a nationwide audience that will see Mitt's smirk, his vacant eyes blinking, and his stiff 1950's TV Daddy body languange and use of the English language.

Plus, Mitt will be under a lot of pressure, Obama won't - he's up fairly comfortably in non-Dick Morris polls. These debates are, for all intents and purposes, 'make-or-break' for Mitt.

And Mitt doesn't do well under pressure.

I might LISTEN to the first one, rather than watch it. He's pretty stiff on a stage, like Nixon - maybe he'll sound better on radio.

But, who'll be listening in 2012?

If people don't have a TV, they can watch it on their computer or hand-held, so, Mitt had better take some V*lium beforehand to relax.
But, that won't help him, since at any time, even without the V*lium, one of those zingers he's memorized my end up being seen as be a clanker, instead.

Rand Careaga said...


While I don't always share your conclusions, I've got to say that you've seemed to be very near the top of your game these latter weeks. I've moved NMMNB to above the treeline on the bookmark menu to dwell alongside Pierce and Edroso on those craggy heights. I look forward to your coverage during the remainder of this election cycle and beyond.

Steve M. said...

Thanks -- I really appreciate that.

Victor said...

And after Mahablog, I always go to you next, Steve.

Never Ben Better said...

Motley Moose, PM Carpenter, BooMan, and you -- my four every-day blogs.

Never Ben Better said...

Oh, and Stonekettle Station -- Jim Wright posts erratically, but when he does it's a must-read.

BillyWitchDoctor said...

Practiced, well-rehearsed, off-the-cuff "zingers" from the Romneybot2012?

Oh my God, this is gonna be hilarious.

White Hat said...

Counting on Romney to deliver zingers badly is as poor a debate strategy as counting on him to deliver them well. Obama has never made that sort of mistake.

Think back to the McCain debates. Obama limited his discussion to specific policies and programs, and the obvious contrast to his opponent's constant reliance on jingoism was more than sufficient for the win.

In contrast to Obama's facility with detailed facts, at this point Romney cannot speak in specifics, for a couple of reasons. First, almost anything he can say will stand in contradiction to previous statements he's made - it's the price of shameless flipflopping. Secondly, he apparently feels strongly that he should not or cannot be specific about his plans, despite the demands of even dedicated Republican supporters.

It's starting to sound like what we'll see in the first debate is zingers vs. substance, gotchas vs. plans.

If Romney tries to counter facts merely with *zingers* the right wing echo chamber might be entertained - but he won't convince anyone that he knows (or that they know) specifically what he'd do as president. He won't have given his supports what they've been demanding, and he certainly won't win any new voters.

It's also worth noting that, given the polling numbers, Romney needs a win and Obama doesn't. Obama only needs to "not lose." Even if Romney lands some tweaks, and/or Obama falters in some way, it won't be enough to make a difference unless Romney fills in all the missing details of his plans.

If Romney were smart, he'd skip the one-liners and study up on policy, to finally give his side what they'be been begging for, and to surprise the hell out of Obama.

But the Romney campaign hasn't been smart so far.

Never Ben Better said...

Excellent observations, White Hat.

White Hat said...

Thanks, Nev.

Since you're so kind, I'll be honest with you. My analysis of the situation might be driven at least in part by my wishes.

I think a lot of the appeal of rightist politics is its simple entertainment value. It's fun to act out, lip off, and irritate lefty schoolmarms. It even wins elections. It's the only explanation for W.

But unlike W, Romney is not inherently believable as a clown. He'll probably blow his lines, and if he does, the election loss gets attributed to his performance, not his policies.

I'd really like to see a policy v policy debate, complete with as much wonky detail as each side needs to make their case. Then we choose between party platforms, not personalities. And the losing side really has to reconsider its policies, not just its punch lines.

A boy can dream.

Never Ben Better said...

Dream on, dream on. Maybe someday, but I doubt it; the spiral is downward, ever downward, I fear.

Unknown said...

nmmnb is on my daily bookmarks, as well

Greg said...

NMMNB, Rude Pundit, Hullabaloo, TBogg. Rarely a day goes by in my life without a visit to those essential four.

"We get the chance to debate one another, and after the hour and a half or so is over, I want to kick him out of the room," Mr. Romney said recently.

Can you imagine the president saying something (even jokingly) like this, about whatever John Kerry might've said as "Romney" in the debate prep? It gives me even more confidence that Romney just does not have it in him to outcool Mr. Cool.

Danp said...

We should reject the arguments that debates are won or lost. This isn't a football game or an academic contest. The whole win-lose framing of political debates is about zingers and body language. The win-lose analysis very seldom proves that the pundits understand the issues, and in most cases could come to the same conclusions without understanding English.

jinchi said...

Romney's real problem is that Hillary really was likeable, and Obama's comment came across as an insult.

But Mitt isn't even liked by Republicans. Calling him "likeable enough" would be a huge overstatement.

Steve M. said...

Thank you, everyone, for the kind words....