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Debating for Dummies: From Dukakis to Ford, some things are better left unsaid
If there’s a lesson to be drawn from President Obama’s lackluster performance in this year’s first presidential debate, it’s this: A whole lot can go wrong.
Oh, sure, candidates practice. Hone their messages. Bone up on heartstring-pulling campaign-trail stories and impressive-sounding statistics.
When the cameras come on, however, mistakes are sometimes made, and while political scientists mostly agree that debates by themselves don’t influence many voters, they can make a difference in tight races. Such as the current one.
With Mr. Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney set to square off at Hofstra University tonight, The Washington Times presents herewith our guide to debate blunders — and how to avoid them.
Blunder: Briefing books. Poll-driven, focus-group-tested talking points. Rehearsals against scout-team opponents. Modern candidates enter debates as prepared as NFL teams entering the Super Bowl — which makes their occasional stammering, digressive, blank-drawing mental malfunctions all the more perplexing, like an iPhone suddenly displaying an “abort, retry, fail?” prompt.
Fool’s gold standard: With all apologies to both President Ronald Reagan — who twice lost his train of thought during a 1984 debate with Democratic challenger Walter Mondale, once seemingly along the Pacific Coast Highway — and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer’s nearly 10 seconds of tongue-tied silence during a 2010 debate, no candidate has ever suffered a synaptic shutdown quite like the one that felled 2012 Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry. Asked to name three federal agencies he would abolish, the Texas governor named Commerce, Education and uh, what’s the third one there, let’s see . Fellow candidate Rep. Ron Paul made a tension-relieving joke. Moderator John Harwood tried to help out, suggesting the EPA. No dice. Mr. Perry continued to come up empty, eventually settling for the word that would come to define his shipwrecked campaign: “Oops.”
Antidote: Get a good night’s sleep. No, seriously. Mr. Perry later blamed his inability to recall the Department of Energy — an agency he regularly attacked during his stump speeches — on sleep apnea. “That is certainly reasonable,” said University of Michigan debate team coach Aaron Kall. “Sleep minimizes the likelihood of a gaffe. Romney did a good job of anticipating that by flying into the Denver area a few days before the first debate — the time-zone change and high elevation can make for a hard time sleeping and breathing.”
Quotable: “It’s a high-pressure situation, and in those you can end up thinking too hard,” said David Lanoue, co-author of “The Joint Press Conference: The History, Impact and Prospects of American Presidential Debates.” “Sometimes, the candidates are trying to be too careful. People say that Reagan in 1984 was the first hint of his medical problems later. But I think he knew he pretty much had the election wrapped up and that all he had to do was not blow it. It’s like playing the four corners offense in basketball to run out the clock, and then turning the ball over.”
Blunder: Pulling a reverse Joe Friday. Just the wrong facts, ma’am. The nation’s problems are complex. Voters don’t expect candidates to have all the answers. But they do expect them to know what they’re talking about.
Fool’s gold standard: For sheer flubbery, there’s no topping President Ford’s 1976 statement that Poland was “free and autonomous” from the Soviet Union. Worse still, Mr. Ford declined a moderator’s offer to correct himself and instead doubled down, declaring that “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration.” Right. The Berlin Wall? Simply for decorative purposes.
Antidote: Duh. Study. Master your prep material. Or, barring that, count on increasing public cynicism in the high age of spin. “Facts are like statistics now, bendable to your purpose,” said John Carroll, a communications professor at Boston University. “And people essentially exist in their own information universes. So a lot of people are starting to get fact-check fatigue. They ignore corrections.”
Quotable: “Misstatements of fact are most debilitating when they play into the narrative that already exists about the candidate,” Mr. Lanoue said. “When Ford made such a glaring misstatement — almost like saying black is white — it played into the whole ‘Saturday Night Live’ sendup of him as bumbling, stupid Chevy Chase character.”
Sense and insensitivity
© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
About the Author
Patrick Hruby is an award-winning journalist who holds degrees from Georgetown and Northwestern. He also contributes to ESPN.com and The Atlantic Online, and his work has been featured in The Best American Sports Writing. Follow him on Twitter (@patrick_hruby) and contact him at PatrickHruby.net.
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