- The Washington Times - Monday, October 15, 2012

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.

Brain lock

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.”

Fact-checked

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

Blunder: There’s no crying in politics. (Just ask Edmund Muskie.) On the other hand, the public doesn’t want leaders who come across like Mr. Spock with a flag lapel pin. Cool, calm and collected is good; cold, clinical and detached is not.

Fool’s gold standard: In 1988, then-CNN anchor Bernard Shaw asked Democratic nominee Michael S. Dukakis the most infamous question in presidential debate history: “If Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?” Given a golden opportunity to belie his aloof, cerebral public image — as well as Republican efforts to paint him as soft on crime — Mr. Dukakis instead gave the most infamous answer in presidential debate history, brief and unhesitating, delivered with the passion of a recited grocery list: “No, I don’t, Bernard. And I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life. I don’t see any evidence that it’s a deterrent, and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime.” Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto!

Antidote: Bad news — projecting warmth and empathy isn’t that easy. “It’s something that you have or you don’t,” Mr. Lanoue said. “Later in the Dukakis-Bush debate, there was a point where he said, ‘Kitty and I love you.’ And it was almost cringe-inducing. It was like, OK, you’ve been told to show warmth, so warmth program commencing in … three, two, one. It’s hard to be someone you’re not.”

Quotable: During a 1976 vice presidential debate, Republican Bob Dole said of Vietnam that “if we added up the killed and wounded in Democrat wars in this century, it would be … enough to fill the city of Detroit.” Two decades before he grouched his way through debates against President Clinton, Mr. Dole already had his grumpy old man act down pat.

Canned corn

Blunder: Heading into this year’s first presidential debate, Mr. Romney reportedly was preparing zingers. And why not? The temptation to drop a pitch-perfect bon mot can be irresistible, particularly when effective ones — like Mr. Reagan’s “There you go again” to President Carter — are long remembered. Problem is, having a rapier wit is hard — and a misplayed one-liner can leave you looking lame, if not completely groan-worthy. Remember George H.W. Bush’s 1988 rejoinder that one of Mr. Dukakis’ answers was “about as clear as Boston Harbor”? We’re still trying to forget.

Fool’s gold standard: In a 2008 Democratic primary debate, then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton let loose the Dogs of Zing by attacking Mr. Obama’s use of campaign-speech passages first uttered by Massachusetts governor and friend Deval Patrick, telling the Illinois senator that “lifting whole passages from someone else’s speeches is not the change you can believe in, it’s change you can Xerox.” Her reward? The audience booed, while Mr. Obama winningly dismissed the charge as indicative of a political “silly season” that the public could do without.

Antidote: Leave the jokes to the late-night talk hosts. Otherwise, practice ahead of time. Hone your best material. And during the actual debate, exercise extreme judiciousness. “The effective zinger is the one that fits, but also doesn’t seem scripted,” said Mitchell McKinney, a communications professor at the University of Missouri and co-author of three books on presidential campaign rhetoric. “Don’t force it. You have to wait for it to come to you. Reagan was great at that.”

Quotable: “People’s preconceptions of you matter,” Mr. Carroll said. “Romney is not Louis C.K., you know? He can’t really go and present himself that way. Obama has more of a wisecracking image, is cooler in the public eye. So it fits his personality a little more. On the other hand, if Romney can pull off an attempt at humor, then the element of surprise works to his advantage. Playing against type could give it more impact.”

Leading with your chin

Blunder: Knowing your political weaknesses. Knowing that your opponent knows said weaknesses. Ignoring that knowledge and giving opponent a fat, easy target.

Fool’s gold standard: In a 1988 vice presidential debate, Republican candidate Dan Quayle likened himself to John Kennedy, handing Democratic opponent Lloyd Bentsen an opening to land perhaps the greatest one-line podium punch of the last quarter-century: “I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”

Antidote: Keep your verbal hands up. And, for that matter, down. Make sure your debate prep team throws every possible low blow at you during practice. “It’s clear that Quayle was trying to answer the criticism that he was unprepared and had very little experience,” Mr. Lanoue said. “He was not saying he was equal of JFK. He was saying you can succeed with little experience. But the second Bentsen delivered that line, it was clear that somebody should have anticipated that.” Indeed. Mr. Quayle already had been making JFK references on the campaign trail, essentially supplying his opponent with a verbal pair of weighted gloves.

Quotable: “We do a lot of videotaping of our opponents from previous debates,” Mr. Kall said. “Watching them in the past is the best predictor of what they will do in the future. You prepare for what they might do and what your response will be. And it’s not just one step you need. It’s like chess. You need to think several moves ahead.”

Questionable questioning

Blunder: Gaffes aren’t just for candidates. Once in a while, moderators make missteps, too. “Debates are a dance between candidates who don’t want to have any unguarded moments, and the moderator who is trying to pull something authentic out of them,” Mr. Carroll said. “They want to elicit things, but not be too intrusive or sort of dominate. That’s a fine line.”

Fool’s gold standard: Mr. Shaw’s question to Mr. Dukakis elicited gasps in the debate press room. On the other hand, the CNN anchor was known for tough questions. “The damage to Dukakis far outweighed the negative reaction to Shaw,” Mr. Carroll said. More recently, Newt Gingrich used moderator John King’s question about his extramarital dalliances during a Republican primary debate to righteously lambaste both the CNN anchor and the media in general — two winning targets, at least for a partisan audience. “Moderators have to be careful to not seem like they are playing a sort of ‘gotcha’ game,” Mr. Carroll said. “Gingrich was very adept at making moderators seem like they were creating unfair environments, even if they weren’t.”

Antidote: Be boring and ask safe questions. Only who wants that?

Quotable: “In some sense, debate moderators ought to be like football referees,” Mr. Lanoue said. “They shouldn’t try to be the story by embarrassing candidates or trying to corner them. They’ve had a good debate if you don’t know that they were there.”