Presidential Debates, Just Around The Corner

In case you haven’t had your fill of politics already, with an important election only a few weeks away and political stories of one kind or another dominating every newscast, here’s some encouraging news — the first Democratic presidential candidate debates for the 2020 election are just around the corner.

t1larg-debate-stage-empty-t1largPolitico is reporting that the first debates will probably occur in the spring of 2019, months before the first primaries and caucuses, and a full year and a half before the 2020 election.  And even though that seems ridiculously early to non-political types like me, it’s apparently causing all of the would-be candidates to ramp up their activities now.  It’s expected that there will be a lot of people who will be vying for the chance to square off against President Trump in 2020 — more people, in fact, that can reasonably fit on one debate stage.  And if sheet numbers mean there will be two debate stages and two sets of debaters, all of the candidates want to be sure that they appear on the stage that includes all of the perceived “real contenders,” and are not relegated to the “everybody else” stage.  So everybody who is contemplating throwing their hat in the ring is out there raising money, hiring staff, visiting Iowa and New Hampshire, and trying to make news and start showing up in the polls.

Who are the “real contenders” for the Democrats?  According to the Politico article, only one person — a Congressman named John Delaney, who I’ve never even heard of — has formally declared his candidacy at this point.  Among the people who reportedly are considering a bid are Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren, as well as Cory Booker and Kamala Harris.  Some people think Hillary Clinton might run, or Michael Bloomberg, and no doubt there are mayors, governors, other senators and representatives, and corporate figures who may launch campaigns.  If only a few of these folks actually run, you’ve already got a pretty crowded stage.

It’s hard to believe that we’re at the point of gearing up for another presidential election already, but politics being what it is, I am sure that there are a lot of Democrats out there thinking very seriously about running for President.  Why not?  After all, if Donald Trump can win the Republican nomination and actually get elected, just about anything is possible.  So why not take a shot — and do whatever you can to make sure that you get onto the coveted “contenders” stage?

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Three Debates Down, Two Weeks To Go

With all three presidential debates in the books, we can fairly ask:  what is the role of debates in a modern election?  According to the polls, the pundits, and the talk about momentum, the first debate this year was a significant game-changer in favor of Mitt Romney.  Why?  Was it because President Obama turned in a performance generally regarded as desultory, or was it something else?

I didn’t think the President’s performance during the first debate was as bad as it has been depicted to be.  I think, instead, the key point is that people forgot the presidential debates are one of the few political events that are unfiltered.  The candidates get a rare opportunity to speak to a national audience, in an unscripted setting, without any yakking by pundits or talking heads.  And the national TV audience for the debate, moreover, is interested enough to pick a presidential debate from all other programming options in the modern video world, and therefore probably consists mostly of people who are likely to vote.

In this election, President Obama’s campaign strategy had been to run countless attack ads painting Mitt Romney as a heartless, out-of-touch moneybags who was George W. Bush, Jr.  When all you saw was the ads, the strategy worked fine.  But Romney’s debate performance was inconsistent with the ads.  People watching thought:  “Hey, this guy isn’t so bad.  He seems pretty reasonable and knowledgeable.  Maybe he really can get us out of this mess.”  And with that unfiltered realization, millions of dollars in negative ad buy by the President’s campaign went out the window.  In fact, Romney’s performance was so contrary to the ads that it probably not only helped Romney but also had a negative impact on the credibility of the Obama campaign commercials going forward.

Another reality is that the after-debate period is longer and more diffuse.  People get their sense of how the debates went not just from a few talking heads on the major networks, but from countless TV stations, blogs, comedy shows, Twitter snarf, and social media sites.  It may take days, and a few choice “Facebook ads” or Daily Show mocks or heavily reposted blog items, before people settle on what really happened.  People in the spin room immediately after the debate no longer control public opinion, if they ever did.

In this election, we now turn to the “ground game” and the contest of which campaign can do a better job of getting their supporters off their duffs and out to the polls.  Political operatives, however, will no doubt study the debates in the 2012 campaign and draw some significant conclusions.  First, if you are going to go negative on your opponent, make sure you aren’t attacking on character or personality grounds that can be readily disproven in a 90-minute debate; otherwise, you will be flushing your hard-earned campaign contributions down the tubes.  Second, don’t forget the after-debate period.  As those precious undecided voters are trying to decide who did better, they’ll be looking at a lot of things — and if your candidate came across as disinterested and disengaged, or clown-like, or phony, it will eventually be detected and outed . . . and that will ultimately be the prevailing view of the masses.

The Final Debate

Tonight, in Florida, President Obama and Mitt Romney have their final debate.  This debate will focus on foreign policy and — as UJ notes in his post today about the Middle East — there is a lot to talk about.

The debate will follow the same format as the first debate.  There will be six 15-minute discussion pods on topics selected by the moderator, Bob Schieffer of CBS News.  The moderator will open each segment with a question, each candidate will have two minutes to respond, and the moderator will guide a discussion of the topic for the remainder of the 15 minutes.  The six topics selected by Schieffer are:  “America’s role in the world,” “Our longest war — Afghanistan and Pakistan,” “Red Lines — Israel and Iran,” “The Changing Middle East and the New Face of Terrorism (I and II),” and “The Rise of China and Tomorrow’s World.”  The moderator reserves the right to change the topics depending on developments, and the order of the topics also can be changed.

It will be interesting to see if there is a change in tone for tonight’s debate.  The last presidential debate was heated, with some very sharp exchanges.  Hyper-aggressive posturing by the candidates may be acceptable when domestic policy is being discussed, but foreign policy is a different arena.  Although the candidates obviously will be thinking of how their statements will affect the presidential race, they also need to be mindful of the foreign audience that will be watching the debate.  I’m sure the people of Israel, for example, will be carefully reviewing the discussion during the “Red Lines:  Israel and Iran” segment.  The candidates will need to speak clearly and be cautious in their comments and (of course!) avoid the devastating gaffe.  I’m sure both the President and Mitt Romney have been practicing the pronunciation of the names of foreign leaders.

For those of us here in America, Libya obviously has been in the spotlight.  Every day, revelations raise new questions about our security arrangements in Benghazi, our lack of a response while the attack was ongoing, and our conflicting and misleading statements after the attack ended.  Another big topic will be Afghanistan and Iraq, where so many of our sons and daughters have served for so long and so many families have suffered devastating losses.  What can we do to make sure that the gains obtained through their service are protected, while extricating ourselves from conflicts that seem never-ending?

It’s a dangerous world out there.  In addition to the rise of Islamic fanaticism and the always unsettled Middle East, there is the ongoing, hair-trigger stand-off between North and South Korea, a resurgent Russia eager to flex its geopolitical muscle, a European Union that seems to be collapsing under the weight of its fiscal irresponsibility, and tensions between China, Japan, and Taiwan about the sovereignty of islands, among many other issues.  UJ’s post notwithstanding, I don’t think President Bush can be blamed for all of these issues — and even if he could, laying blame on a President who has been out of office for four years does nothing to solve the problems.  In tonight’s debate I’ll be listening for thoughtful discussion of these issues and reasonable solutions, not finger-pointing.

Quick Thoughts On The Second Debate

The second debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney is now in the books.  Was there a winner and loser?

I think the loser is the town meeting format.  It’s just not well suited to a meaningful debate.  The candidates both ran roughshod over the rules, often failed to answer the questions, and frequently argued with each other and interrupted each other.  The result was a very messy discussion.  It was not particularly attractive to watch, and in my view didn’t reflect well on either candidate.  I’d be interested in knowing whether the folks in the room felt as uncomfortable watching the interruptions and posturing as Kish and I did watching from our family room.

The questions at least got us into some new issues that haven’t been addressed yet — domestic gas prices, trade, immigration, gun control, and Libya, with the Libya discussion probably being the one that is the most likely to be carefully deconstructed and analyzed.  These are issues that need to be discussed, and it is worthwhile that they have been introduced to this campaign.

Both candidates obviously decided to be more assertive.  The President certainly was more aggressive than he was in the first debate, and in that sense I think he did what he needed to do in the debate.  Mitt Romney responded in kind.  Because the President gave a much stronger performance than in the first debate, he at least won’t be criticized by his own supporters — which will be a victory of sorts for him.  We’ll see what the fallout is as people digest the discussion and the argument, and the unattractive, off-putting nature of this debate.

A Big Audience For A Big Debate

Last night’s debate was popular with viewers — which probably is good news for Mitt Romney, who is generally regarded as having performed very well.

According to the overnight ratings, 58 million people tuned in to watch the candidates spar over the issues — a number that doesn’t include those who watched on PBS, Univision, or CSPAN or on-line.  Surprisingly, more people watched this debate than watched the first presidential debate in 2008, when President Obama was at the height of his popularity.  The TV audience also was far larger than the viewership for this year’s Democratic and Republican conventions.

I’m glad to see that the American people are paying attention to this election.  I wonder whether the significantly increased viewership for this debate may have been influenced, at least in part, by a desire on the part of some fed-up voters who are sick of silly attack ads and the squawking of the punditocracy, the pollsters, and the spin jockeys, and just wanted to see President Obama and Mitt Romney in their unfiltered state, going toe to toe.  I imagine that most people who watched the debate thought it was a worthwhile and interesting experience, and will encourage their friends to watch the next one.  I’ll bet that the audience for the second debate will be larger still.

I hope that is the case, and I hope that the viewers also are reaching their own conclusions — not about who won or lost a mere debate, or who looked more “presidential,” but about which candidate is best suited for a very tough and important job.  After all, that is the ultimate question that voters must decide.

The Questions I’d Like To Hear Answered Tonight

Everyone focuses on the candidates and their preparation for presidential debates, but the moderators deserve attention, too.  After all, it’s the questions the the moderator will ask tonight that will drive the “debate.”

The format for tonight’s debate will consist of six 15-minute segment on topics that have already been announced.  The moderator will open each segment with a question, each candidate will have two minutes to respond, and then the moderator will guide a discussion.  The six topics are:  The Economy – I; The Economy – II; The Economy – III; Health Care; The Role of Government; Governing.

Here are the questions on those topics that I’d like to see asked tonight:

The Economy – I:  Both of you have talked about balancing the budget, a process which would require cuts in spending.  Please identify one specific federal program that you would be willing to eliminate in its entirety in order to achieve a balanced budget.

The Economy – II:  We’ve been reading for years now about the debt crisis in Greece, Italy, and other Eurozone countries.  Should we be learning a lesson from what is happening in Europe, and if so what is that lesson?

The Economy – III:  Do you agree with how the Federal Reserve has managed monetary policy in response to the economic recession?  If not, what would you have done differently?

Health Care:  In your view, should the federal government be involved in attempting to force Americans to lead more healthy lifestyles in the interests of controlling health care costs that are caused by obesity, smoking, and other lifestyle choices?

The Role of Government:  In your view, should the federal government ever make loans or offer tax breaks to particular companies or industries in furtherance of long-term goals, such as increasing sustainable energy sources?

Governing:  What can we do to avoid contrived, stopgap political compromises, like the “debt supercommittee” that failed to agree on debt reduction measures, and get back to a federal government in which Congress actually passes appropriations bills, budgets, and other legislation and the President then signs or vetoes those bills, as the Constitution contemplates?

I’d like to see short, pointed questions, and some follow-up that doesn’t allow candidates to dodge the questions.  No touchy-feely subjects, either (especially on a topic like “governing”).  We’ve got some serious, concrete problems in this country; those problems should be discussed in concrete terms.

Viewer Preparation For That First Presidential Debate

President Obama and Mitt Romney are busy preparing for their first debate, set for October 3 at the University of Denver.  With the first debate less than a week away, that means the rest of us need to prepare, too.

For all of their build-up, the debates usually are a yawner.  We’d like to see something shocking, spontaneous, hilarious, or intensely revealing, but it never happens.  Wouldn’t you love to see a candidate take a chance and do something to shake things up, like Mitt Romney coming onstage wearing a top hat and monocle in a humorous bid to deflate the “out-of-touch rich guy” mantra?  Of course, no candidate wants to take the risk that a bold effort or answer might backfire, so they play everything close to the vest.

As a result, for every memorable debate moment — like President Reagan, in response to a question about age, promising not to hold Walter Mondale’s “youth and inexperience” against him, Mike Dukakis’ robotic answer to a question about his wife getting raped, or Al Gore invading George Bush’s personal space — there are countless hours of tedious blather.  Adding “new” formats, like a “town hall” where “ordinary citizens” ask screwball questions, hasn’t changed the dullness quotient.  Does anyone remember anything about the Dole-Clinton debates in 1996, the Bush-Kerry debates in 2004, or the Obama-McCain debates in 2008?

What do viewers need to do to get themselves ready for the debates?  First, go to the grocery store and buy the biggest grain of salt you can find.  You’re going to need it for the silly pre-debate expectations management game and the post-debate spin and posturing.  Second, and speaking of the post-debate spin cycle, every viewer should do some preparatory eye muscle exercises, so they don’t harm themselves by uncontrolled eye-rolling in response to an outlandish claim that one candidate or the other committed the most awful gaffe in the history of politics.  Third, laying in heavy supplies of Five-Hour Energy, coffee, and Jolt Cola is a good idea, to help you make it through the droning “serious” question about education policy by a camera-hungry member of the panel of reporters and the equally droning answers of the candidates.

And during the first debate I predict every viewer will check their TV for mechanical failure at least once, because moderator Jim Lehrer’s sober visage will not have changed.  No need for that:  Lehrer, who pursuant to federal law has moderated every president debate since the Hoover administration, isn’t actually alive, but instead was manufactured decades ago when animatronics hadn’t progressed to the point of allowing nuanced facial expressions.

Time to get ready, America!