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The First 2012 Presidential Debate: How the Incumbent Got Trapped

Having watched every televised general election presidential debate since their inception in 1960, I have been at it about a half-century. In my mind, I can play from memory moments from them all.  What surprised me about the first 2012 debate in Denver, and what will play in my memory from it, was that President Obama allowed himself to fall into the incumbent’s trap, and that moderator Jim Lehrer lost control of the event to the highly aggressive former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.

By a wide consensus of both political pundits’ views and public opinion, President Obama lost this October 3rd debate in Denver.  I think that is a good thing for Obama.  In fact, it may be a silver lining for the Democrats. In addition, I believe that Romney’s win was, in fact, a Pyrrhic victory, which also will help the Democrats. Allow me to explain.

A Bit of Background

Modern presidential debates began in 1960, when the Democratic presidential nominee, Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy, challenged his Republican opponent, the incumbent Vice President Richard Nixon.  Nixon, who had debated throughout high school, college, and law school, thought himself a skilled debater, so he readily accepted the challenge.

A few weeks before the debate, Nixon banged his leg on a car door, an injury that he largely ignored until the leg became seriously infected, and he was hospitalized.  When Nixon was released from the hospital, shortly before the debate, he was still recovering and had caught the flu. He had a 102-degree temperature the night of the debate.  In contrast, Kennedy, who had been preparing in Florida, was tanned, rested and relaxed.  Both men refused to wear make-up for the television camera.

Brother Bobby’s last-minute advice to JFK for dealing with Nixon: “Go kick him in the balls.”  JFK proceeded to do just that, forcing Nixon to defend the record of the Eisenhower/Nixon Administration. Those who listened to the debate on radio thought Nixon had probably won the debate, although they’d been impressed by Kennedy’s vigor.  But the larger audience who watched on television thought Nixon looked weak, defensive, and nervous when he used his handkerchief on a sweaty upper lip. The television audience overwhelmingly thought Kennedy had won decisively.

In 1964, incumbent Democratic President Lyndon Johnson refuse to debate his GOP challenger, Barry Goldwater.  While that decision resulted in some passing bad press for Johnson, it was smart politics, for the incumbent president did not give his opponent a stage where Goldwater would have called Johnson on his bogus claim that he was keeping the United States out of a war in Vietnam, which Goldwater knew was untrue.

In 1968, when Richard Nixon was again the GOP nominee, running against incumbent Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Nixon—recalling his experience in 1960—decided that he wanted nothing to do with debates. Similarly, as the incumbent president in 1972, well ahead in the polls against his challenger Senator George McGovern, once again Nixon refused to debate.

Over the years, I have spoken with many who have been involved in presidential debates, and they all say it is far easier to be the challenger, because it is not difficult to trap an incumbent, by forcing the incumbent to defend a record that can always be criticized.  I call this “the incumbent’s trap,” and it plays out in debate after debate.

The Incumbent’s Trap:  Disproving the Negative

It was not until 1976, when former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter was running against the incumbent President Gerald Ford, that presidential debates returned.  These debates consistently show that they are risky events for incumbents, especially the first debate. The record speaks for itself.  Incumbents are forced to defend their records, while their opponents challenge them and promise to do whatever voters wish.  Defending is inherently more difficult than attacking and making promises to take actions for which there is no measure.  In turn, defending often requires disproving a negative, which is never easy.

By 1976, President Ford, who had inherited the office after Nixon’s resignation, had been president just long enough that he was forced to defend his record against Carter’s attacks. Ford failed miserably at doing so, particularly when he made a serious gaffe about communism not controlling Eastern Europe.

Four years later, in 1980, President Carter—after refusing to participate in a three-way debate with California Governor Ronald Reagan and Illinois Congressman John Anderson, an Independent—faced Reagan one-on-one.  Reagan’s attacks made him appear to be solid presidential timber, forcing Carter to go on the defensive, and then effectively deflecting Carter’s efforts to tag him with his relaxed line, “There you go again,” and his memorable question to the audience about whether they were better off than they had been four years earlier (which is a totally unrealistic way to judge a presidency, but it worked).

In the first 1984 debate, Vice President Walter Mondale looked and sounded more knowledgeable about President Reagan’s policies than the President himself. Indeed, Reagan appeared out of touch and remarkably unaware of the events and challenges of his own presidency.  We now know that Reagan was showing early signs of his later-revealed Alzheimer’s Disease.  Reagan survived the second debate only by employing wisecracks and one-liners that allowed Americans to think he was not as out of it as was really the case, when in fact he was deteriorating mentally. It was an old actor’s putting on his last great performance, and it succeeded.

In 1988, there were no incumbents, but in 1992, when President George H.W. Bush was running against independent candidate H. Ross Perot and Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, President Bush looked bored and uncomfortable at the debate—occasionally checking his watch to time his opponents—and poorly defended his record against the fast-talking Perot and the audience- charming and highly knowledgeable Bill Clinton.

In 1996, President Bill Clinton did not fall into the incumbent’s trap when debating his challenger, Kansas Republican Senator Bob Dole, by taking command of the debate.

But in 2000, Vice President Al Gore—who’d been an excellent debater when attacking—proved weak at defending the Clinton/Gore Administration when challenged by Texas Governor George W. Bush.

President George W. Bush’s first 2004 debate against an aggressive Massachusetts Democratic Senator John Kerry, who challenged his record, was a remarkably weak performance for Bush—resulting in a debate that Kerry clearly won.  It was an aggressive and thorough-minded incumbent, Vice President Dick Cheney, debating a skilled trial lawyer, North Carolina Senator John Edwards, who kept the Bush/Cheney campaign from falling apart after Bush II’s initial weak showing, although Bush II performed much better in the next two debates.

Now, President Barack Obama has fallen into the presidential incumbent’s trap.  He allowed Romney to attack, and Romney also escaped counter-attacks by changing his positions.  The bottom line: It is easier to attack an incumbent’s record than to defend it, because Americans have an unrealistic understanding of what, in fact, presidents can and cannot do.  This is particularly true regarding the economy; in reality, presidents have little direct control over its ups and downs.  This, of course, is a perfect situation for a challenger, for governing is a less-than-precise undertaking. Presidents become practiced at acting presidential, which only adds to their problem in defending themselves in a presidential debate.

More strikingly, and memorably, for me, in Denver, the moderator abandoned the carefully- negotiated rules that would have helped Obama avoid the incumbent’s trap. This debate would have been better with no moderator at all, rather than with Obama trying to play by the rules, while Romney had clearly planned to abandon them from the outset.  This strategy, as it was designed to do, further placed the incumbent president on the defensive.

There Was Not Enough Moderation by the Moderator of the First Obama-Romney Debate

Televised presidential campaign debates are—and always have been, since the medium’s inception—political theater.  These are shows where substance is secondary, while style is primary.  They are produced by and for the chattering class, and the rules are carefully negotiated to make the debates as level a playing field as possible. The moderator is then there to enforce the agreed-upon rules.

The Presidential Debates Commission selected Jim Lehrer to moderate the first debate because he is experienced, and knowledgeable, having moderated twelve prior debates.  At the outset of the debate, Lehrer announced the agreed upon format, which called for six 15-minute time segments, each of which was to focus on one of the following topics: The Economy—Segments I, II and III, Health Care—Segment IV, The Role of Government—Segment V, and Governing—Segment VI, plus closing statements of two minutes by each candidate.  Lehrer reported that he had received many suggested questions via the Internet, but he had made the final decision regarding the questions, which had not been provided to the candidates in advance.

Understand, here, that the candidates knew exactly what they were doing when they broke the rules, and pushed Lehrer aside.  It started with Romney.  The candidates could see a large clock and either a green or red light—it’s probably 12 by 6 inches—so they knew when they had exceeded their time, as the red light would go on.  Romney was the first to refuse to honor the time clock, on two occasions, notwithstanding Lehrer’s effort to rein him in, as President Obama plaintively looked on.  It soon became apparent to the President that he, too, would have to ignore the rules, or be completely steamrolled by his opponent.  Lehrer, apparently thought that a more open format was now acceptable, since both men were breaking the rules, and thus, Lehrer himself all but disappeared from the debate.

Lehrer’s open-ended topics did not invite responsive answers.  Rather than merely tossing out topics, Lehrer should have pressed the candidates with meaningful questions, and insisted on responses, which was how the rules had been laid out.  Right after the debate, I had an exchange with a friend who thought that Lehrer at 78 years of age, was simply out of it.  I disagree.  I had a private conversation with Jim Lehrer only a few weeks ago, and may we all be as sharp as he is at his age.

Controlling these debates is not a new issue, and I’ve long thought that when a presidential debater refuses to play by the rules (see, for example, Ross Perot), that a moderator should give a warning, and if that warning is not honored, the moderator should have a switch to turn off the microphone of the offender, as is done regularly on talk radio, and as can be done effortlessly and without embarrassing anyone by a good moderator and accompanying television production crew.

Obama’s Silver-Lining Loss

While President Obama stretched some facts in the heat of the debate, the statements he made were nothing like the bald-faced lies that Mitt Romney employed.  Fact-checkers have already provided the Obama Campaign with a small mountain of material to once again show that Governor Romney is not troubled by the truth, nor does he feel obligated to hold consistent positions.  I can’t imagine that the Obama campaign will not exploit this material in the coming days, and before the next presidential debate on October 16th which will be moderated by CNN’s Candy Crowley—who strikes me as someone who will have zero tolerance for rule-breaking.  That will play to President Obama’s advantage.

What is best about the Obama loss in Denver, however, is that it will reverse the trend that I could see spreading among countless Democrats, who felt that winning in November would be a cakewalk.  Believe me: It won’t.  While I have no political-party affiliation, I find current Republican thinking nothing short of frightening, so I am pulling for Obama’s reelection.  If what happened in Denver did not trouble Democrats, and the Obama Campaign, we’re all in a lot of trouble come November 6th.

John DeanJohn W. Dean, a Justia columnist, is a former counsel to the president.
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  • David Gillooly

    Yes it will be a close race as most have been in the past few elections.

    Mitt seems to be throwing away policies and positions that were needed for the far right to give him the election. Now he has even said his 47% remark was wrong, even though he first doubled down on it the night of his famous clarification.

    In Mitt’s CEO world lying is quite common.No one calls the CEO on his own warped view of reality much less a liar. CEOs can fire people at will and even if there is an employment contract that is just a money issue. There are no You Tube videos exposing CEOs, but in politics YouTube and the internet has infinite memory.

    Flip flopping is a issue with Mitt more than with most politicians. He has flipp-flopped on Big issues. Will Mitt’s implementing the etch-a-sketch strategy be a confirmation the right wing really doesn’t know what they are getting with Mitt. There must be a lot of uncertainty in their minds now. Will the rich load more money into Mitt’s campaign without the 20% tax cut they were promised over the last 12 months or has Mitt given them the “wink and nod”, that this is just his way of winning and all will be well in the end.

  • Stopthemadness

    Right….no political-party affiliation…you are a liberal joke.

  • CLM

    Great analysis.

  • Dr. Bill

    One of the problems is that Mr Obama has lied so much about everything, that he has lost credibility in many of our eyes. He lives in a world by himself and is not in touch with those of us who are suffering under his policies. Try to live down here, restricted on income and with the rising prices on almost everything. Those “at the top” do all for their own good and how it best affects them without thinking of what is best for those in the “lower or lowest class”. !!!

  • http://twitter.com/chrizzy100 Kris Burns

    what a ton of crap

  • Independent voter

    I appreciate this perspective. The media and viewers in general keep talking about who won. We all lost — Lehrer and the pundits including NPR commentators paid little attention to substance. Just appearances. And saying Romney won because he presented himself better than he was expected to do is faint praise. We get what we deserve because we don’t demand to be treated like intelligent adults. One liners and zingers rule the day; are people too lazy to listen, think, and analyze?

 

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