Here's how debates like tonight's have mattered
By ANDREW MALCOLM
Posted 09:04 AM ET
Former Vice President Walter Mondale was reminiscing about his defeat at the hands of Ronald Reagan in the second largest lopsided electoral vote total in history, 525-13.
(**Trivia Quiz: Who got fewer electoral votes than Mondale and when? Answer at bottom)
Some people think Mondale's defeat occurred on election day, Nov. 6, 1984. But in our conversation a few years ago Mondale told me, not in a bitter way, that he'd realized he was doomed weeks before the election. It happened during his debate with President Reagan 28 years ago this month.
With a straight face and laser focus, the Republican incumbent had launched his pre-planned zinger: "I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience."
It was classic Reagan, who was 73 at the time, to Mondale's 56. Not mean, seemingly good-natured but making a real point that demolished any thought of Mondale or his surrogates making an issue out of Reagan's age. In fact, though painful, Mondale had to join the laughter over Reagan's line. (See photo above at that precise moment.)
That was one of the relatively few times in their 52 years that a presidential debate played an important role in the campaign, beyond giving millions of voters a better sense of the candidates every leap year. Or as much of a better sense as is possible through the filter of a TV lens.
There are actually two debates occurring simultaneously--one on TV and another in the debate auditorium, which tonight is at the University of Denver. In person, the events are more vivid, visceral, but witnessed by an inconsequential 1,500 or so. TV emphasizes appearances and highlights little things, superficial details, which take on outsized import.
Richard Nixon's makeup in 1960 didn't seem to matter in-studio, but on-screen gave him a haggard look vs John Kennedy's younger vibrance. In 1992, as millions do many times each day, President George H.W. Bush glanced at his watch while Bill Clinton spoke. Few on-site even noticed, but at home the president's innocent gesture came across as bored, impatient, arrogant.
Remember Al Gore's off-camera but audible sighs in 2000 during George W. Bush's answers? What in this warming world was going through the mind of Gore, who went on to lose his home state to the Texan? (By the way, the famous inventor has assigned himself to cover tonight's event for the TV network he owns. As usual, we recommend filter-free C-SPAN.)
Speaking of C-SPAN, for those who'd like to refresh their memories about the trio of 2008 presidential debates between Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama, here, courtesy of C-SPAN's glorious video archives, are links to videos of:
the first debate on Sept. 27, 2008 at the University of Mississippi,
the second debate on Oct. 7 at Belmont University, using questions submitted by uncommitted voters,
and the third debate on Oct. 15 at Hofstra University.
Who could forget that priceless exchange between Obama and McCain during the second debate? Well, we did, if there was one. And that's our point this morning: You will in coming days hear endless media analysis of debate points scored, fact-checks, victor and loser.
But these debates are rarely important as individual events. Instead, taken together they provide an impressionistic narrative arc for viewers to soak up what these men are about, how they carry themselves, listen, speak under pressure.
From a living room couch, voters may ponder the unimaginable pressures at play. It's true. They're intense. It's bad for staffers, worse for spouses.
But at this level of politics, the candidates I've seen up close actually relish the moment. They enjoy walking the high-wire. They've campaigned typically for years, sometimes with an audience of but one or two. Now, their every word will reach scores of millions.
And whoever said seeking the pressurized presidency should be easy?
Both sides this year studied at the Lou Holtz School of Pre-Game Prognostication, seeking to lower expectations going into Denver by talking about how great and experienced the other guy is. Romney, like all challengers, gains stature simply by being on the same stage with a president.
The Republican needs to be aggressive without stridency, to look like he's willing to fight for the job, which he did at times during the 220 Republican primary debates. (OK, it just seemed that way; there were 'only' 22).
Romney needs to confront Obama over the weeks of false ads that have given the Democrat poll leads in crucial swing states. With no economic record to run on and no second-term agenda beyond the slogan "Forward," Obama is likely to play considerable defense. He wants to avoid any mistakes that would elevate Romney's stature by comparison.
Both remember 1980. Voters then were unhappy with incumbent Jimmy Carter's crummy economy and foreign affairs flops like the endless Iranian hostage crisis and botched rescue. But they were inclined to stick with what they knew. Carter lead Reagan going into their debate five days before the election.
But Reagan, merely an actor who'd been a governor and a corporate spokesman at countless events for years, played the role of a would-be president to a T. The bottom fell out of Carter's lead within two days, sending him on to build Habitat homes and write books while Reagan changed history.
Which brings us to our favorite, ageless Reagan quote about his record: "Thomas Jefferson once said, 'We should never judge a president by his age, only by his works.' And ever since he told me that, I stopped worrying."
** Trivia Answer: 8 electoral votes in 1936 by Republican Alf Landon.