BY DANNY M. ADKISON
It was hard to watch. Did you see that presidential debate? Can anyone explain Obama’s performance? One would have thought, given his speaking ability, that he would mop the floor with his opponent. Hardly.
In fact, Obama’s subdued manner was, well, let’s admit it, disappointing. Yeah, I can remember Obama’s 2008 debate with John McCain like it was just last Wednesday night.
The verdict seems in – President Obama lost the first debate to Gov. Romney. Didn’t he?
First, as with most presidential debates, they weren’t really debates as much as simultaneous press conferences. Granted, without a real moderator this one came close to a free-for-all.
Did anyone know the Presidential Debate Commission rewrote the rules of the debate such that the moderator was limited to shouting out one word – Medicaid – and then trying [unsuccessfully] to stop the talking 15 minutes later?
The typical line of presidential debates [backed up by some research] is this: the only thing anyone will remember about the debate is either a zinger or a gaffe. There really was neither in last week’s debate.
“There is no Soviet domination of eastern Europe in the Ford Administration.” There is a genuine gaffe for you. President Ford uttered those words [twice!] in his debate with challenger Jimmy Carter in 1976. Ford lost that election in one of the closest elections of the 20th Century. Some might attribute it to the debate. That’s possible.
More probable is the fact that Ford was running under a unique set of circumstances. He was a pseudo-incumbent who was tied to the only president to ever resign from office, during a time of high inflation and economic stagnation. Even so, he almost won.
“Senator, you’re no John Kennedy.” There is a real zinger. It came in Lloyd Bentsen’s vice presidential debate with Dan Quayle in 1988. You know it is a genuine [and effective] zinger when it enters pop culture. Even today people use it to bring down braggarts. Probably because it was a vice presidential debate, it had no impact on the outcome [Bush Sr. won in spite of it].
Could those pundits be right who are arguing that Obama’s performance was due to the fact that for four years the president has been surrounded by people who merely nod approvingly when he speaks rather than challenging his views? It is true, according to one scholar who ought to know, that presidents suffer from this type of environment.
This is the theme of George Reedy’s book Twlight of the Presidency. Reedy once told me that the most damaging impact the presidency had on presidents was due to the fact that no one in the Oval Office, after hearing the president speak, game him the raspberry.
Here is a story which might shed light on the Romney-Obama encounter.
After the Constitution was written in 1787 Jefferson met Washington in a tavern for breakfast. While waiting for their coffee Jefferson began berating Washington [in an excited manner] for allowing the delegates to create a two-house Congress. This, according to Jefferson, was redundant and wasteful.
Just as Jefferson was finishing his rant, the coffee arrives and before Washington can speak Jefferson tries to drink some coffee but it is too hot. So, Jefferson pours some of his coffee into his saucer and raises this to mouth sipping it directly out of the saucer. Satisfied, he slowly lowers the saucer to see a smirk on Washington’s face. Jefferson, with a puzzled look, said to Washington, “What?”
Washington replied, “Nothing … its just that I wondering why you needed a saucer when you had a cup?”
This story is used to explain why the Framers saw the need for a House and Senate. The House was designed to be impulsive and spontaneous, but this was to be balanced by the deliberative nature of the Senate. In fact, Publius, perhaps elaborating on the analogy, argued that the Senate [in contrast to the House] would provide the “cool and deliberate sense of the community.”
This is what 60 million Americans saw last week. Viewers saw one candidate performing much like he did in 2008, in a cool and deliberative manner. The other candidate [perhaps exhibiting a sense of desperation] was impulsive and excitable.
With no zinger and no gaffe, the debate, will, in the end, be added to all the other long-forgotten presidential debates.
– Dr. Danny M. Adkison teaches constitutional law in the Political Science Department of Oklahoma State University and is a regular contributor to The Oklahoma Observer