Political junkies will recall that then-Vice President George H.W. Bush bragged after his 1984 debate in Philadelphia with Democratic counterpart Geraldine Ferraro that he “had tried to kick a little ass.” Opinions were mixed on whether he had accomplished that feat against the congresswoman, who was a former prosecutor and first female nominee on a national ticket.
But 28 years later and a couple hundred miles away, one thing is certain:
Early this month in the span of less than four days, Connecticut voters were treated a pair of lopsided, poll-changing debates — butt-kickin’ affairs that left blood on the floor and supporters of the losers scratching their heads in disbelief.
Last Wednesday in Denver, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney performed exceedingly well. Now you’d think that would be a hell of an accomplishment — talking circles around an incumbent president. But this was a piece of cake. Barack Obama looked like was trying to play the part of the invisible prop in Clint Eastwood’s farcical speech at the Republican National Convention — an empty chair.
Some of the president’s supporters were remarkably candid in their assessment of Obama’s performance. My friend and former colleague, Winsted Journal editor Michael Marciano, posted on Facebook that it was an “Uneven performance by the president. He sounded like he drank a bottle of Robitussin.”
One member of Team Obama, chief strategist David Axelrod, explained that the president had showed up expecting “an honest discussion . . . was earnestly trying to answer questions,” but was “taken aback by the brazenness” of Romney’s “dishonesty.”
Others argued that Obama, steeped as he is in the nuances and details of public policy, struggled with showcasing that vast knowledge in a facile forum such as a televised debate where sound bytes are the order of the day.
Translation: Obama is simply too smart and too honest to be an effective debater. If so, why didn’t he use that knowledge to his advantage? At one point, the president mumbled something about getting rid of business tax deductions “for moving a plant overseas.” Romney said that in his long business career he had never heard of such a tax break for businesses. Obama couldn’t respond because he didn’t know anything about the tax provision beyond that one flimsy talking point. So much for the notion that he’s too smart to debate effectively.
Two thousand miles away at WFSB studios in Rocky Hill, another candidate for high office was rattled by her lack of knowledge. Republican Linda McMahon, former professional wrestling CEO, got into a brawl with someone who can fight back. No, not with the faux punches and injury-sparing body slams used by WWE wrestlers, but the kind that sting and have devastating consequences.
At Sunday’s debate for U.S. Senate candidates, incumbent Democratic Congressman Chris Murphy came armed with knowledge and ready to throw his intellectual weight around. Murphy looked peeved at having to share the stage with lightweight McMahon, at whom he continuously sneered from his perch on an adjacent podium.
McMahon was full of platitudes about “bipartisanship” and her “plan.” After a particularly vacuous answer to a Social Security question, an exasperated Murphy looked to moderator Dennis House and said, “That was a minute and thirty seconds of ‘I’m not going to tell you what I’m going to do if you elect me.’”
McMahon countered with a few shots at Murphy for his failure to make his rent and mortgage payments, but the punches failed to connect, as McMahon later answered a question about her newfound support for same-sex marriage with “I absolutely support America’s law for same sex marriage.” Of course, there is no national law permitting gay marriage. Indeed the Defense of Marriage Act bars federal recognition of such unions.
I’ll give McMahon a little credit. Unlike Obama, she looked like she actually wanted to be there. But very much like Obama, she had been shielded by her handlers from tough questions and was ill-equipped for a forum with an aggressive opponent willing to challenge her at every turn.
The polls then shifted. After consistently trailing by a few points, Romney opened up a four-point lead in a Pew national poll taken after the debate. Romney also pulled to within six points of Obama in Connecticut, while the Murphy-McMahon race went from a dead heat to a five-point Murphy lead, according to Rasmussen.
Lesson: Debates matter. Show up ready for a fight and know your stuff. Stop avoiding reporters during the campaign, lest you grow rusty and complacent. Forget Letterman and The View. And most of all, don’t act like you’re entitled to anything by virtue of who you are.
Terry Cowgill blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com, is the editor of ctessentialpolitics.com and was an award-winning editor and senior writer for The Lakeville Journal Company. He can be found on Twitter @terrycowgill.