Let us pause to praise this brief political moment of mutual admiration. Mitt Romney’s campaign staff stands in awe of Barack Obama’s political talents. “President Obama is a uniquely gifted speaker, and is widely regarded as one of the most talented political communicators in modern history,” gushed Beth Myers, one of Romney’s senior advisers, in a memo last week. “Governor Romney,” countered Obama in Las Vegas on Sunday night, “he’s a good debater. I’m just O.K.”
Can you feel the love? Come debate day in Denver on Wednesday, do not be surprised to see Obama supporters wearing Romney T-shirts and carrying “Believe in America” signs. Obama might even replace some of his attack ads with montages of Romney skewering his foes in the GOP primary debates. Would that all of the presidential campaign were so downright respectful. The nation really could come together.
But alas, like everything else in politics these days, even the praise is a house of mirrors. On Wednesday, Obama and Romney will meet for the first of three debates that will dominate the October news cycle. At the end of each, chances are high that neither man, given the enormous preparation involved in these spectacles, will have spit on the audience, uttered an obscenity or disrespected the nation he loves. These formats, truth be told, do not lend themselves to knockout punches. (Can you remember any single notable exchange between Obama and John McCain in their 2008 debates?) Yet the yen for declaring a winner and a loser by both the media and the various partisans will no doubt dominate the postdebate hours and days, making it essential for the campaigns to begin working the refs now.
To hear Romney’s people tell it, it will be an accomplishment if he speaks in complete sentences and resists the urge to drool on his tattersall shirt. To hear Obama’s people tell it, the President is simply hoping he doesn’t fall off the stage. “Well, he could fall off the stage,” said Jen Psaki, Obama’s campaign spokeswoman. (Really. She actually said that.)
All of this can be discounted. Candidates are indeed scored on a curve in debates, owing to the predilections and biases of the tens of millions of voters who tune in. But on the scorecard that matters — that of the voters who can be swayed — they will not be scored on the curves presented by the campaigns. Both candidates are, in fact, accomplished debaters who will be expected to know their stuff, speak clearly, joust with ease and present themselves as actual human beings. Neither man is simply stepping onstage to hold his own. They both intend and expect to best the other man.
If any broader grading curve exists, it has less to do with the debating talents of these men and more with the political environment that congealed in September. Obama, as it stands, is winning this election, though that standing by no means guarantees the eventual outcome. The electorate remains closely divided, and history clearly demonstrates that Romney’s deficit can be overcome.
But as in baseball and, alas, the National Football League, a tie would go to the team on offense, in this case Obama’s, so Romney will enter the hall on Wednesday with a slightly higher burden. This burden is increased by the fact that since the winter of 2011, the Romney campaign has considered the debates to be a turning point, the moment when disaffected Obama supporters can see Romney onstage with his opponent for the first time and feel comfortable passing the baton to the new guy. This is the Reagan model from 1980.
This could present some real opportunities for fireworks. For most of the past two weeks, Romney and his advisers have been telling reporters that Obama needs to be called on his misrepresentations and falsehoods. The Obama campaign has countered by saying these statements — even those declared false by independent fact checkers — are not really false. And besides, they say, Romney peddles plenty of fictions as well. “At the first debate,” Obama aide David Axelrod warns, “facts will matter.” (Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post has a fine overview of the fact checking that each candidate might unleash on the other in this debate.)
Historically, some of the best moments in debates come when candidates call each other a shyster, and then back it up. (Ronald Reagan had a good line in 1980: “There you go again.” It was so good, he returned to it four years later, though by that time, Walter Mondale was prepared.)
But fireworks do not make a blowout. In the end, the only question that matters in these debates is, Did something make voters change their mind? As it stands, we live in a country where near record numbers of voters are firmly fixed in their opinions. Except on the margins, they have shown themselves largely unwilling to shift their views. It will take a lot more than a bunch of expectation setting and postdebate spin by the campaigns to do it now. The candidates themselves will have to do it alone, onstage, face to face.