So I’ve been thinking about debates.
I’ve seen a lot of them, although it’s sort of a blur of lecterns and tables and stools, with candidates standing, sitting or strolling around like Oprah. Punches and gaffes. Checked watches and sighs.
I’ve been watching them for as long as I can remember. As a child, I always demanded that bullies give me a full 30 seconds of rebuttal. “Pin the Expectations on the Candidate” was a staple at my birthday parties.
I kid. Mostly. The first debate I ever laid eyes on was in August 1987, when I was 17. It was a Democratic presidential primary debate at the Iowa State Fair. We peeked in for a few minutes. Later, I saw Paul Simon on the midway, probably the last time I’ve seen a snappy bow tie on the midway. Michael Dukakis butted ahead of me in line for a sandwich. Probably why I caucused for Dole.
I actually found an AP news story from that day.
Seven Democratic presidential hopefuls traded gentle economic jabs Sunday in a two-hour debate at the Iowa State Fair, with Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis at the center of much of the fire.
While the seven reserved most of their heavy blows for the Reagan administration, several pressed Dukakis to defend the centerpiece of his campaign: claiming credit for economic revival in his home state.
”The problem with what Governor Dukakis said is it contains no specifics whatsoever,” said Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee. ”With all due respect to my friend from Massachusetts, we need some specifics.”
Ah, a Massachusetts governor panned for his lack of specifics. So long ago.
The stakes are always high, we’re told, as they will be Wednesday night when Republican nominee Mitt Romney faces off for the first time against President Obama in Denver.
Some say it could change the game. Some insist we’re so locked in by now that it won’t matter. Besides, we’ve got countless polls to tell us who will win the race. Who needs candidates?
I actually think the first debate should be sooner, maybe around Labor Day. Why should we have to wait so long to see candidates face each other? Once the conventions end, I say, bang, it’s go time. Stop bouncing. Start mixing it up.
Or better yet, let’s have a debate on the final night of both conventions. Can you imagine the intensity of that, with each candidate having to stand before the other’s delegates? Too gladiator for you? I think we’d learn a lot about a candidate’s capacity for composure, and our capacity for civility, or lack thereof.
Maybe I’m just wishing for great debates. I’ve personally covered very few truly memorable ones.
For all the times I’ve walked into a debate hall or a press room in October hoping to see a whiplash moment, I have yet to see one. I have yet to see a candidate on the ropes or fading turn it around in a debate. It’s very tough to construct a comeback. Questions, formats and time constraints all work against a hopeful hoping for a turnaround.
GOP candidate for governor, Doug Gross, couldn’t recapture his summer momentum during debates with Gov. Tom Vilsack in 2002. GOP hopeful Jim Nussle used a final debate to uncork his claim that Democrat Chet Culver had a “secret plan” to bring back TouchPlay lottery games. His Hail Mary bounced harmlessly on the turf.
Culver, four years later, threw roundhouses until he was, literally, red in the face at Terry Branstad. Didn’t matter.
That certainly doesn’t mean it can’t happen. That’s the drama. It’s that “might” that makes the night. There’s a format, but there is really no net. It’s widely believed that George W. Bush was helped a lot by his steady performance against a sighing, eye-rolling Al Gore, whose makeup actually made him look orange during one debate. An Al-o-Lantern. Anything can happen.
Well, except maybe specific, new ideas on how, exactly, these guys would put a wobbly country back on track. I expect new lines of attack and prepackaged zingers delivered to sound spontaneously clever, but stale policy.
Maybe you have thoughts, predictions, outraged rants, etc.