Ay, Tis The Rub
Politico's Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman are not alone in believing
The kickoff presidential debate Wednesday in Denver is shaping up as do-or-die time for Mitt Romney, with the pressure intensifying this week after a flurry of swing-state polls showed President Barack Obama opening up a sizable lead.
Republicans, fretting about dwindling days for Romney to turn around his campaign, fear that if their nominee doesn’t come away with a decisive first-debate victory, he’ll continue to spiral downward and lose his last, best shot for a comeback.
The fear among donors and strategists: a break-even or so-so performance would subject Romney to a self-reinforcing cycle of criticism and pessimism in his own party that will send other Republicans fleeing and make it difficult for Romney to project a closing argument against Obama over the drumbeat of why-are-you-losing questions.
So the Mile-High face-off has gone from merely important to critical for a challenger in need of a break.
“It went from being important to being life-sustaining,” said GOP pollster Steve Lombardo, who worked for Romney in 2008. “Both from a fundraising perspective, to keep the money coming, and just a political perspective it’s huge. Romney can’t just do well and hold his own — he has to win and win decisively. If he’s at parity with the president, I don’t think that’s enough.”
There is, however, evidence from the past and simple common sense to indicate instead that of the three presidential debates, the one with the most lasting impact is likely to be the last. Blogging about presidential debates, TV critic Eric Thurm reminds us that in 1984
The first debate went uncharacteristically poorly for Reagan. The president flubbed answers to Mondale’s charges that he wanted to cut entitlement spending and seemed out of his element. He spoke softly and unconvincingly on questions about a “secret plan” to balance the budget by the end of his second term. The medium of television, which in 1980 made Reagan’s personable nature and overwhelming charisma deadly for Carter, took its toll as the president aged. Mondale was perceived to have won, though not effectively enough to seriously change the tide of the election. Reagan, however, was under pressure because of his age (73, older than any other sitting president before or since), which suddenly became an issue in the campaign.
Reagan delivered a rambling closing statement or, as described here, "displayed some confusion over closing statements, reinforcing for many viewers questions about his advanced age and his ability to govern for four more years." But that did little to close the gap between the two candidates and merely piqued voters' interests in the second debate.
At the following, and last, debate, Reagan was asked
Mr. President, I want to raise an issue that I think has been lurking out there for 2 or 3 weeks and cast it specifically in national security terms. You already are the oldest President in history. And some of your staff say you were tired after your most recent encounter with Mr. Mondale. I recall yet that President Kennedy had to go for days on end with very little sleep during the Cuban missile crisis. Is there any doubt in your mind that you would be able to function in such circumstances?
He famously responded
I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.
Game, set, match. The initial debate had whetted the interest of individuals who had, and who had not, watched the face-off and suspected that the incumbent was suffering from dementia or was simply too old to continue in the job. Voters tuned in to the second debate to determine if their concerns were real, decided (probably incorrectly) they were not, and the election turned into a rout.
If any of the debates has a lasting impact on the election, it is likely to be the last, in which the impression of the candidates will be freshest in the minds of the voters. Still, none of the debates is likely to have as significant an impact on the election as have presidential debates past, in part because of the substantially greater knowledge of both candidates possessed by the electorate in an age in which news, analysis, and opinion, from the center, left, and the right, from both traditional and non-traditional sources, is far more widespread than in the past.
The idea that Mitt Romney's only remaining shot at gaining the White House is in the debates reflects a misunderstanding within the mainstream media of the burden he bears. The resistance to reality is even more prevalent on the Republican right, which refuses to understand that its radical ideas are being rejected, preferring to blame the impending loss on one individual whom it never has trusted. As Robert Reich explains
The Republican primaries, and then the Republican convention, have shown America a party far removed from the “compassionate conservatism” the GOP tried to sell in 2000. Instead, we have a party that’s been taken over by Tea Partiers, nativists, social Darwinists, homophobes, right-wing evangelicals, and a few rich people whose only interest is to become even wealthier.
These regressives were there in 2000, to be sure. They lurked in the GOP in the 1990s, when Newt Gingrich took over the House. They were there in the 1980s, too, although Ronald Reagan’s sunny disposition gave them cover. In truth, they’ve been part of the GOP for more than half a century — but never before have they held so much sway in the party, never before have they called the shots.
The second view about Romney’s decline also explains the “negative coat-tail” effect — why so many Republicans around the country in Senate and House races are falling behind. Scott Brown, for example, is well-liked in Massachusetts. But his polls have been dropping in recent weeks because he’s had to carry the burden of the public’s increasing dislike of the Republican Party. The same is true with regard to Republican senate races in Florida, Virginia, and every other battleground state.
Romney’s failing isn’t that he’s a bad candidate. To the contrary, he’s giving this GOP exactly what it wants in a candidate. And that’s exactly the problem for Romney — as it is for every other Republican candidate — because what the GOP wants is not at all what the rest of America wants.