James Fallows has watched pretty much every debate performance that Mitt Romney and Barack Obama have ever had, and he’s written a very long piece on what we should expect in the three debates this fall. I found the article interesting, but it suffers from the assumption that substance doesn’t matter, not even a little bit. I’m fairly cynical, and my impression of how debates are won is no exception. At its simplest, the challenge is to be more likable without committing any major gaffes. George W. Bush was absolutely demolished by both Al Gore and John Kerry in his debates with them, but I doubt he really lost any net votes. It’s telling that Fallows has to go back to 1980 to find a debate that really mattered. In fact, on the presidential level, only the 1960 JFK/Nixon debate, the 1976 Ford/Carter debate, and the 1980 Carter/Reagan debate are widely believed to have had a major impact on the outcome of an election. Perhaps the second Reagan/Mondale debate helped Reagan right his ship after he seemed demented during the first.
In any case, Fallows is obsessed with body language and being on message, which Romney can carry off fairly well. But he never mentions the bare cupboard Romney will bring to the debates. He doesn’t dwell on the unlikelihood of Romney coming off as more likable than Obama. Romney’s biggest problem is that he has taken two or more sides on almost every issue under the sun. But it doesn’t help that he’s running a campaign based almost entirely on lies. He’s lying about the work requirement for Welfare. He’s lying about Obama apologizing for America. He’s lying about Obama making cuts to Medicare. Almost everything that Romney says is a distortion or an outright lie. So, when he stands up there and takes questions during the debates, he will be trying to explain why he was for abortion rights before he was against them, why he was for a health insurance mandate before he was against it, why he signed an assault weapon ban before he opposed such laws, why he was for letting Detroit go bankrupt before he tried to take credit for its rescue. And so on. And he’ll be asked to explain why his numbers don’t add up, and why he’s been lying about Obama’s record.
It’s not that substance is determinative of how debates are won. But Romney is going to be in a defensive crouch before Obama even opens his mouth. No campaigner in history has entered debate season at such a systemic disadvantage. No previous candidate has ever contradicted themselves so many times or flip-flopped half as much, and no candidate has ever built a weaker edifice based almost entirely on lies.
Romney will be relying entirely on non-substantive measures of success. Ultimately, he will win the debates if he can make people like and trust him. But he’s not likable and people don’t trust people who aren’t consistent and never tell the truth.
Obama’s job is really to avoid alienating people. He might be able to demolish Romney in the same way that Gore and Kerry demolished Bush, but he should resist the temptation. His job is to get out of the way and let Mitt Romney’s inner dick shine through.