Why the first Obama-Romney debate will be about policy, not values

Walter Shapiro
Yahoo! News

Fifty-two years ago, in the studios of WBBM in Chicago, Richard Nixon rejected theatrical makeup to cover his dark stubble and opted instead for a dusting of a powdery substance called Lazy Shave. When the cameras went on for that inaugural 1960 presidential debate, John Kennedy projected youthful vigor and Nixon looked like the sinister figure emerging from the political sewer in a Herblock cartoon in The Washington Post.

The mythology surrounding the Kennedy-Nixon debates has underscored the obvious truth of the television age: Visuals matter. But there is also a less obvious debate lesson from half a century ago – preparation matters as much as looks. A well-rested Kennedy stretched out on the bed in his hotel suite and batted around likely questions with aides as if he were preparing for a Harvard exam. Nixon, exhausted from his campaign travels, spent a few pre-debate hours alone with his yellow legal pad.

For all the hype, presidential debates are not windows into the souls of the candidates nor are they precisely etched character sketches. Instead, they are endurance contests shaped by rehearsal, memorization and salesmanship. It is why debates offer clues about how the next president may make policy decisions in the Oval Office, but provide little new information about the values that animate the candidates.

In reality, there has been only one truly spontaneous moment during the fall presidential debates – and it reflected badly on both candidates. During the first 1976 debate between accidental President Jerry Ford and unlikely Democratic nominee Jimmy Carter, the audio feed from Philadelphia’s Walnut Theater went off for an excruciating 27 minutes. During the entire time, reflecting a total failure of self-confident improvisation, both over-rehearsed candidates stood awkwardly behind their lecterns as if tethered to the spot.

This history helps explain why the trail is pretty cold when you search for revealing moments from Barack Obama’s and Mitt Romney’s voluminous debate histories. Both men are far too methodical for much free-range ad libbing with the presidency at stake. Sure, Obama during the run-up to the 2008 New Hampshire primary superciliously described Hillary Clinton as “likable enough.” And, yes, last December the deep-pocketed Romney offered to bet Rick Perry $10,000, which is more mad money than most voters have available for impromptu wagers.

But these are character traits that Obama and Romney have frequently exposed in other settings. For a whiff of Obama’s arrogance, try his July CBS interview when the president suggested that his only real mistake in office was “thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right.” In similar fashion, the GOP primaries were littered with examples of Romney flashing his bankroll whether he was talking about his wife’s Cadillacs or bragging about his friendships with NASCAR team owners. 

Tuesday night, perhaps in an effort to influence the atmospherics surrounding the debate, three conservative media outlets (Fox News, the Drudge Report and the Daily Caller) ballyhooed a 2007 Obama speech to a group of black ministers as a smoking-gun exposé of the president’s character.

In truth, there is nothing new about the Obama speech since it has been broadcast before -- on Fox News, no less. Obama’s “shout out” to his now-disowned former minister Jeremiah Wright is a trifle embarrassing. And maybe, in retrospect, Obama went too far in implying that race played a role in the abandonment of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. But if there were indeed a secret Obama agenda embedded in this 5-year-old televised speech, logic suggests that it would have come out during the president’s tenure in the Oval Office.

What Republican and Democratic partisans often fail to understand is that there are no do-overs in presidential politics. Voters judge an incumbent president running for reelection on his time in office – and not his pre-White House record.

Look at recent history. No one was ridiculing Ronald Reagan as an actor during his 1984 reelection campaign. The Iran-contra scandal dogged George H.W. Bush during his 1988 race, but was almost never mentioned during his ill-fated 1992 drive for a second term. Bill Clinton’s dubious investment in an ill-fated Arkansas development called Whitewater was headline material in 1992, but it was a non-issue in 1996. And – despite the efforts of Dan Rather to ignite a scandal – George W. Bush’s stateside Vietnam service in the National Guard did not cost the incumbent president a single vote in 2004.

So it is a safe bet that the two words, Jeremiah Wright, are unlikely to be uttered during tonight’s debate. There will, to be sure, fireworks between Obama and Romney. But their differences are apt to be primarily over their rival policy visions for America. As for lasting character insights, they have never been what presidential debates have been about. And that has been the case since Kennedy and Nixon made political history in a Chicago TV studio on the evening of Sept. 26, 1960.