October 1, 2012 3 Comments
Pundits seem almost universally agreed that Mitt Romney needs to have a “Reagan moment” in his first debate with President Obama, now just two days away. The moment they have in mind is when Ronald Reagan said, in response to incumbent Jimmy Carter about misrepresentations of Reagan’s record and platform, “There you go again.” I remember that moment. It was timely and it was compelling.
Now, several decades later, Reagan’s words probably don’t have quite the ringing effect for young adults born since then. I myself have to recall the political climate at the time and Reagan’s uncommon demeanor in the moment to appreciate how effective those words were. (Reference to Reagan’s thumping of Carter has become something of a nostalgic rostrum. Many have probably over-rated that particular moment in judging that it was the turning point, very late in the campaign, giving Reagan an advantage over Carter. I think people felt, in the last analysis, that Jimmy Carter just couldn’t be trusted with a second term. Sound familiar?)
What matters in the immediate political climate—infused with media “coverage”—is that the stakes have been raised for Romney in the upcoming debate. He has to convince people that he can walk on water. Better yet if he can demonstrate his power to walk on water by doing it onstage. That’s all we ask. If he can manage that, then he might get our attention, we might think about voting for him, and a few of us might even actually vote for him.
This is silly. But it’s reality.
So I’ve been thinking about what Romney could say that would achieve the expected (or desired) effect. But is this the right concern? Let’s remember that Reagan spoke with apparent spontaneity in his remark. And it may well have been spontaneous. If so, Reagan had to have enjoined the debate with such a frame of mind that he could say, with such intensity and frankness, what he did when Carter kept up the spin.
Maybe the lesson to be learned, then, is that Romney needs to have the right instincts, cultivated by months of campaigning and by his knowledge of current events and Obama’s response, as he walks onto the dais to go toe-to-toe with the President.
One risk for any debater is a kind of “over-preparation.” In one sense, you can never over-prepare. But it is possible for a debater’s extensive preparation to hamstring his performance during a debate. One reason is that spontaneity may be compromised. And spontaneity, when well-timed delivery is good, is powerfully persuasive.
Romney needs, at least, to do two things during his preparation. First, he needs to be prepared for whatever can reasonably be expected from Obama, both in terms of his attack on Romney and in terms of his defense of his own Presidency. Second, he needs to be clear about what he can do to control the agenda and get the upper hand during the debate. (Of course, Obama needs to prepare in the same way, but there are reasons to think that Obama is at a disadvantage if Romney is effective. If Romney presents well, and Obama struts the usual stuff, there is the possibility that Obama’s presumed presentation skills will appear to be a dance around the tough issues. In other words, speaking in his usual formidable style may, ironically, cause Obama trouble. It may be observers’ perception, “There he goes again!”)
Reagan said, “There you go again.” Romney doesn’t need a cute, canned sound bite that could be his undoing if it isn’t delivered properly. He needs to be relaxed and comfortable with himself, unintimidated by the President. If he rehearses what he believes deep down to be Obama’s greatest vulnerabilities, if he is in touch with his deepest convictions about the risks we face and what needs to be done about them, then he won’t be intimidated. Nothing is more effective than the courage of one’s convictions.
Nevertheless, Romney could be effective if he finds a way to say, not “There you go again,” but “Here we go again,” in reference to the pile-up of unpalatable effects of Obama-style leadership. Romney should be able to recite what many perceive to be mistakes made during the past four years. The most recent event in the litany is the recent debacle in the Middle East, including the murder of an under-protected American Ambassador and the conflagration that threatens to worsen. “Here we go again. And we, the American people, can’t take much more of this.” This is what we should be thinking after this first debate, and Romney has a prime-time opportunity to make it happen. We should be wondering, “Does anybody really know what an Obama second term would be like?” The first term wasn’t like many who voted for him expected. Have they learned that they still have no idea what to expect?