“There You Go Again”?


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?

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Live Tweeting Tonight’s Republican Presidential Debate


Doug will be live tweeting tonight’s Republican presidential debate, hosted in Jacksonville, Florida by CNN. People may be indifferent about Doug’s tweeting hobby, but he hopes you aren’t indifferent about the political future of the United States, and that you are attending to the political scene as you are able.

A decision to ignore political news until election day should be a decision not to vote on election day. Unfortunately, many who vote are uninformed or misinformed. This is a travesty against responsible citizenship in a democratic republics like ours. Those who will be debating tonight are after your vote. Watching the debate and talking with others about it is one way to stock up on the knowledge needed for responsible citizenship.

So, by tweeting the debates, Doug hopes to motivate some to join the great political conversation!

Tonight’s debate, hosted by CNN in Jacksonville, Florida is the final debate before the Florida primary on Tuesday. Many believe that Newt Gingrich clinched a major victory in South Carolina because of his performance in the debates leading up to it. Some prognosticators speculate that a bold, fresh approach tonight will signal the victor next week, and that strong or tepid performances by both Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney will make it a real horse race. The New York Times reported today that the two “are each signalling a willingness to go nuclear” tonight. If that happens, it could even be fun to watch!

To follow Doug’s live tweets, click here. The debate begins at 8:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.

Gingrich Lesson in Debate Technique: “Repeat Changers”


With so much talk about how great a debater New Gingrich is, why not watch to learn a little about rhetoric and style from the gentleman from Georgia?

Today’s lesson comes from a recent Republican presidential debate in which Rick Santorum accused Newt Gingrich of being a little grandiose at times. The key word here is “grandiose,” and it was meant to sting.

A skilled debater listens carefully for an opportunity to use a rhetorical device that Jay Heinrichs calls the “repeat changer.” Sometimes that opportunity looks and sounds more like a grave misfortune—worthy of a grunt at best, and a look of terror at worst. The repeat changer repeats the key word or phrase that was used to demean and changes its sense to reflect favorably on the original target.

When Rick Santorum described Newt as someone who can be a bit grandiose at times, he meant that Newt often exaggerates to an absurd extent and often thinks of himself in exaggerated terms. He thus sought to tap into public consciousness, shaped to a degree by recent media focus on . . . . well, Newt’s occasional grandiosity.

How did Newt respond? He did the best thing anyone can do under the circumstance: he repeated the accusation, then switched its sense, suggesting that someone may be considered grandiose because he has grand ideas, and lots of them, for improving things for the American people.

Now this may sound like equivocation. To be sure, the repeat changer does often trade on ambiguity. When it does, it is less effective. But if the shift in sense is mild—as opposed to sharp—there is no harm and no foul. In other words, no fallacy has been committed.

This can be illustrated on one interpretation of Newt Gingrich’s clever rejoinder to Rick Santorum. The basic sense of Santorum’s jibe is preserved, but Newt suggests that Santorum only thinks that Newt is grandiose because Rick is uncomfortable with the grandeur of Newt’s ideas. “Grandiosity” and “grandeur” do differ. But “grandeur” may be mistaken for “grandiosity” by someone who can’t tell the difference. If this is what Newt was getting at, his move was not merely clever, it was ingenious. He might be asking voters, in effect, “Do you want a president who has grand ideas that some confuse with grandiosity, or do you want a president who can’t tell the difference between grand and grandiose?”

In my book, rhetoric has its proper place, especially in public discourse. But it must always be tempered by virtue. So I commend the “repeat changer” when it can be managed without violating the moral and intellectual virtues.

Here’s a poll for you to register your opinion:

Was Obama Really as Comfortable as He Looked in Last Night’s Debate?


To me, last night’s debate was the third—and, mercifully, the last—in a series of lackluster debates between senators Obama and McCain. But somehow the media have managed today to cull from the regurgitation of campaign sloganeering some rich moments truly worthy of playback. Maybe it wasn’t so lackluster after all.

Could McCain have done better? Pretty much everyone agrees that he missed opportunities. That’s interesting. It means two things. The first is that McCain has a platform of strength that might really resonate with people if he could only launch his case with compelling pizzaz. Second, Obama has opened himself to some pretty withering criticism that McCain has been reluctant to exploit.

Contrast Obama. What opportunities did he pass on last night? Could he have made his policies more compellingly attractive than he did? Could he have put McCain on the defensive? I don’t think so. Obama did what he could, and all that he needed to perhaps.

Once again, Obama “looked presidential.” But did he feel as comfortble as he looked? The question can’t really be answered objectively, except by Obama, and we all know what he would say. But Obama will raise taxes during “the worst economic crises since the Great Depression”; and McCain made that stick. Obama has fraternized professionally with people most of us wouldn’t shake hands with; and McCain reminded everyone that we still don’t know who Obama really is. McCain was unequivocal in his pro-life stance, and missed an opportunity to demonstrate how radically pro-choice Obama really is. But this was not a comfortable topic for Obama. He had to nuance his way out of the spotlight while McCain beamed confidently in the background.

Obama is counting on his lead and the lateness of the hour to carry him to victory. From this point on it’s a matter of damage control. That’s one thing McCain really doesn’t have to worry about. The most seriously debilitating event for his campaign was the egghead announcement by Hank Paulsen that the sky is falling and the whole world is going to go bankrupt. Paulsen’s alarmist tactics and his timing could not have been worse. You have to wonder if he isn’t a liberal democrat himself, given the tone of his message and the nature of his proposed solution—socialize the entire market in America.

The irony is that Obama is specially vulnerable on this point, if the message gets out. He wants bigger government on every flank and surely relishes the opportunity to preside over the socializing of medicine, our economy, education, and who knows what else. But people are ticked off at government right now. It can’t be just the Republicans and the Bush administration they distrust, but the whole lot of them. So bigger government portends more to be angry about as the months and years tick by.

Obama has two other things to be worried about before the election: Nancy Pelosi and Harry Read. It is an undeniable fact that under Obama our government would be on the verge of its most controlling ever. The democrats are pro big-government. Pelosi and Read, party leaders in their respective houses in Congress, and Obama are democrates, and they are among the most liberal democrats. This is a frightening prospect for anyone who wants government to downsize.

The only way that Americans across this country can prevent unchecked government by tax-and-spend democrats is to vote for John McCain. That’s bad news for Barack Obama, and a reason to be uneasy, even if he looks presidential.

“At Least He Looks Presidential”


Any number of people would look equally presidential in the situation we witnessed tonight. Some of them are good friends of mine. They are self-possessed, have an authoritative bearing, are practiced public speakers across a full range of contexts (including debates), and could have learned everything that was said tonight in less than a week just watching a selection of Obama’s and McCain’s campaign speeches. But none of these friends of mine has any business running for president. Thankfully, they are not.

But Barack Obama and John McCain are running for president. And they both look like they could be president. It’s befuddling and disappointing that this is the single most significant factor the pundits have utilized in calculating the net result of tonight’s debate. Obama only had to look presidential to win—even if McCain also looked presidential—as long as McCain did not deliver a knock-out punch. This because Obama’s lead in critical states has lengthened. And that’s more-or-less how things turned out, if we’re to believe post-debate chatter.

What do pudits mean by a “knock-out punch”? What many of them mean is the slick delivery of a purely rhetorical zinger. An example, courtesy of Brit Hume (Fox News), is Ronald Reagan’s admittedly clever and endearing jibe about not taking advantage of Walter Mondale’s youth and inexperience.

Give me a break. Has the media gone bonkers? The most charitable spin I can put on this is to suppose that the punditocracy is merely speculating (perhaps quite plausibly) about how viewers (especially undecideds) will perceive the outcome. But that isn’t exactly what the pudits are saying. It sounds like it’s what they themselves believe. And they should know better. More than that, they would serve us better if they attempted to educate us in the proper criteria for evaluating a candidate for the presidency. Otherwise, we don’t really need them.

Maybe they think that’s what they are doing—educating us in a tradition of collective wisdom. If so, they and I disagree about what that is and what criteria matter most.

I’m of the anachronistic opinion that we need to distinguish between necessary conditions and sufficient conditions for being qualified to serve as president of the United States. Looking presidential (talk about a subjective variable) may be a necessary condition—may be. But in my judgment it is by no means a sufficient condition. A candidate must have other qualities. And among the preeminent qualities are proven experience and policies that make sense on close inspection.

That probably sounds like an endorsement of a particular candidate. But I’d like to know who disagrees with me about the criteria. “Proven experience” may be a lock for John McCain. “Policies that make sense on close inspection” will be matters of principled disagreement among those who take pains to understand proposed policies thoroughly, know what to look for in sensible policies for times like these, and have the disposition to embrace those policies.

Do you reckon you’re one of those people? I’m not sure I am. Remember that “zen-like” question the candidates had to answer at the end of the debate? “What is it that you don’t know now that you’ll have to learn after you become president?” Maybe those of us who plan to vote in November should be asking ourselves a parallel question: “What is it that we don’t know now (about the candidates) that we’ll wish we knew after one of them becomes president?” Something tells me that tonight’s debate did little to dispel our dangerous ignorance.

Our democracy is threatened by a glib populism. I suppose that’s always been true to some extent. But greater access to modern media by more people, and the dumbing down of America, is cause for concern. This can’t be what the Founding Fathers had in mind, though I’m sure they feared the possibility of its emergence.

Let’s at least think as hard as we can before we “pull the lever” (to use a quaint expression).

Do You Agree with the Charlie Gibson Doctrine?


What is the “Bush Doctrine”? Who can say? But we now know something about the “Charlie Gibson Doctrine”—which might also be called the “Elite Media Doctrine.”

Charlie Gibson was the first member of the mainstream media to interview Sarah Palin, Republican candidate for the Vice Presidency. I’m only guessing here, but I’d say Gibson was worried about how he would appear to his media colleagues during the interview. This was a much-anticipated interview and news people country-wide were overtly jealous of Gibson. So Gibson knew he was being scrutinized, and he knew what was expected of him by the media. They wanted red meat, and they got it in the form of one question in particular. He asked Governor Palin, “Do you agree with the Bush Doctrine?”

This is pandering. Why? Because Gibson wanted to please his media buddies. It’s also dirty pool. Why? Because there is no such thing as “the Bush doctrine.” But Charlie Gibson thinks there is. He stated it as follows:

“The Bush doctrine, as I understand it, is that we have the right of anticipatory self-defense, that we have the right to a preemptive strike against any other country that we think is going to attack us. Do you agree with that — the right to preemptive attack of a country that was planning an attack on America?”

Charlie Gibson should be embarrassed, not because he put the candidate on the spot, but because he didn’t know what he was talking about.

Everybody knows that the media would disapprove if Palin answered “yes” to Gibson’s question. You can tell from Gibson’s demeanor that he believed two things: (1) Palin would have to say yes, and (2) if Palin said yes this would cause trouble for the McCain campaign. Remember, Barack Obama’s singular objection to John McCain has been that a vote for McCain would be a vote for a four-year extension of the unpopular presidency of George Bush.

There’s only one other possibility, and that is that Palin wouldn’t know what to say because she didn’t know what the Bush doctrine is. That’s pretty cynical, though, and an upright media professional would simply have stated the so-called doctrine, without attributing it uniquely to President Bush, and asked if the candidate agreed with it. Imagine how things would have seemed if Charlie Gibson had asked his question that way, without trying to bait Sarah Palin into an uneasy association with a currently unpopular president. Palin could have said yes. No harm, no foul. Next question.

I know some astute observers believe that Sarah Palin faltered, ever so slightly, in response to Gibson. But there’s another way to interpret her response. Perhaps Gibson should be grateful that Sarah Palin answered graciously. The presupposition of his question was false, and yet Charlie Gibson believed it. Palin was forbearing. She did not confront him about his naivete.

We should hope that every candidate would answer an undisguised formulation of Gibson’s question in the affirmative, without equivocation or nuance. It would be shameful if a President did not adopt this view.

Teddy Roosevelt accepted it, that’s for sure. So did Abraham Lincoln, and I believe his conduct of the Civil War is evidence of it. Every President during the Cold War held firmly to this view, which is one reason why there was a Cold War.

It’s plausible to suppose that the Monroe Doctrine, stated in James Monroe’s annual message to Congress December 2, 1823, presupposes a similar commitment. Here is a passage from Monroe’s presentation nearly two hundred years ago:

Our policy in regard to Europe, which was adopted at an early stage of the wars which have so long agitated that quarter of the globe, nevertheless remains the same, which is, not to interfere in the internal concerns of any of its powers; to consider the government de facto as the legitimate government for us; to cultivate friendly relations with it, and to preserve those relations by a frank, firm, and manly policy, meeting in all instances the just claims of every power, submitting to injuries from none. But in regard to those continents circumstances are eminently and conspicuously different. It is impossible that the allied powers should extend their political system to any portion of either continent without endangering our peace and happiness; nor can anyone believe that our southern brethren, if left to themselves, would adopt it of their own accord. It is equally impossible, therefore, that we should behold such interposition in any form with indifference.

There has been some controversy about whether Franklin Delano Roosevelt knew beforehand of an imminent attack by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor and deliberately waited for the attack in order to strengthen the grounds for entering the war, which he wanted to do anyway. If the bare suggestion of that possibility is heresy, and beneath the dignity of the President, it is because the so-called “Bush doctrine” is assumed by the American people to be an axiom of American foreign policy.

George Bush, whatever his faults, was right to remind his people that he was duty-bound to protect them from imminent threat with preemptive action. It’s a shame that this required special boldness, especially in the aftermath of 9/11.

Gibson’s question, without its supercilious association with President Bush, ought to be one of the first questions that both Obama and McCain have to answer early in their upcoming debate. Their respective answers could set the tone for the rest of the debate. I wonder what Obama would say. I think we all know what McCain would say.

* * *

Note:

This post was inspired by today’s post by Dennis Prager, who writes:

“All the interview did was reconfirm that Republicans running for office run against both their Democratic opponent and the mainstream news media.

“This year it is more obvious than ever. The press’s beatification of Obama is so obvious, so constant (how many covers of Newsweek and Time has Obama been on?) that media credibility even among many non-conservatives has been hurt.

“Let me put this another way. Charlie Gibson showed far greater hostility toward the Republican vice-presidential candidate than Dan Rather did in his interview with Saddam Hussein or Mike Wallace did in his interview with Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.”

Who can disagree?

Never Say “Lipstick”


Barack Obama’s supporters recognized a smear that he didn’t intend. When he spoke of putting lipstick on a pig, the house exploded with laughter. Talk about red meat.

Only problem is, Obama didn’t mean it “that way.” And that’s Barack’s problem, not McCain’s, or Sarah Palin’s. Barack said it, paused (as he is wont to do), and his audience punctuated his remark with wild enthusiasm as if they believed it was about Sarah Palin. And right at that moment it became about Sarah Palin. And there was almost nothing Barack Obama could do about it.

The McCain campaign posted a web ad exploiting Obama’s slip. Big mistake, if you ask me. Or maybe not so big if the real “catnip for the media” (Obama’s estimation of his comment) continues to be the video of Obama’s slip and not the McCain ad.

Dennis Miller has an interesting theory about what happened. “Lady Palin,” he said, “is deep inside Obama’s mellon.” I’m from California, so let me translate. The esteemed governor Palin has become so popular and has so effectively derailed the Obama campaign that Obama can’t get her out of his head and he doesn’t know what to do.

What’s this got to do with the lipstick gaffe? Ms. Palin’s most memorable remark during her convention speech was the alleged extempore joke about the difference between a hocky mom and a pitbull. She pointed to her mouth and said, “Lipstick.” America liked that, and they liked Sarah Palin. Still do.

So the lipstick motif became a fixture of the McCain camp. Miller speculates that this motif took subliminal root in Obama’s consciousness. Without malice or forethought, the motif surfaced in the form of a long-standing aphorism. Obama’s problem is that this aphorism had never before been used in this peculiar political context.

People are beginning to speculate that Obama has a liability that could injure him in his upcoming debate with John McCain. He seems constitutionally incapable of packaging his ideas in the form of a sound byte. When commenting without a script, his statements are neither crisp nor compact. (In this respect, he is more like President Bush than John McCain is.) Obama may be thinking now that going for the spontaneous repartee may be more dangerous than his typically long-winded answers to questions he could answer with a simple “yes” or “no.”

***

By the way, suppose Obama was actually intentionally ambiguous when he said what he did. Would that really be sexist?

What say you?

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