“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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Superbowl Sunday or Ronald Reagan’s 100th Birthday Anniversary?


Official Portrait of President Ronald Reagan

Image via Wikipedia

Both, of course.

People today are obsessed, as always, with the Superbowl. But many will remember Ronald Reagan on this, his 100th, birthday. I returned home from church this morning just in time to watch and hear the 21-gun salute to our 40th president.

The remarkable ceremony honoring his memory at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library continues as I write this post. Nancy Reagan has greeted the audience of distinguished guests, and actor Gary Sinise has given a brief and moving tribute. James Baker, Reagan’s Chief of Staff during his presidency, has just now been introduced as the main speaker of the event.

How will you remember Reagan today?

There are many ways that you might remember the man, all of which will leave you feeling personally inspired. Read a biography, sift through his influential speeches, watch one of the movies in which he starred, view a documentary of his life and administration, pore over fotos of Reagan from different periods of his life, Google quotations for which he is well-known, find and watch a re-play of today’s tribute to Reagan that is now being broadcast from Simi Valley, CA.

Movies to see:

Documentaries:

Books:

Related posts:

“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).

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