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How Important Are Presidential Debates?

Almost immediately after he claimed the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, Mitt Romney retreated to a Vermont hideaway to begin preparing for tonight’s debate and the two that will follow.

I suspect that when the histories of this year’s campaign are written, much will be made of that fact.

If Romney wins, and particularly if the debates are seen as a turning point in the campaign, his approach will be vindicated. He will be seen as the methodical, data-driven businessman who translated his success from commerce to politics.

But if Romney loses, his focus on debate preparation will be viewed as a strategic miscalculation, akin to a football coach who keeps his best players off the field for three quarters to avoid injury and fatigue, planning to win the game with a late rally. It’s a strategy that could work, but that probably won’t.

Romney was focused on, or possibly obsessed with, these debates for a long time - even before the GOP convention in August. He was reported to have begun his training back in early summer.

Clearly, Romney believes these debates can help put him in the White House. Let’s ask ourselves the question Romney has probably asked: How much did past presidential debates matter? Let’s also ask the question Romney should have asked, but probably didn’t: how much past presidential debates have mattered to candidates like Romney.

On at least three occasions, televised debates have been seen, in hindsight, as crucial to a challenger’s successful campaign. The first and most famous was in 1960, when John F. Kennedy - young, inexperienced and, significant at the time, Catholic - went up against Richard Nixon, the two-term vice president and presumed political heir to war hero Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Pollsters tell us that many Americans who heard the debate via radio thought Nixon performed better. But those who watched on television saw a haggard, perspiring vice president next to a handsome, confident young senator who seemed at least equally at home on the debate stage, and presumably on the world stage, as his competitor. After months of the Obama campaign trying to portray Romney as unqualified for the position he seeks, Romney probably longs for some of that Kennedy magic.

But Romney is not Kennedy, and more significantly, Obama is not Nixon. Obama will look and sound as good as Romney, at least if you disregard the content of his words. Moreover, his attacks on Romney have only partly been about Romney’s experience; Obama has generally focused on Romney’s successful background and privileged upbringing. I doubt it ever occurred to Nixon, a man of humble origins, to attack Kennedy’s family wealth and his father’s stewardship of his political career. Such attacks would not have gone over especially well in Republican circles anyway.

Kennedy was a charming man and a skilled communicator. The camera played to his strengths and revealed Nixon’s relative weakness. Romney cannot expect to replicate that advantage.

In 1976, Gerald Ford committed one of the most famous gaffes in debate history by asserting that the Soviet Union did not dominate its fellow Warsaw Pact countries in Eastern Europe. He made this point about Yugoslavia, which was not a Warsaw Pact country; about Romania, which was a member, but had a mercurial leader who often went his own way within the maneuvering room Moscow allowed; and also about Poland, a country that was directly under the Soviet thumb - and which was well-known to a large Polish-American community.

Ford’s brain freeze came just eight years after the Soviets and their reluctant allies had marched into a liberalizing Czechoslovakia, and just 20 years after Soviet tanks rolled through the streets of Budapest. The haunting broadcast of the Hungarian rebels’ fruitless pleas for Western help was still practically ringing in our ears. (“This is Hungary calling. This is Hungary calling. The last remaining station. We are requesting you to send us immediate aid, in the form of parachute troops over the trans-Danubian promises. For the sake of God, let freedom help Hungary!”)

Without uttering a word, Jimmy Carter was able to present himself as the man better prepared to confront the Soviets at the height of the Cold War, and he went on to win the election.

But was the debate responsible for Carter’s win? Illinois is home, then and now, to America’s largest Polish population, and Chicago had a powerful Democratic machine - but Ford won Illinois anyway. He also won his native Michigan, along with Connecticut, New Jersey, the three northern New England states, and - except for Texas and Hawaii - every state from the Great Plains westward, including California. Carter defeated Ford by taking key industrial states, including New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio, and by winning the entire South except for Virginia. Mississippi put Carter over the top in the Electoral College. It’s not likely that Southern voters were voting against Ford because of their deep concern for Poland; it’s much more likely that Carter won the South because he was a peanut farmer, and former governor, from Georgia.

Ford’s gaffe, as it turned out, mattered much more to pundits than to actual voters.

Ronald Reagan is probably the role model Romney is looking toward most directly. His closing speech in the final 1980 debate, which I wrote about recently, was also seen as a major turning point in the campaign.

But, like Kennedy, Reagan was a skilled communicator, a man of casual warmth and charm that came across naturally on camera. Romney, data-driven and detail-oriented, is more like Carter than Reagan in temperament, though not in approach. Romney may suffer the fate Nixon suffered: His words may have more substance, but the words will matter less than the image.

Finally, there is one debate Romney may not have considered but should have. In 1988, an intellectual former Massachusetts governor by the name of Michael Dukakis was asked whether he would want the death penalty for someone who had hypothetically raped and murdered Dukakis’ wife, Kitty.

Dukakis, a Democrat who opposed the death penalty, said he would not. It was a coherent and correct answer to an unfair question, but it may have convinced voters that Dukakis was a man whose mind was a stranger to his heart. A better response would have been for Dukakis to tell his questioner, CNN’s Bernard Shaw, that of course he would want the death penalty in that situation, which is why a civilized legal system should not allow capital punishment, which is more about vengeance than justice.

Vice President George H.W. Bush, the pseudo-incumbent with a long resume, who favored the death penalty, went on to defeat Dukakis that year.

The Obama campaign has labored for months to define Romney as a self-interested plutocrat, unaware of, or unconcerned by, the conditions in which ordinary Americans live. The antidote for that is for Romney himself to tell Americans how his policies would make their lives better than Obama’s have; to explain that his wealth gives him the freedom to run for office and give to charity in order to enrich the lives of others; and to admit that he just cannot get enthused by junk-food slogans such as “hope” and “change” and “forward.” That makes him a boring guy, for which he can apologize, but he can and should ask voters to consider whether it also makes him the guy they want to put in charge.

Romney is asking a lot if he expects voters to derive all this from his performance in three televised debates, in lieu of weeks on the campaign trail. History suggests that the strategy might work, but the odds are that it won’t.

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