If you are reading this column, you probably witnessed at least one of the two debates that aired last week. I think that Americans seem to look upon political debates as entertainment- just waiting for that "gotcha" moment that many of us have seen in some previous debates.
Let me say for the record that I am not one of the 5% of voters who are undecided in this year's Presidential election. Neither am I undecided in this year's Connecticut Senatorial contest. Yet I still found myself watching both debates with the same rapt attention as one of the 5%. Why? What was I looking for that could possibly change my mind?
Maybe the answer is simply theater. Perhaps I just wanted to witness a "gotcha moment ". Maybe I was just looking for another "Big Bird" moment from Governor Romney or the "You are no Jack Kennedy" response from Lloyd Bentsen to Senator Dan Quayle. For those too young to remember that response, both men were running for Vice President. Republican Senator Dan Quayle compared himself to President Kennedy. Lloyd Bentsen responded with "I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy."
Another gaffe witnessed by millions of viewers was President Gerald Ford's announcement that "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration." Ford then compounded this misstep by saying that the Poles were "especially independent". Jimmy Carter went on to win not only the debate, but the election as well.
Another well known "gotcha moment" was when the moderator in the 1984 debate between President Reagan and Walter Mondale suggested that the President might be too old for the rigors of office. Reagan responded, "I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience."
Body language and emotion (or lack of it) could cost you dearly in a debate-as Michael Dukakis and Al Gore would both find out. In 1988, Governor Dukakis of Massachusetts was asked this question "Governor, if Kitty Dukakis [his wife] were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?" The question obviously had deep emotional overtones. Dukakis responded with a lack of passion and emotion that took everyone by surprise. "No, I don't," said Dukakis almost matter of factly, "and I think you know that I've opposed the death penalty all my life..." In that one evening, Governor Dukakis saw his poll numbers drop from 49% to 42%. The lesson to be learned: show some feelings - especially for your wife.
In October of 2000, Jim Lehrer moderated a debate between George Bush and Al Gore. In a book that Mr. Lehrer has written, he said that "Gore shook his head, frowned, rolled his eyes, and sneered. Gore was judged the clear loser in the debate, based almost entirely on his body language and not on what he actually said," wrote Lehrer in his book Tension City. And in one other incident involving the two men, Al Gore got out of his seat, while Bush was talking, and walked over to him, got in his face, and looked quite menacing. Bush kept on talking and Gore would eventually go back to his seat and quietly invent the internet. The lessons to be learned? Show some passion, but also watch your body language.
Did any of these memorable type moments occur in either of the two debates? Probably not. In the Obama-Romney debate, Obama's main task was to prevent Governor Romney from looking presidential. Obama was not successful. Romney was in control (ask poor Jim Lehrer), he was aggressive, and he was engaged. The President, on the other hand seemed disengaged by constantly looking down at the podium and not being aggressive enough. Was this enough to change the minds of the 5%? Probably not, but it certainly has the 5% thinking. However it must be said that Romney's Big Bird comments did indeed ruffle some feathers.
Sunday morning's debate between Linda McMahon and Chris Murphy, though a sixty minute slugfest, was pretty much devoid of anything resembling the "Big Bird" comment of Governor Romney. The best that Linda could do was to cry "shame on you Chris" when he accused her of plagiarizing her tax cut programs directly from right wing sources. Linda did however bring back memories of "Camelot" and royalty when she told Murphy, "You thought this campaign was going to be a coronation......." Thank you for those memories, Linda. Still, there was nothing that came close to Big Bird losing his perch on PBS.
Stay tuned, Joe Biden will be seen and heard later this week. There's still a chance that something memorable will make those 5 percenters sit up and take notice.