A Lot of Sizzle, Likely Not a Lot of Steak...

Paul Evans

There will be a fair amount of sizzle in the build-up, but likely not so much steak tomorrow evening in Denver.

The quadrennial “ritual” will be far more revealing for what does not happen than what does.

President Obama will likely not talk down to – lecture – America or Mitt Romney.

And for his part, Mitt Romney will likely not stumble, offer a $10,000 bet, or otherwise embarrass the Grand Old Party.

There will be sufficient “on camera” drama for the pundits to fill air time with and the respective political operatives to spin – but the debate will not change the course of the 2012 Presidential Campaign.

Both must appear to be “Presidential” because our nation is in crisis. This requirement constrains the reasonable options for the challenger – and for the incumbent.

History reminds us that challengers can “win” a debate (see Mondale in 84, Kerry in 04) and still not transform the electoral calculus once the electorate is convinced the incumbent is still competent (enough) and likable (enough) to serve.

In recent times, incumbents that have lost reelection defeated themselves. In most cases the challengers that were successful mastered the art of patience – allowing the incumbent to fall and taking advantage of it.

Ford could not escape the shadow of Richard Nixon. Carter could not convince Americans that he was a steady hand during crises (either economic, or foreign). George Bush (the father) was not likable or personable enough – during a structural recession.

Reagan, Clinton, and Bush (the son) demonstrated an ability to respond to crisis and do so with personality and humanity – they had a bond with the American public that was more important than policy or politics.

Whatever the failures of the last Bush Administration (and there were many), few can doubt his connection with the American people during the months immediately after 9/11.

It is easy to forget the role we ask of our President: as head of state and head of government, we demand benevolence of our elected steward.

Americans make our choices with our heads and our hearts; we hope for idealistically driven realists that can deliver – even when we cannot muster the spirit to do our part.

Obama understands the role of Presidency and this gives him the edge. It is the reason he has remained slightly ahead in the polls throughout the contest; it is the reason he will earn reelection this November.

In many ways Obama is a modern Woodrow Wilson: a politician-professor with intellect and common sense (enough) to pay attention to the things Americans believe need to be accomplished – even as he seeks to invent a structure and system for a new age.

Make no mistake; Romney is keenly aware of what must be done to change the narrative of 2012. There is no doubt that Obama will take a few shots tomorrow night. But he will counter with some of his own.

These are well-spoken men at the top of their game; there will not be amateurish behavior, there will not be the kind of missteps the 24/7 news culture thrives upon turning into spectacle.

The prospects of a knock-out punch by either candidate always remain a possibility, but this year it is a dim possibility.

We will see two educated politicians seeking a competitive advantage – little more or less.

In the end, Romney may realize the kind of short-term bounce (perhaps 2% nationally, 4% in “swing states”) most challengers enjoy following the first skirmish with “the leader of the free world.”

But it will be over almost before it began.

These bounces are ephemeral. The second debate will go better for the incumbent (they almost always do). And the fundamentals of this election remain.

The American public is aware of the challenges our President has faced. They are impatient and unhappy, but most of the time – the public is just.

8% unemployment would be sufficient to defeat incumbents during normal circumstances, but the fact that Obama has sustained a lead (however slight) demonstrates the capacity of the public to see his actions in context.

These debates will fade and America will reelect Obama. The question then becomes, will America provide Obama with a responsible Congress for the necessary work ahead.

This is the question that cannot, will not be answered in the coming debates.

But it remains the most profound question facing our nation this election year: the answer will determine the fate of our America, the promise of our Oregon.

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    I have only one problem with your piece. Could you not use the appropriate pronoun "who" to describe human beings rather than the word "that" which should be used with inanimate objects?

    "In recent times, incumbents that have lost reelection defeated themselves. In most cases the challengers that were successful mastered the art of patience – allowing the incumbent to fall and taking advantage of it"

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    Romney has a greater liability in that he has steadfastly evaded any direct answers on his actual proposals on such issues as his voucher plan for Medicare and his plans for tax breaks for the wealthy, and program cuts in Medicaid and Veteran's benefits. Such evasion is harder to maintain and doesn't play well in a nationally televised debate.

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    Of course we aren't going to see any substantial policy positions! That hasn't been part of the presidential debates since... Harding? Which is a shame, as these two men especially I think could have a wonderful debate rather then the pre-evaluated set-piece that it has become.

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    Hmm. Maybe now we'll get to know the real Romney. I mean, he's only been running for 6 years and has told us zero about his resume. But then, he's consistent. We know zero about specifics about his policies...

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    Debates don't affect election outcomes:

    "No candidate who was leading in the polls six weeks before the election has lost the popular vote since Thomas Dewey in 1948, according to Wlezien and Robert Erikson, a political science professor at Columbia University. They studied polling data going back to 1952 and computed a running average “poll of polls” for each presidential election.'


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