Changing the Debate No Game Changer
Everyone from MoveOn and DailyKos to Pajamas Media and Next Right to Wikipedia and Reddit are begging Barack Obama and John McCain to change the rules so that the third debate won’t be so mind numbingly boring as the first two.
It’s not going to happen: The “debates” are boring precisely because both candidates’ reps negotiated the rules in such a way as to minimize the chance of their guy screwing up. McCain might be willing to go for something more freewheeling at this point, given that he’s got a lot of ground to make up, but it’s almost inconceivable that Obama will go along.
No matter. As Walter Mears, who’s been covering these things since well before I was born, reminds us the last debate never matters unless it’s also the first. And sometimes not even then.
That is in large part because the debates tend to reinforce impressions and opinions rather than to change them markedly. The first President Bush probably wouldn’t have suffered so severely for glancing at his watch in a 1992 TV debate but for the impression that he was disengaged and out of touch. Bush got one more chance in a third debate, but it didn’t help. Bill Clinton and Ross Perot took turns criticizing him, and Clinton held his plurality in the polls and in the election.
When Michael Dukakis got an ambush question — whether he’d change his view on capital punishment if his wife were raped and murdered — he said no, dryly, he’d still be against the death penalty. That fit the adverse image of the emotionless bureaucrat, which was the way Republicans wanted Dukakis viewed.
John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon debated four times in 1960, but the first in the series is the only one much remembered now. That was the night a haggard Nixon looked terrible on television, to Kennedy’s lasting advantage. Their final debate was notable because Kennedy had just advocated U.S. support for Cuban forces in exile who might overthrow Fidel Castro. In the debate, Nixon called the idea dangerous, although he actually supported secret administration planning for such operations. The upshot, after Kennedy became president, was the failed invasion attempt at the Bay of Pigs.
In 1976, the next campaign in which candidates debated, President Gerald R. Ford made a debilitating mistake in the second debate by claiming there was no Soviet domination of eastern Europe. Jimmy Carter capitalized on the blunder, and Ford couldn’t fashion a comeback in their third debate. It was a subdued standoff, to Carter’s advantage.
McCain’s doing so badly at this point that he’s got folks like Christopher Buckley rooting for the other team. He’s down to running ads (and having his ignoramus of a VP nominee) accusing his opponent of being a terrorist sympathizer.
I honestly don’t know what a “game changer” looks like at this point.