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.

FILED UNDER: 2008 Election, Political Theory, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Brett says:

    If the economy somehow worked through all the crap and took a large upswing before November 4, or if some really weird issue comes out of left field from Obama’s personal life, then McCain might get a game changer. Good luck getting either of those, though.

  2. sam says:

    Maybe if real big scary alien spaceships appeared over the major cities of the world and started vaporizing them. That might work.

  3. Triumph says:

    First of all, the only reason McCain is behind in the polls is because the liberals control the media. They should be telling the true story about Hussein: that he personally caused the credit crisis and probably was short-selling stock in order to fund the terrorist activities of his pal, Bill Ayers, and to help publish more of Jeremiah Wright’s fatwahs.

    Secondly, calling Palin an “ignoramus” is just plain sexist. Sure, she isn’t the sharpest pencil in the box, but she has executive experience, she has saved us from Russian invasion, she has shot invasive Canadian wildlife, and she is a Hockey Mom.

    She is a tough cookie and damn ready to lead.

  4. Tad says:

    Sure, she isn’t the sharpest pencil in the box, but she has executive experience, she has saved us from Russian invasion, she has shot invasive Canadian wildlife, and she is a Hockey Mom.

    My natural assumption to this would be sarcasm…but I think you actually mean that. What….amongst the rest of what doesn’t qualify some one to be Vp….What Russian invasion are you talking about?

    This is the moment that real honest conservatives need to take advantage of. We need to realize that Republican has long since not meant conservative, at least not conservative government. The ‘game changer’ is back to WFB’s getting rid of the crazies, and bringing us back to intellectual conservatives. The disaster that this campaign has become could, could, be the kettle of a return to a real conservative movement.

  5. Triumph says:

    What Russian invasion are you talking about?

    Palin is the commander-in-chief of the Alaskan National Guard. As she says, “as Putin rears his ugly head and comes into the air space of the United States of America” he comes into Alaska.

    Since Putin hasn’t been able to rear his head into Alaska, it is likely because he’s scared of Palin. She’s skinned a moose for crissakes–Putin knows better.

    Hussein, on the other hand, eats arugula–there is no way in hell Putin will be scared of that! If Hussein wins we can expect a Russian invasion to be forthcoming. In fact, Hussein will likely put his presumptive Secretary of Defense, Bill Ayers, and his presumptive Secretary of State, Jeremiah Wright, on the case of Russian relations and they will actually be INVITED to occupy the country.

    These guys are one with the evildoers.

  6. Tad says:

    I’m sorry but I don’t know weather your response is either a joke or remarkably ignorant/stupid. I’m going to go with a joke for now as the polite guess. Otherwise, I do apologize for my assumption of decent humanity, I’ve been wrong before.

  7. Michael says:

    Triumph is here to provide humor, don’t take him seriously.

  8. tom p says:

    Tad: read between the lines… SARCASM!!!!

    James: A game changer at this point looks like a nuclear armed N Korea, an Iran that is working towards the same, an Iraq with out any political solution on the horizon, an Afghanistan in total meltdown, an economy the same, a health care system that is bankrupt, a gov’t heading for the same, the rich getting richer while the middle class take on a 2nd and even 3rd job so they can hold onto their house, hmmm… should I even mention social security or medicare?

    Oh, wait a minute, those game changers have already happened…

    My bad.

  9. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    James, since you call a governor of a state an ignoramous, what office is it that you hold? She is more popular and successful at life and politics than you will ever be. I guess that is what happens when you are in the tank for Obama. I am glad I avoided the indoctrination necessary to earn a doctorate.

  10. He’s down to running ads (and having his ignoramus of a VP nominee) accusing his opponent of being a terrorist sympathizer.

    Ignoramus? You’re losing me James. No great loss, I know, but come on.

  11. Billy says:

    I am glad I avoided the indoctrination necessary to earn a doctorate.

    Well, you certainly avoided several things necessary to earn a doctorate, but indoctrination would be far below “observation skills” and “intelligence” on that list.

    How’d that Secret Service cavity search treat you?

  12. just me says:

    The problem is that McCain’s fate isn’t in his own hands and hasn’t been for a while, and when the economy tanked it got even more so.

    This is, and I think at least, always has been Obama’s race to lose.

    If there is a game changer it isn’t going to be something McCain does that changes it, but something Obama does that turns the voters against him.

    Granted if that happens I hope McCain wins by a lot or we will have another four years of “they cheated” cries to deal with. Although i sort of think we will get those no matter what with all the ACORN stuff.

  13. Michael says:

    If there is a game changer it isn’t going to be something McCain does that changes it, but something Obama does that turns the voters against him.

    Or something somebody else does that makes Obama unelectable.

  14. rjjrdq says:

    Wow, these comments are nastier than a Wisconsin rally…

  15. Beldar says:


    I’m very disappointed in you, Dr. Joyner. It doesn’t change my opinions of Gov. Palin, but it does, I’m sorry to say, change mine of you.

  16. Davebo says:

    I have to concur with others. Ignoramus is over the top James. We should stick with Bimbo Hail Mary out of respect for the Gov.

  17. tom p says:

    I agree with others here. Ignoramous is a little over the top when referring to Gov. Palin. That title belongs to the guy who picked her for VP.

  18. sam says:

    ‘Ignoramoose’, I think, is the Alaskan spelling. Derives from the Inuit for ‘she who must be obeyed’. Just ask the First Dude…and consult the Alaska legislature’s report on Queen Sarah’s conduct in office.

  19. Michael says:

    James is probably just sad and a bit upset that the guy he was cheering so hard for throughout the GOP primary has turned into such a disappointment as a candidate and as a person.

  20. mannning says:

    the real game changer is here.

  21. anjin-san says:

    Wow Manning, that is good stuff. Do you have anything on the location of Jimmy Hoffa’s body?

  22. sam says:

    I like this tag just before the video:

    Watch it and see what you think.

    I predict that anyone watching that video and believing one word of it will show almost zero activity on an fMRI scan.

  23. mannning says:

    Let me put it this way. No one posting here really knows the truth about Obama’s birthplace. It is now up to the courts to decide whether this lawsuit has merit or not. If it does have merit, then we must pay close attention to the outcome.

    I find it reprehensible that anyone would prejudge the outcome without any access to the supporting data, or the opposition data. Such a position means that you are in the tank for Obama, in my opinion.

  24. mannning says:

    Do you, angin-san? Silly thought!

    You are illustrating my point perfectly: Dems are not going to listen to any challenges to the legitimacy of Obama’s run. They merely think they can layer any Obama sins over with invective and redicule, or stonewall the issue. I hope to God that isn’t the case in this court battle. America deserves the truth here, not a whitewash.

    Or, do you think we don’t need to know, angin-san?
    You yourself do not possess any evidence in this matter.

  25. glasnost says:

    Good for you, James. Call a spade a spade. By all demonstrations, she’s incapable of doing more than reciting spoon-fed platitudes about any imaginable policy. She reads off lines like a fourth-grader in a school play describing atomic physics. And neutral obsevers – i.e non maniacal liberal-haters – know that already.