Debates are hard to win and easy to lose.
Debates rarely change many minds unless there’s a major flub. Research over the decades has shown that debates merely reinforce what viewers already believe. People give nodding approval to their candidate of choice the way they take comfort in TV commercials for products they already own or prescription drugs they routinely take.
And 15 minutes after the debate is over, most viewers won’t remember what the candidates said but the only afterimages will be mostly how they looked and sounded. Nobody ever said that democracy in action comes easy.
But in this age of instant replay and viral assassination, the candidates’ words and thoughts hang out in the ether for at least 24 hours, if not days, to badger, haunt and taunt what might have been and said. The spin rooms, Twitter and Facebook are the modern Macbeths that kill sleep during campaigns.
The selected snippets, sliced and spliced, in context or out, can have a devastating death-by-a-thousand-cuts effect on a candidate. Consider the recent editing of a single word – socialism – out of its proper slot in a sentence and the near lethal wounding in the campaign for governor.
A slip of the tongue, a tic, a distracting mannerism, a grimace, a contemptuous curl of the lip, a crooked tie to deflect the eye, an ill-fitting suit, anything but content that will make viewers groan and the opposition cheer with glee are the stuff that make or break a political debate. Humor is risky, sarcasm is out, put-downs are definitely a loss of points, testy is a loser.
So when Gov. Larry Hogan, Republican, and Ben Jealous, Democrat, face off for their only scheduled debate Monday, Sept. 24, Hogan has much to lose and Jealous has everything to gain (the debate will be pre-taped earlier that day). It is for that very reason that frontrunners like to skimp on debates and underdogs demand as much camera time as they can cajole.
The contrasts will be stark. Hogan, after four years as a camera-ready governor, is an affable, chatty performer with all the loose ends and bric-a-brac of Maryland’s bureaucracy on the tip of his tongue. He can fake it, if need be, and few would be the wiser. Fact checker alert!
Jealous, a Rhodes scholar, is a quick sketch with a noticeably ambitious agenda. But he appears to fall victim to a campaign that often appears ill-prepared as if it never expected to win the primary. It has missed numerous opportunities to compensate with free media for its demonstrable inability to raise funds to respond to the paid media battering he’s taken from the Hogan campaign and the Republican Governors Association.
Jealous is also much more relaxed and effective in a casual setting than in the pressure-cooker of a debate format. He has struggled to overcome a lifelong and well-publicized problem with a stutter that occasionally manifests itself in the thick of a thoughtful presentation or an intense situation.
Debates used to have the afterlife of a Roman candle. But there are memorable moments and lines etched in history. Political hobbyists recall the very first one between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon mainly because of Nixon’s sweaty upper lip and Kennedy’s supreme cool under the hot lights.
Those who saw the debate on TV thought Kennedy won, and those who heard it on radio believed Nixon prevailed. And nobody – except, perhaps, historians and librarians – remembers Quemoy and Matsu, two remote Pacific islands that served as Kennedy’s red herrings in the debate.
Ronald Reagan, in 1980, knocked the stuffing out of Jimmy Carter with the line “There you go again,” while Carter was rambling on about health care.
And Walter Mondale tucked it to Gary Hart in 1984 with the popular advertising slogan, “Where’s the beef”?
And in one of the most devastating debate rejoinders ever, Lloyd Benson ripped Dan Quayle in the 1988 vice presidential debate with this characterization: “I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
In 2008, in the closely contested Democratic primary race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, Obama sniffed and delivered this condescending rejoinder: “You’re likable enough, Hillary. No doubt about it.”
Those are among the best that reside in the reliquary of memorable debate quotes. So with expectations high and delivery results low, don’t expect much more than boilerplate from Hogan and, perhaps, a risky reach for the moon from Jealous. We’ve seen part of this act before, when seven, or was it eight, or nine – who remembers, anyway? – Democrats crowded the stage in the primary debates.
For in truth, the debates, in the format in which they’re staged, are little more than boring job interviews. And the audience, at least a part of it, is viewing and waiting for one of the two to execute a colossal blunder that goes viral.
For the most part, Hogan and Jealous will be reciting – not debating – the same dull blather they’ve been spilling out for months at campaign stops, in coffee shops and at friendly receptions that have been organized and screened by their sponsors.
The Q&A format, the only showcase in which the media can function as a debate participant – does not serve voters well. It does not, for example, show candidates making decisions that affect constituents. It does not portray candidates under pressure. And it does not present candidates interacting with cabinet officials to arrive at conclusions that decide the lives and livelihoods of 6 million Marylanders.
Debates are the marching music of democracy. From Lincoln-Douglas, to Hogan-Jealous, debates have been the voices of the people ringing in the ears of their leaders. Looking down the barrel of a camera, they send those thoughts right back to we, the people.
AFTERWORD: It is perfectly clear why the Republican Governors Association spent more than $1 million on a television advertising campaign on Hogan’s behalf. The Republican governors chose Hogan as vice chairman of the National Governors Association, which automatically puts him in line to become the NGA’s chairman next year. To protect their choice, they’ve had to chip in to try and help get him reelected. The RGA did the dirty work of knee-capping Jealous to relieve the Hogan campaign of the onerous chore.
Under the NGA’s rules, the chairmanship alternates political parties annually. Each political component of the NGA chooses the officers to represent it. For example, the Democrats chose this year’s chairman with whom Hogan will serve, and when Hogan, the Republican, is chairman, the Democratic governors will choose the vice chairman from among their ranks to succeed Hogan.
It had always been an unwritten rule of the NGA that governors who were up for reelection would not be chosen for executive positions within the organization. This year, however, there are a number of Republican governors who are in closely contested elections, so the Republican governors apparently considered electability a factor in their choice of next year’s NGA chairman. And they spent lavishly to reinforce it.