I was on the road all day yesterday down to LA and back (more about that errand in due course), so I missed the debate after party here. One benefit of a long morning car trip on the left coast is getting to listen to Rush Limbaugh the old fashioned way on the car radio, and Limbaugh was making many of the same observations about the debate as Scott, Paul, and John here. In particular, though, Limbaugh played two excerpts about foreign policy from the 1980 Reagan-Carter debate, with Reagan in both cases eschewing the opportunity to pound Carter for Carter’s weakness. You can view the opening question and Reagan’s response here if you like, but here’s how I wrote it up in The Age of Reagan:
Reagan had joked after listening to the Democratic convention about being described as “a combination of Ebenezer Scrooge and the Mad Bomber.” “Sorry I’m late,” Reagan told an audience in New York. “I’ve been too busy making nuclear war and cutting Social Security.” And in his most earnest countenance Reagan made an eloquent plea about his pacific bona fides, which reached its crescendo in his late-October debate with Carter: “I have seen four wars in my lifetime. I’m a father of sons; I have a grandson. I don’t ever want to see another generation of young Americans bleed their lives into sandy beachheads in the Pacific, or rice paddies and jungles in Asia or the muddy battlefields of Europe.” Lou Cannon quipped that “Reagan mentioned ‘peace’ so often it sounded like he had invented the word.”
Like Reagan in 1980, Romney achieved what he needed to in the debate (appearing a plausible commander-in-chief and dispelling attacks that he’s a wannabe mad bomber), with the added bonus of making Obama look peevish. (By the way, Pat Caddell had warned the Carter campaign in a prescient memo that “the risks outweigh the possible advantages. . . There is a 75% chance that Carter will ‘lose’ the debate even if he ‘wins’ on points.”)
I long ago learned the difference between formal debate (scored by judges on strict grounds) and real debate before an audience. One of the easiest things to do is win a debate on points but lose the audience, something very much on my mind last year when debating “clean energy” before an unsympathetic audience in New York city. (Robert Bryce and I won that debate with a huge vote swing by sweeping the undecideds in the audience.) The Obama campaign clearly doesn’t get this. They really do seem to think that playing to the MSNBC base is their path to re-election.
The problem with the “base election” strategy is that it can work for Republicans because their base is actually larger. Yes, I know Democrats outnumber Republicans in voting registration, but if you look at voter inclinations by ideology, conservatives outnumber liberals almost two-to-one.
Back in 1980, one of Carter’s own aides observed that in the TV cutaway shots showing Carter while Reagan was speaking, “Jimmy looked like he was about to slug him.” Ditto Obama this week. And I’ll just add than on bayonets and horses, Obama managed to find his equivalent of Carter’s infamous “ask Amy” moment.
By the way, after the 1980 debate the Carter people, and much of the media, thought he had won. Again from The Age of Reagan:
Carter’s camp believed they won hands-down. “We won, we won,” Hamilton Jordan said immediately after the TV lights went down. So did much of the media, if only slightly. Hedrick Smith’s lead in the New York Times news story the next day said that “The Presidential debate produced no knockout blow, no disastrous gaffe and no immediate, undisputed victor,” though Smith gave the edge to Carter further down in the story. “If anyone gains politically from the Tuesday night matchup,” Morton Kondracke wrote in The New Republic, “it will be Carter. . . [B]y every measure except aw-shucks niceness, Carter was the clearly superior performer.”
Postscript: I actually saw a bunch of Romney-Ryan signs in Hwy. 101 going down to LA. This is in coastal California, folks. Preference cascade building?