If there’s a common takeaway from the four debates of this presidential cycle, it’s the indiscipline of Barack Obama and Joe Biden. The problem manifested itself in different ways in different debates.
In the first debate, Obama apparently lacked the discipline to treat the event with the seriousness it required. He seemed comparatively unprepared, unwilling to treat Romney as a serious opponent until it was too late, and unable even to strike a serious pose for the camera.
Biden’s performance in the vice presidential debate became an instant legend in the annals of indiscipline. Clueless Joe could not refrain from smirking, from interrupting, or from gratuitous nastiness. He thereby cost himself a victory.
With his presidency on the line in the third debate, Obama managed to remain mostly under control. Yet the president couldn’t refrain from asking Candy Crowley to repeat her endorsement of his misleading claim that he called the Benghazi attack terrorism the day after it happened. Thus, we were treated to the spectacle of the President of the United States pleading with a television personality for additional intervention – a plea that resulted in Crowley retreating somewhat from her initial, supportive position.
And let’s not forget that the Democrats in the audience lacked the discipline to refrain from cheering like children when Crowley initially vouched for Obama.
Last night, with his presidency seeming to slip away, Obama was less disciplined than during the third debate. Like an arrogant athlete, he attempted at times to intimidate Romney with a glare. It didn’t work. He interrupted Romney several times. It didn’t work.
Moreover, Obama lacked the discipline to resist taking small, cheap, unpresidential shots at Romney. The worst of these was his wisecrack about the military not needing lots of ships, just as it doesn’t need many horses and bayonets. The opportunity to sound clever, and to talk down to Romney in such a snide way, struck Obama as too good to pass up.
Unfortunately for the president, Romney had already shown that the Navy wants more ships than Obama is providing. So Obama was really talking down to the Navy as much as to Romney.
With this one piece of indiscipline, Obama probably kissed Virginia’s electoral votes goodbye. But Virginia already seemed to be slipping away. More importantly, so is Obama’s image as a presidential figure.
Do the undisciplined performances of Obama and Biden point to larger reality? In other words, are Democrats inherently less disciplined in this sort of setting than Republicans?
So it seems, though certainly not invariably. Al Gore’s lack of discipline was the big story of the 2000 debates. But John Kerry was very much under control in 2004 and Obama was cool as could be four years later.
Republicans, meanwhile, seem not to have suffered from a serious emotional self-discipline problem since Bob Dole’s performance in the vice presidential debate all the way back in 1976. So, while Democrats running for high office aren’t always undisciplined, they seem to behave as such more often than Republicans do.
This shouldn’t be surprising. Much more than Republicans, Democrats as a class tend to believe their emotions carry poltical weight. Indeed, they believe that their empathy, compassion, or whatever constitute a big part of what differentiates them from conservative Republicans. Because they ascribe political importance to their feelings, it’s understandable that they are less able to keep their feelings in check under the pressure of a high stakes debate.