A Look to the U.S. Presidential Debates

For political junkies, US presidential debates can be both exciting and formulaic. There are too many restrictions and candidates invariably pull out numerous stock phrases that sound excessively scripted.

However, there’s also the possibility for drama, doublespeak and, most entertainingly, mistakes or miscalculations. The first of the three presidential debates, moderated by Jim Lehrer, will be held in Denver on October 3rd. It will cover domestic policy. The economy and jobs should dominate the agenda, but questions on healthcare and “the role of government” will also receive significant attention.

Mitt Romney is not a particularly inspirational candidate and his campaign has been far from brilliant. He is behind in the polls, including most of the battleground states. So he has left himself with no other option: he must outperform Obama in these debates and a disappointing performance next Wednesday could do irreparable damage to his candidacy.

So what might be on Mr. Romney’s mind leading up to the debate? And how should he approach the task at hand? Aside from feeling a hint of panic, Romney may be thinking that it’s now or never. Clearly, Romney should go after President Obama on the economy—early and often.

Given the time constraints, it’s probably easier to make the first debate a referendum on Obama’s first term (as opposed to a detailed expostulation of the Romney platform), but specifics pertaining to his own agenda could be effective. Aesthetically, it might behoove Mr. Romney to show some emotion, if he can look natural doing so. The smart money says that President Obama will be cool and confident—glibly providing the audience with his characteristic (soaring) rhetoric while quickly challenging Romney whenever he’s sees an opening. How Romney will perform is far more (for lack of a better word) debatable.

Paul Harris of The Guardian suggests that Romney might not be up to the task. Harris argues, “There are also doubts about Romney’s debating skills. Though he participated in no fewer than 19 debates during the nomination process, there were times when he made gaffes or appeared goaded by opponents into losing his cool, such as spontaneously offering to make a $10,000 bet with the Texas governor Rick Perry.”

Earlier this month, Mr. Romney predicted that President Obama would provide inaccurate information during the debates. For those hoping to see a Republican in the White House next year, this doesn’t inspire confidence. With the election less than two months away, Romney’s current position has much to do with mismanagement, poor judgment, gaffes and a serious scarcity of policy specifics. And yet there’s another word that should now be associated with Mr. Romney’s current state of affairs: procrastination.

By failing to win voters over already and being unable to add a sufficient level of detail to his presidential platform, Romney is the smart, competent man who hasn’t finished his homework. He has dithered on the most significant task at hand: that of selling his ideas and, more importantly, himself. A single presidential debate isn’t going to decide who spends the next four years in the “executive mansion,” though one could argue that elections have been lost over more trivial matters.