Forty years in politics made me an expert on debates, whether I wanted to be or not.
I did endless hours of debate prep. I negotiated debate rules with broadcasters and opponents’ representatives. I sat in TV-studio debates for what seemed like an excruciating eternity. I did post-debate spin. I cleaned up after debate disasters. I celebrated when my candidates cleaned opponents’ clocks.
Debates cause candidates, consultants and staffers more angst and anxiety than anything else in a campaign. They are, as President George H.W. Bush once said, “Tension City.”
Take this week’s debate between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. Most people watching already know who they’re voting for. But those who are undecided – and those who aren’t sure whether they’ll vote at all – watch for something to make up their minds.
Sometimes it’s something a candidate says. But, in my experience, candidates and their advisers over-think, over-worry and over-rehearse what they say.
I see some candidates in a debate and know they have a bad case of too much debate prep.
Here’s what happens. The candidate stands behind a podium in a mock debate setting. Somebody plays their opponent. He or she has immersed themselves in the opponents’ language, body language and likely lines of attack. Somebody plays moderator. Smarty-pants staffers come up with tough questions.
They start the video. They fire questions at the candidate. They interrupt him when he goes over the time limit. The “opponent” lays into him, relishing the chance to take down Mr. Big Shot.
When the hour is up, they review the video. The staffers and consultants bombard the poor candidate with advice and criticism. Some advice is good, some is bad and a lot is contradictory.
They turn the candidate into a basket case of nerves. He walks onto the debate stage and becomes a zombie. Viewers say, “Gee, he’s mighty stiff.”
I’m a believer in Jeff Greenfield’s rule of debates: “Bugs Bunny always beats Daffy Duck.” Greenfield, a longtime CNN commentator, once wrote:
“Bugs and Daffy represent polar opposites in how to deal with the world. Bugs is at ease, laid back, secure, confident. His lidded eyes and sly smile suggest a sense that he knows the way things work. He’s onto the cons of his adversaries….
“Daffy Duck, by contrast, is ever at war with a hostile world. He fumes, he clenches his fists, his eyes bulge, and his entire body tenses with fury. Daffy is constantly frustrated, sometimes by outside forces, sometimes by his own overwrought response to them.”
In other words, the winner in a debate is always the most comfortable person on stage. Think JFK and Nixon. Think Ronald Reagan (“there you go again”) and Jimmy Carter. Think Barack Obama, cool and cerebral, and Mitt Romney, stiff and smug.
Kennedy prepared for his first debate by taking a nap, then flipping through index cards of questions. His TV-savvy staff paid more attention to how he looked than what he said. He looked calm and confident; Nixon looked sweaty and shifty.
When you watch a debate, turn off the sound for a bit and just watch the candidates. Who looks most comfortable? Who seems most confident, most in command?
That’s your winner. Not who has the most perfectly rehearsed answers.
And if your candidate flops, no sweat. A consultant I know once clapped a nervous candidate on the back just before a debate and said, “Don’t worry. There’s no mistake you can make out there that we can’t fix with a few million dollars in TV ads.”