The presidential debate: Don’t forget, Romney and Obama, that sticking to the script can be lethal, too

September 28, 2012

If you’re hoping that next week’s first presidential debate in Denver will be a sober exchange on the issues facing our nation, well, that makes one of us.

Because all that would really mean is we’d get yet another volley of talking points we’ve already heard ad nauseum. No, I’m not convinced there is anything moderator Jim Lehrer could say to coax policy specifics out of Mitt Romney. Or to get Barack Obama to explain why he changed his mind on closing Gitmo, or when he became such a fan of George W. Bush’s security-for-civil liberties trade-offs.


Mitt Romney and Rick Perry at a GOP debate in Las Vegas last October.

We could easily have a whole “Why’d you change your mind on that?”-themed evening, with Mitt called to do more than repeat yet again that RomneyCare was just marvelous for Massachusetts but terrible when imposed on the rest of us. Only, that would require candidates who feel compelled by public demand to supply real answers.

Instead of expecting more from the candidates, partisans on both sides prefer put the onus on the moderator; in fact, insulting the questioner has become such a winning diversionary strategy that for a second there it looked like Newt Gingrich’s springboard to the nomination.

That’s one reason presidential debates rarely elicit anything we haven’t heard before — and why they’ve become increasingly heavy on the light ‘n’ lively, as when John King asked Republican candidates to look him in the eye and give it up: Elvis or Johnny Cash? Deep dish or thin crust?

If what we’re really looking for is a human moment, though, shouldn’t we just go all in and require each contestant on ‘So you want to be president’ to mime his answers, or deliver the talking points in the foreign language of his choosing? (You can tell a lot about a man, after all, by the way he declines and conjugates.)


Newt Gingrich responding to moderator John King’s question about his second wife’s statement that he’d asked her to “share” him with his current wife.

Another option is a ‘Fact Checker’ debate, with the Post’s Glenn Kessler and other prominent FCs taking turns reading aloud from their oeuvre: Hey, Barack Obama, you say that 90 percent of our deficit was run up by Bushie’s high-spending ways? As this is hooey, sir, why do you persist?

And you, Mitt Romney, stop laughing and pray tell us why you keep saying that Mr. Obama has undercut the welfare work requirements when he has done no such thing.


Senators Barack Obama and John McCain at in the first of three presidential debates before the 2008 election, on September 26 of that year at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Mississippi. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Not happening, I know — and not because Lehrer won’t try.

Yet somehow, despite the best efforts of the candidates, human moments will occur, as when George H.W. Bush sneaked a very costly peek at his watch, or Rick Perry forgot the third agency he was vowing to put out of business, or Mitt Romney said, “I’ll bet you $10,000,” or Barack Obama told his future secretary of state, “You’re likable enough, Hillary.’’

A few years ago, I asked Kitty Dukakis about the one her husband lived through as the Democratic nominee in ‘88, when CNN’s Bernard Shaw asked Michael Dukakis how far he’d go to defend her: “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor the death penalty for the killer?”

“No, I don’t, Bernard,’’ Dukakis responded. “And I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life. And I don’t see any evidence that it’s a deterrent, and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime. We’ve done so in my own state.”


Massachusetts Democratic Governor Michael Dukakis debating Vice President George Bush in 1988.  (Bob Jordan/AP)

Now, with a little Newt-style righteous anger, he might have punched Shaw in the jaw and won the race. But that’s not what happened, and for Kitty, the moment hasn’t faded: “It’s like it was yesterday; I remember what I had on and how, when he looked over and saw my expression,’’ he realized he had just driven off a cliff. “I was furious. We were in the car with our daughter Andrea afterwards, and I said, “What were you thinking?” and he said he was so tired and had answered the question so many times on the death penalty, and it was just automatic.

“Andrea went on and on about it, and I remember thinking he was going to be burdened by that from then on, even by his supporters. You’re so exhausted, and you’re going to make mistakes.”


Michael and Kitty Dukakis at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. (Lucian Perkins/The Washington Post)

This wasn’t a moment that revealed the real Michael Dukakis, though, but was just the opposite. Though Dukakis blew his one chance to electrocute a rhetorical attacker, he did something out of the public view that was a lot harder. That is, he supported his wife year in and year out as she struggled with the very real mugger that is depression. “His understanding about women,’’ she told me, “is something the public didn’t understand.”

And the moral of that story, candidates, is that it’s also possible to self-immolate by sticking too closely to the script.

Melinda Henneberger is Post political writer and anchors the paper’s ‘She the People’ blog. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.

Melinda Henneberger has been writing about politics and culture for the Washington Post since 2011.
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Melissa Bell | September 28, 2012