The Washington Post

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

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.

The Freddie Gray case

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Campaign 2016 Email Updates

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Get Zika news by email

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!
Show Comments
Republicans debate tonight. The South Carolina GOP primary and the Nevada Democratic caucuses are next on Feb. 20. Get caught up on the race.
The Fix asks The State's political reporter where the most important region of the state is.
He says he could talk about Charleston, which represents a little bit of everything in the state has to offer from evangelicals to libertarians, and where Ted Cruz is raising more money than anywhere else. In a twist, Marco Rubio is drawing strong financial support from more socially conservative Upstate. That said, Donald Trump is bursting all the conventional wisdom in the state. So maybe the better answer to this question is, "Wherever Trump is."
Past South Carolina GOP primary winners
South Carolina polling averages
Donald Trump leads in the first state in the South to vote, where he faces rivals Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.
South Carolina polling averages
The S.C. Democratic primary is Feb. 27. Clinton has a significant lead in the state, whose primary falls one week after the party's Nevada caucuses.
62% 33%
The complicated upcoming voting schedule
Feb. 20

Democrats caucus in Nevada; Republicans hold a primary in South Carolina.

Feb. 23

Republicans caucus in Nevada.

Feb. 27

Democrats hold a primary in South Carolina.

Upcoming debates
Feb 13: GOP debate

on CBS News, in South Carolina

Feb. 25: GOP debate

on CNN, in Houston, Texas

March 3: GOP debate

on Fox News, in Detroit, Mich.

Campaign 2016
Where the race stands

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.