The Way We Used to Debate

DENVER – One reason I went to Missouri for a few days was the existence of the Pre-Debate Expectations-Setting Game. It’s the worst non-throwing-knives-based game on the planet. As I traveled I would catch seeminglessly endless cable news segments that went something like this.

REPORTER: What does your candidate need to do on Wednesday?

SURROGATE: He just needs to talk about the issues facing this country and how he’ll recover from the damage of/build on the hard-won progress of the last four years.

REPORTER: Does he need to score a knock-out blow?

SURROGATE: What are you, some kind of asshole?

The only great pre-game stories have looked at the contenders’ previous, pivotal debates. As Matt Viser recounts, Romney has won only one close general election, the 2002 race for governor in Massachusetts. And he did it after winning his debates against state Treasurer Shannon O’Brien, a capable Democrat who nonetheless, could be challenged as an avatar of the failing state government. Very little of what Romney did to win there is repeatable. I don’t expect a mistake like this from President Obama.

When moderator Tim Russert asked why she would support a 16-year-old girl being able to get an abortion without parental consent when the same teen would be unable to legally get a tattoo in Massachusetts, O’Brien joked, “Would you like to see my tattoo?”

But O’Brien wasn’t the incumbent. The heinously unpopular incumbment, a Republican, had been spooked out of the race by Romney’s polls. There are so many more avenues of attack now – though the 2002 vintage Romney remains familiar, and extremely good at this stuff. The one-on-one debates with O’Brien are here, here, and here.

Barack Obama has never had to overcome a deficit like that, in solo debates. His path to the U.S. Senate was smoothed when his two leading opponents quit the Democratic and Republican races. He only had to get past transplanted Marylander and two-time fringe presidential candidate Alan Keyes. It was easy. But Obama still bristled, needlessly, at one of the most forceful debaters in politics. In the first debate, Obama ripped into Keyes for insisting that the senator had supported legal infanticide.

You know, if Ambassador Keyes had called me up, he could have saved himself a trip because existing Illinois law mandates that any infant that has a chance for survival is provided life-saving treatment.

In the second and most famous debate, Keyes tried to wound Obama by calling his pro-choice stance fundamentally unChristian. “I challenge all the voters of this state who profess to believe in Christ: How can you vote from such a faith-shaped void?” said Keyes. “Without the Lord, your vote will not be based upon that faith which ought to shape your life.”

Obama was pissed, so pissed that David Axelrod later told him to cool it off. “I don’t need Mr. Keyes lecturing me about Christianity,” he said. “That’s why I have a pastor. That’s why I have my Bible. That’s why I have my own prayer. And I don’t think that any of you are particularly interested in having Mr. Keyes lecture you about your faith.” But that’s something we’ll ever hear Obama say again. The 2002 version of Romney could talk about bipartisanship, as could th2 2004 vintage Obama. The new Obama can’t.