Tonight, President Barack Obama and former governor Mitt Romney will step onto the stage for the first of perhaps the most consequential series of presidential debates in American history.
What is at stake is only matched by the premium Americans have grown to place on the art of political debate itself. Most Americans believe that debate is as much a part of the fabric of American politics as our first elections, but in reality general-election presidential debates are a relatively recent phenomenon, the first televised battles between Kennedy and Nixon also being the first debates between the nominees of the major parties. We have come to treat debates as part of the gauntlet that candidates must traverse and the one place to satisfy our desire for competition. And so we pay careful attention to the attacks and counterattacks, who can land the better body blows and if either can score a knockout punch through a clever line or zinger.
The Republican primary season only served to ratchet up those expectations. Michele Bachmann (full disclosure: I worked for her) knocked out Tim Pawlenty. Rick Perry knocked himself out. And the battles between Newt Gingrich and Romney were the stuff high-school debaters dream about. But lost in all of the metaphors of competition is a fight over the direction of the country. While millions will tune in to see which of their gladiators wins the duel, what should not be lost is what we learn about these two men and the direction each would take the country over the next four years.
Both are competing for a small slice of undecided voters in 10 states. But both are also attempting to inspire their own bases to turn out in November. So both will have to walk the “tightrope” of being respectfully aggressive—particularly Romney, who must attack Obama without sullying the office he holds.
We should pay particular attention to whether Romney can convince voters that Obama is to blame for present economic conditions and that things are getting worse—or if Obama can convince voters that we’re headed in the right direction and that to change course now would endanger a fragile recovery. So far the president is winning this argument by a razor-thin margin. The debates could turn the tide significantly.
We should pay attention to who starts strong. The first 30 minutes of the first debate are the most important. That will set in motion the narrative, and help determine whom voters perceive to be winning the debates. It’s hard to recover from a bad first outing. Remember President Bush in 2004, or then–vice president Al Gore in 2000. Ronald Reagan was one of the few who recovered from a poor first showing to win the second one in 1984, overcoming the perception he was too old to be president.
In spite of the conventional wisdom otherwise, both men are highly skilled orators. The candidate who is able to execute his strategy and clearly communicate his message will triumph.