Posts Tagged ‘Presidential Debates’


By Gil Troy, The Globe & Mail, 10-26-12


The 2012 U.S. presidential debates did what debates are supposed to do: They shook up the election campaign in the best kind of way, forcing voters to reconcile the image of the candidates’ negative campaigning with the more direct impression they had from watching the candidates themselves.

While this, too, is an artifice – the days when people imagined television as an X-ray of the soul are long gone – it was a welcome corrective. It’s far better for a vote to be determined by direct impression than through media hearsay or a rival’s hostile caricatures.

Along the way, American voters gained at least four key insights into their presidential contenders. First, both are honourable, decent, talented and smart men – fast on their feet, extraordinarily poised, able to master the difficult task of sounding intelligent yet intelligible, staying reasonably consistent, and covering a dizzying array of topics, in a fast-paced, high-pressure format where millions are scrutinizing you when you speak, when your rival speaks, and long after the debate, too. From a human perspective, the three debates are brutal, relentless, stomach-churning – and both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama handled those challenges quite deftly.

We also learned where each goes when flustered or the pressure gets a little unmanageable. Mr. Romney goes to blusterville, speaking a little too quickly, letting his sentences lose their linearity and discipline, as one phrase circles into the next and words collide uncomfortably and randomly. Mr. Obama goes to peevishland, his voice sounds higher, his demeanour looks grimmer, his body language becomes tighter. At their worst, Mr. Romney risks looking too flummoxed or clueless, the chastened preppy seeking his footing in a newly hostile world; Mr. Obama risks looking too angry or arrogant, the Mr. Perfect Golden Boy unused to being corrected or confronted by others.

Substantively, the debates uncovered many similarities between the two that are only surprising to partisans who believe their respective party’s propaganda that the two have mutually exclusive visions for America. Especially in the final foreign policy debate: Americans discovered that both mistrust Iran, worry about the Syrian mess, are wary of China, support Israel, want to end the Afghan war, and hope to see the Arab Spring produce democracy. In the 1940s, Republicans and Democrats preached that partisanship should not go beyond the water’s edge. While neither candidate in 2012 was quite ready to launch a bipartisan foreign policy, each could have stolen many of the other’s lines, with Mr. Romney rhapsodizing about peace and Mr. Obama hanging tough.

Still, the drama in the debates came from the clashes, and they were substantive, not just stylistic. Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney disagree about some crucial fundamentals. Mr. Obama believes government can help Americans, Mr. Romney believes it often burdens them. Mr. Obama says his stimulus package and other measures righted the ship of state and America’s economy, Mr. Romney fears the growing Obama deficit will sink Americans. Mr. Obama celebrates his health-care legislation, Mr. Romney doubts it. Mr. Romney celebrates his tax-cut promises and job-creation plans, Mr. Obama doubts them. These differences will make for different presidencies, even as we know that Mr. Obama also believes in free enterprise, and Mr. Romney also acknowledges government’s important role in American life.

Ultimately, serious issues remain unaddressed. It’s unfortunate that this campaign has lacked substantive discussion about the growing polarization in politics and the corrupting role of money in the campaign. Each side caricatures the other as guilty without taking any responsibility for also perpetuating the problem. And while abortion gets lots of play, even though it’s a constitutional issue for the Supreme Court, both candidates and the debate moderators ignored other issues that the President could try addressing, such as the epidemics of family breakdown, of violence in the schools, of collapsing social structures, of the perpetually alienated, of the temporarily demoralized. The U.S. faces serious domestic challenges that go beyond taxes and health care; neglect will only exacerbate them.

In every presidential campaign, Americans assess the present and invest in the future, using history as their guide. In this campaign, Mr. Obama has been running against himself, haunted by the ghost – and hopes – of 2008 – that the complicated realities of his presidency have not been able to match. Mr. Romney has been haunted by the ghost – and successes – of Ronald Reagan, unable, so far, to measure up to the governor who unseated a Democratic incumbent during times of economic difficulty by displaying great charm and moderating his once harsh conservative image.

The debates gave both Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama opportunities to shine. And once a winner emerges, the great American myth-making machine will kick in, and magnify some moments from the victor’s debates into the stuff of legend.

Gil Troy, a history professor at McGill University, is the author, most recently, of Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents: George Washington to Barack Obama.


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By Gil Troy, HNN, 10-23-12

Could it be that despite all that tension and testosterone, that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney agree a whole lot more about foreign policy than they disagree? I learned from the debate that both candidates hope to stop Iran, contain China, support Israel, and magically conjure up a peaceful solution in Syria while seeing a flourishing Democratic Arab spring. I also learned that both candidates would prefer to speak about domestic issues than foreign issues, as they repeatedly segued into their economic and education programs, claiming that achieving a “strong America” is a foreign policy issue too. These shifts reflected the American people’s mood – this election is much more about domestic policy than foreign policy.

True, at heart Barack Obama is more an idealistic internationalist, preferring multilateralism and global cooperation, while Mitt Romney is a muscular isolationist, yearning for American autonomy and insisting on American strength. But these differences pale before the fact that it is difficult to assess any candidate’s foreign policy ideology – let alone how that candidate will act as president. Predicting how a president will function in foreign affairs is as reliable as guessing how first-time parents will act when their children become teenagers – lovely theories succumb to tumultuous unforeseen squalls.

Foreign policy is particularly elusive due to the unpredictability of foreign events, the mushiness in American foreign policy ideologies, and the often-constructive tradition of presidents abandoning their preconceptions once they actually start governing.  Barack Obama himself is proof of the haziness here.  To the extent that Senator Obama had a foreign policy vision in 2008 as a candidate – when he had as little foreign policy experience as Governor Romney has in 2012 – his presidency has frequently succeeded by forgetting it. As Obama boasts about getting Osama Bin Laden and approving the Afghanistan surge, and as Guantanamo Bay remains open, pacifist leftists are understandably wondering what happened to their anti-war, human rights hero. If Obama is correct that the Republican candidate’s newly moderate domestic policies reflect “Romnesia”; pacifist leftists could mourn many such “Obaminations.”

Ultimately, the convergence offered a welcome reminder, as this campaign intensifies, that America’s greatest foreign policy victories, including winning World War II and the Cold War, were bipartisan moments uniting the nation not dividing parties. Whoever wins will have to lead from the center, in both foreign and domestic affairs – moving from the theoretical clashes of the campaign trail to the necessary reconciliations of governance.

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By Gil Troy, Toronto Star 10-11-12

SAUL LOEB/AFP/GETTY IMAGES US President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney participate in the first presidential debate last week. (Oct. 3, 2012)

The fact that the first U.S. presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney changed the campaign narrative so dramatically reflects just how volatile the American electorate’s feelings are in 2012.

Before the first debate last week, reporters seemed ready to declare Romney’s campaign dead — more than a month before election day, Nov. 6. But after nearly 70 million Americans watched Romney dominate and Obama retreat, most pundits and many polls declared the race on again — and extremely close.

This abrupt plot reversal also confirms what should be any American patriot’s and any westerner’s fear regarding this campaign — that neither candidate will win this electoral contest; one of them simply will not lose. To face its many economic, political, diplomatic and structural challenges, the United States needs a strong, effective leader with a clear, affirming mandate. But the current president, enduring high unemployment and an anemic recovery, is facing voters with his negatives at historic highs for electioneering incumbents. And his challenger, handicapped by public skepticism and a divided Republican party, is going into the election with his popularity at historic lows for any major party nominee.

The huge television audience for the debate showed that Americans recognize this election’s importance and their own doubts about both candidates. Americans like falling in love with politicians. Obama’s 2008 Hope-and-Change euphoria was not only about Barack Obama’s eloquence and political pixie dust; it was about Americans seeking redemption through inspiration. Unlike the Canadian prime minister, the American president is both head of state and head of government, concentrating tremendous power and symbolism in one office. And the American story is one of high ideals and great faith in tomorrow.

A visit to the Tower of London the day after the debates reinforced this notion. Until the modern era, much of British history, with its succession wars between relatives, was a story of ruthless power struggles motivated by greed, jealousy and ambition, illustrated by beheaded queens, a Bloody Tower, the Traitors Gate. American mudslinging in campaign commercials, pamphlets and speeches does not measure up. American rhetorical daggers and blackened reputations are simply no match for severed British heads impaled on a stick.

Moreover, underlying most U.S. political campaigns — including this one — are fundamental questions about what Americans believe, how they see themselves and who they want to be.

During the debate, the two candidates kept clashing over the nature of American government.

Romney said: “In my opinion, the government is not effective in — in bringing down the cost of almost anything. As a matter of fact, free people and free enterprises trying to find ways to do things better are able to be more effective in bringing down the costs than the government will ever be.”

Obama then affirmed his belief that “the federal government has the capacity to help open up opportunity and create ladders of opportunity and to create frameworks where the American people can succeed.” Invoking the great American martyr, Abraham Lincoln, Obama said his predecessor “understood” that there are “some things we do better together.”

Romney and Obama are not extremists. Romney acknowledged the need for collective action, taxes, even government regulation — unlike his party’s fanatics. And Obama toasted the free enterprise system — unlike his party’s fanatics. Nevertheless, within their narrowed spectrum, serious philosophical differences that would translate into policy differences remain.

Amid this background, Barack Obama’s great debating failure was not in looking down so frequently, as many commentators complained, but in not helping Americans look up enough. Since his inaugural address, when two wars, a possible depression, and terrorist threats weighed down his once lofty rhetoric, Obama has been a more leaden leader than anyone anticipated when he was elected. The challenges are indeed sobering. The needs are pressing. The divisions are increasing. And the crises seem to be proliferating.

Throughout these next three weeks of high-level, first-rate, tough political combat, the memories of the first debate will be upstaged and its impact diluted. Romney and Obama will meet for two more rounds, one in a town hall forum with voters and one final confrontation on foreign policy. But the challenge for each will remain — can Obama provide a vision for a second term that inspires and can Romney offer a rationale for his election beyond not being Obama? Even amid all this trouble, the United States remains the great dream factory of the world, and Americans still want to believe.

Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University and the author of eight books, including Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents: George Washington to Barack Obama.

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By Gil Troy, HNN, 10-4-12

Barack Obama’s listless and hesitant performance in the first debate gave Mitt Romney a  twelve-day gift. Until their next debate on October 16, we can expect a turn towardident  more positive coverage of Romney and his campaign.  The insta-polls suggest that Romney’s confident, upbeat, persistent point-making in the debate paid off – and the pundits agree. Words like “zombie,” “throat-clearing,” “downward glancing,” “disjointed,” “convoluted,” popped up in the post-debate reviews of Obama’s performance.

But just as Romney’s people went in hoping to recreate the Carter-Reagan debate, which shifted the winning margin to Ronald Reagan in 1980, Romney’s people should remember Walter Mondale’s victory over President Reagan in the first debate of 1984, and John Kerry’s victories over President George W. Bush twenty years later.  Debates can be determinative but rarely are. Obama is perfectly capable of coming back. And the election remains close with sobering swing state math for Romney.

Yet while this kind of handicapping is what generates the headlines, the real headline should be that the debates once again worked. They offered substantive exchanges that focus much more on issues, statistics, and philosophy than the passing gaffes which reporters are forever seeking in their perpetual “gotcha” game. Not only did both candidates come across as smart, caring, patriotic individuals who love America and are trying to do their best, they shifted the campaign discussion from nonsense to substance. The debates, with each question triggering a tidal wave of details, invite looks at the candidate’s philosophies, their visions of government, their plans for the next four years.  The silly sideshows from partisan extremists look absurd in contrast to the high level discussion Jim Lehrer conducted so well. It is hard after ninety minutes of such seriousness and intensity to return to questions about Obama’s birth or Romney’s riches. The questions and the answers got me – and I daresay most Americans – thinking about who is right and who is wrong, who will be more effective, what are they offering the American people – and what pressing issues remain unaddressed. And so, ultimately, while Obama did give Romney this twelve-day gift, even more important is that both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney gave the American people an even greater gift, at least ninety minutes befitting the majesty of the country and the needs to this moment.

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By Gil Troy, HNN, 10-2-12

Ronald Reagan campaigning in Columbia, South Carolina, on October 10, 1980, a few weeks before the only debate of the 1980 election. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Happy October, which every four years becomes debate month in American presidential politics. On October 3, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama will debate domestic policy in Colorado. On October 11, their vice presidential running mates, Paul Ryan and Joe Biden, will debate in Kentucky. Five days later on October 16, voters at a town meeting in New York will question the two presidential candidates about any issues and on October 22 — two weeks before Election Day — Obama and Romney will debate foreign policy in Florida.

These debates — which are more like side-by-side press conferences with some exchanges — are usually the political equivalent of military service: long bouts of boredom punctuated by bursts of melodrama. Usually, they reinforce media narratives and voter impressions. But they have sometimes changed outcomes, particularly in 1980, when Ronald Reagan’s aw shucks, “there you go again” dismissal of President Jimmy Carter’s attacks triggered a Reagan surge — and the largest last-minute switch in poll results since polling began in the 1930s.

Treating history as an authoritative tarot card rather than a subtle source of wisdom, Mitt Romney’s supporters have been touting that ten-point swing as proof that the Republicans will win. The 1980 moment appeals more broadly to Republicans as indication that a gaffe-prone, ridiculed, seemingly out-of-touch former governor can defeat an earnest Democratic incumbent afflicted by a sagging economy, Middle East troubles, and accusations that the twin pillars of his foreign policy are appeasement and apology not power and pride.

The 1980 debate should sober Obama and buoy Romney. In his recent book, The Candidate: What It Takes to Win — and Hold – the White House, Professor Samuel Popkin, an occasional Democratic campaign adviser, recalls his failure coaching Carter in 1980. Playing Reagan in debate “prep,” Popkin echoed the Republican’s devastating anti-Carter criticisms. Popkin describes the kind of careful criticism Romney should launch against Obama, knowing that if the challenger is too aggressive he looks angry and insolent but if he is too deferential he seems weak and intimidated. Reagan, Popkin writes, “resorted to more subtle, coded criticisms that were harder to defend against. He appeared respectful of the office and the president, suggesting that Carter was hamstrung by defeatist Democrats in Congress.” This approach forced Carter to rebut the premise — and plaintively claim he was strong — or the conclusion — by insisting Democrats were not defeatists. “Contesting one point left him tacitly conceding the other,” Popkin writes.

Obama’s caveat is in Carter’s reaction. Offended and embarrassed by the criticism, Carter ended the session after eleven minutes. Popkin as Reagan had pierced Carter’s “presidential aura,” unnerving everyone in the room. Trying to dispel the tension, Carter’s chief domestic policy advisor, Stuart Eizenstat, himself Jewish, resorted to ethnic humor by pointing to Popkin and joking, “You didn’t know Governor Reagan was Jewish, did you?” Popkin, who quickly replied “Well, Governor Reagan is from Hollywood,” realized that many of Carter’s people, including the aggrieved president, were unfamiliar with Reagan’s attacks because the majesty of the presidency insulated Carter from serious criticism or serious study of his challenger.

Of course, in an ideal world the debates would emphasize issue flashpoints not gaffe-hunting. In Denver, Romney should, Reagan-style, subtly question President Obama as to when he as president will take responsibility for the anemic recovery and lingering unemployment rather than scapegoating his predecessor. At Hofstra University, Romney should ask Obama to explain to the voters present and the American people how his increasing reliance on the heavy hand of federal regulations and big government does not reflect doubt in the traditional invisible hand of individual entrepreneurial Americans and the markets themselves. And in Boca Raton, Romney should prod Obama on the Arab Spring, asking him at what point he would concede that his policy failed rather than simply dismissing the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the murder of American diplomats in Libya, and other Obama-orchestrated disasters as “bumps in the road.” In response, Obama should emphasize his successes in halting the economic freefall, his faith in American ingenuity guided by the government’s occasional, competent, and gentle helping hand, and his muscular defense of American interests in hunting down Osama Bin Laden, boosting troops in Afghanistan, and reprimanding Egypt’s president for delays in defending America’s Cairo embassy. Meanwhile, reporters and voters should push both candidates to explain what sacrifices they will demand from Americans, where they will deviate from their party’s orthodoxy, how they will end partisanship, and what bold solutions they have to American debt, demoralization, and decline.

While such substantive exchanges would allow Americans to weigh the candidates’ dueling philosophies and records, it is more likely that the debates’ verdict will pivot around some theatrical moment. Since televised presidential debates began in 1960, when John Kennedy’s aristocratic calm contrasted with Richard Nixon’s sweaty, herky-jerky intensity, style has usually upstaged substance in debate reporting and debate perceptions.

It is too easy just to blame the press — although broadcasters and reporters will be seeking “gotcha” moments when a candidate stumbles and “grand slams” when a candidate dominates. Moreover, American voters respond more to debate theatrics than polemics. The mass reaction reflects one of the realities of modern leadership, which too many academics ignore and editorialists lament: image rules, style counts, a successful president or prime minister must communicate effectively not just administer smoothly.

This season, as the American campaign peaks and the silliness surges, it will be easy to mock American politics. But the presidential campaign remains a remarkable effective and dramatic ritual that gets two individuals conveying their messages to a polity of 300 million people.

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By Gil Troy, The Toronto Star, 1-4-11

Jimmy Carter’s smile looks forced while applauding Edward Kennedy at the 1980 Democratic convention.


While much of the discussion since U.S. President Barack Obama’s “shellacking” in the 2010 congressional midterm elections has focused on the Republican surge, Obama also should worry about his base. In the last 50 years, the only incumbent presidents who have lost their re-election bids first faced primary challenges for renomination. In short, Obama better worry about his own party before dealing with the Tea Party.

Although in the age of modern communications the power of any incumbent is considerable, the American president’s powers are particularly formidable. By being both the head of state and head of government, in effect the king and the prime minister, the president can tap all kinds of non-partisan patriotic emotions while monopolizing the airwaves and using political muscle. During the Christmas season, for example, as the president hosts thousands of influential Americans in the White House, as he lights the national Christmas tree and calls for national unity, he serves as the high priest of America’s civic religion, transcending mundane partisan concerns.

So it is difficult — and has always been wrenching — to fire a president. In the 20th century, only five incumbents lost re-election bids, and in the last half century, it occurred only three times. Each time it required a major crisis and a serious insurgency, whereby someone with purer ideological credentials from the president’s own party first weakened the incumbent before the general election.

In 1976, president Gerald Ford knew his position was weak. He was the first vice-president in American history to replace the first president ever to have resigned, Richard Nixon. Furthermore, he had been the first vice-president never to have faced the national electorate, having replaced a disgraced vice-president, Spiro Agnew, under the terms of the new 25th Amendment, which had only been ratified in 1967. Before then, vice-presidents were not replaced and, when necessary, the speaker of the House became the president’s designated successor. Moreover, in the 1974 midterm congressional elections, just weeks after Ford became president in August of 1974, his Republican party had imploded, losing 48 House seats and five Senate seats. Americans punished the Republicans as the party of Watergate, shorthand for all the scandals that forced Nixon from office.

Although Ford was a decent and honest man, his short tenure already had been very rocky. His pardon of Nixon dissipated much of the goodwill with which Americans had greeted him; the collapse of South Vietnam humiliated Americans; and soaring inflation devastated individual Americans’ household budgets. Going into their 1976 bicentennial year, Americans were cranky. Republicans worried that their weakened incumbent would follow in the footsteps of two other Republicans who lost their re-election bids, William Howard Taft in 1912 and Herbert Hoover in 1932.

Still, amid all the troubles, what most harmed Ford was the campaign mounted by a fellow Republican, Ronald Reagan. Reagan ran to Ford’s right, exploiting growing frustrations with détente (the policy of engaging with the Soviet Union and China) and a broader sense that Ford was not committed to core conservative ideals. Reagan took advantage of the fact that partisans are often the most motivated to vote in primaries — general elections usually reward centrism more than partisanship. Reagan’s attack imposed the primary double-whammy on Ford. The president was weakened by having to fight Reagan primary by primary — and had to shift right to compete with Reagan for partisan Republicans. As a result, it was easier for the smiling, elusive Democratic nominee, Jimmy Carter, to paint Ford as a weak leader out of step with the American public.

Four years later, Carter was the one in trouble. The inflation rate was even higher — as Americans endured the new phenomenon of “stagflation,” whereby prices rose even as the economy flagged. Carter was a weak leader, urging Americans to adjust to limits. Conservatives hated him for this defeatism. Liberals hated him because they considered him the most conservative Democrat since Grover Cleveland, pushing to deregulate the economy and balance the budget.

Carter’s standing with party regulars and liberals sank so low that the crown prince of the Democratic party, senator Ted Kennedy, decided to run for the nomination. Kennedy’s candidacy was ill-fated. When a sympathetic interviewer, Roger Mudd, asked why he was running, Kennedy rambled. When radical Islamist students overran the American embassy and held 52 diplomats hostage in November 1979, just as the nomination campaign was starting, Americans initially rallied around their president in an instinctive patriotic reaction.

Eventually, Kennedy found his footing, winning the important New York primary. Kennedy failed to win the Democratic nomination, but at the party’s national convention he upstaged Carter. Kennedy’s passionate endorsement of the welfare state, vowing “the dream shall never die” in a speech that became an instant classic, captured Democratic hearts. At the same time, it helped Carter’s general election opponent, Ronald Reagan, define Carter as yet another liberal to a nation increasingly fed up with liberalism’s failures.

In 1984, Reagan broke the emerging presidential losing streak, winning re-election with his upbeat “Morning in America” campaign. Reagan had no real opposition from his fellow Republicans in the primaries. His Democratic opponent Walter Mondale floundered, with the economy finally booming after the traumatic, inflation-wracked Ford-Carter years.

Reagan’s vice-president, George H.W. Bush, essentially inherited the presidency after Reagan’s two terms. But Reaganite conservatives always doubted Bush. They remembered how Bush opposed Reagan in the 1980 primaries, mocking their cherished tax-cutting, budget-shrinking “supply side” theories as “voodoo economics.” They mistrusted Bush as too Yankee, too Connecticut, too establishment. To placate the right, Bush proclaimed at the 1988 Republican convention: “Read my lips: no new taxes.” When, governing responsibly, Bush broke that vow two years later, conservatives broke with Bush. The conservative commentator Patrick Buchanan ran against the president for the 1992 Republican nomination.

Buchanan’s candidacy was far weaker than Reagan’s in 1976 or Kennedy’s in 1980. Still, Buchanan’s impressive showing in the New Hampshire primary with 38 per cent of the vote, and his own fire-breathing convention oration, helped derail Bush’s campaign. Arkansas governor Bill Clinton’s campaign shrewdly emphasized that “it’s the economy stupid.” Still, the Buchanan candidacy helped confirm Clinton’s argument that Bush was a weakened incumbent too tied to the exhausted and discredited Reaganite right.

A few weeks ago, on Dec. 4, with Democrats still reeling from their midterm losses, the Washington Post ran an op-ed from a progressive fed up with Obama’s “spinelessness,” pleading: “Save Obama’s Presidency by Challenging Him on the Left.” The writer, Michael Lerner, overestimated the left’s popularity and misread his history. Such an insurgency would threaten Obama’s tenure not prolong it.

Lerner’s voice is marginal but the fact that the influential Washington Post ran his article demonstrated just how far Obama has sunk since the magical days of his election back in November 2008. For that reason, Obama and his aides will have to use some of the sharp-elbow tactics they mastered in Chicago politics to try squelching any potential Democratic opponents to Obama’s renomination, such as Congressman Dennis Kucinich or former Wisconsin senator Russ Feingold.

Exit polls after the 2010 midterm congressional elections showed that Obama has lost most ground with the independents who helped elect him in 2008. Obama should shift to the centre over the next two years, governing more as the post-partisan moderate he promised to be rather than the liberal partner to the liberal-Democratic congressional leadership he often has been. A liberal challenge in the primaries would force Obama to play to his left, undermining that effort.

The Ford-Carter-Bush losses also offer Obama another cautionary tale. It really is “the economy, stupid.” Americans tend to give presidents too much credit when the economy booms and too much blame when the economy sags. Seeing the stock market or employment figures or inflation rates as a referendum on a president is natural but simplistic. Government policies and presidential economic strategies affect the economy, but so do many other factors. The broader economic cycle reflects a stunning array of inputs, that neither the president nor any other individual can control fully. If the economy revives, even as late as 2012, Obama will have bragging rights to his own Reagan-style “Morning in America.” Even most Americans’ judgment of the complex health-care reform, which will barely be kicking in by then, will be determined by the state of the economy.

History is instructive not predictive. Still, it is hard to see how Obama could lose if the economy is booming and his party is united. And it is hard to see Obama winning if the economy remains depressed, Democrats are deeply divided, and Republicans find a candidate who is popular, credible and effective.

Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University and the author of, among others, Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents, and The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.

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HNN, 9-24-08

I have often thought that the popular cliché describing war applies to presidential debates as well – long bouts of boredom punctuated by fleeting moments of great drama and sheer terror. Let’s face it. Most debates are dull, with candidates machine-gunning statistics and policy positions at each other at a rapid but mostly incomprehensible pace. I dare say that even the most educated of voters can follow very little of much of the debates. But voters have been conditioned to sit through sixty or ninety minutes of candidates nattering at each other, hoping for those two or three clarifying moments.

And if we think over the history of debates, the moments are frequently one-liners, and sometimes mere gestures. Ronald Reagan dismissed Jimmy Carter with just four words in 1980 – “there you go again” – and took a few more to dispatch Walter Mondale four years later, when the aging president promised not to make an issue of the Democratic challenger’s (younger) age. On the down side, Gerald Ford rhetorically liberated Eastern Europe with an ill-considered phrase in 1976 – thus reinforcing the Saturday Night Live-fed stereotype that this Yale-educated lawyer was a dummy. And Al Gore may have lost the presidency in the excruciatingly close 2000 race because of a few unfortunate winces and sighs that seemed to demonstrate a condescending attitude toward his rival George W. Bush. Of course, Papa Bush in 1992 was partially defeated by a sidelong glance – at his watch – during a debate, supposedly telegraphing impatience with the proceedings and disrespect for the American people.

So I, like most of my fellow Americans, will watch these debates on two levels. I will really, really try to follow the sometimes extremely technical exchanges. This will be particularly important this year because both candidates have responded to the recent financial meltdown with superficialities and demagoguery. I would love to hear a more detailed and substantive discussion between them, so I can learn about how they understand the Wall Street chaos and what they plan to do about it. Moreover, having just written a book on the importance of moderation, “Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents,” I will be hoping to hear signs of centrism (in fact, student volunteers from McGill will be monitoring the debates on our website www.moderometer.com to assess how moderate the various statements are).

Still, like a young kid watching a pitcher’s duel on a long summer afternoon, I and most other viewers will be enduring the back and forths, waiting for the big moment. But unlike in baseball, we may not even realize the import of a particular gesture, clash, gaffe or put down, until later, When President Ford misspoke in 1976 about the relative freedom of Eastern Europe, few people watching reacted initially. In fact, afterwards, most people surveyed said Ford had won that debate against Carter. But some savvy reporters seized on the gaffe – and the networks starting replaying that one particular snippet. In the Gerald Ford Presidential Library there are studies showing how with each turn of the news cycle – the “controversy” grew and Ford’s standing plummeted. Twenty-fours hours after the debate, the polls reversed and most Americans surveyed now perceived Jimmy Carter as the victor and Ford as the loser.

And that is the other duality most of us watching debates experience. We watch with our own eyes, listening with our own ears, assessing with our own particular balance sheets. But we will also be watching through the eyes of the media, seeing how reporters react and spin, knowing that their assessments will be so crucial in determining not just who wins the debates, but who wins the election.

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