Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Do VP Debates Matter?

 Being an inveterate political junkie, I always watch debates during a Presidential Election cycle.  Of course, take-aways from these contests are often less about substance and more about style or catch phrases.  Experience has taught that impressions are even more the case with Vice Presidential debates.

Before one dismisses the significance of the Election 2020 Vice Presidential debate between Democrat Senator Kalama Harris (D-CA) and Republican Vice President Mike Pence (R-IN), it is incumbent on a conscientious voter to consider the top of the ticket.   Pence is the running mate of a 74 year old incumbent Chief Executive who was recently diagnosed with COVID-19.  Harris is the bottom of a ticket with a 78 year old challenger who many believe is displaying cognitive decline and  has engaged  in what can charitably called  a laid back general election campaign,  These VP nominees may not just be virtue signaling for identity politics or geographical balance to a ticket, but may well inherit the Oval Office.

To prepare for the future, it helps to look back at the recent past to discern tips and tricks for Vice presidential debates.

For me, the most memorable zinger from a VP contest was in 1988, when George Herbert Walker Bush's VP nominee Senator Dan Quayle (D-IN), tried to answer moderators' pushback on his qualifications if he were to become President.  Qualye, who many believe was chosen in part for his youthful vigor to balance one of the last Greatest Generation Presidential candidates, tried to give vague assurances of continuity.  To support his credentials, Quayle compared himself to Democrat icon President John F. Kennedy, who had the same amount of elected experience before becoming President. Democrat Vice Presidential candidate Senator Lloyd Bentsen (D-TX), overcame his debate jitters to utter the ultimate deflating repartee 

"Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."



 As spontaneous as that sounded, the jibe came from debate prep.  According to Dukakis campaign advisor Susan Estrich in 2004, the stand in for Quayle kept making this JFK comparison, which stunned Bentson.  The Democrat VP nominee asked his advisors if he could say something and they agreed.  The rest was history and comedic fodder for years.  Not that it really helped the Dukakis/Bentsen ticket, which got crushed in the Electoral College in 1988.

For the most part, people rarely remember the VP debates.  Honestly, some political pundits strain to think of losing VP nominees four years later, such as Senator Tim Kaine, (D-VA) First Lady/Senator/Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's choice in 2016.   At the time, I covered the debate blow by blow.  But it made little impact and Kaine slunk into faded memories, even despite retaining his Senate seat.

Despite being quite occupied with the Romney/Ryan ticket in 2012, I struggle to recall any take away moments from the VP debate between Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI 1st) and Obama Vice President Joseph Robinette Biden.  Some commentators note that Biden smirked and interrupted the Congressman, which seems to be part of Biden's toolbox.  This non-verbal strategy does not accord gravitas to one's opponent; however, depending upon the post debate spin, it risks making the perpetrator look like a jackass.

Sometimes, it helps for a candidate to draw from his or her biography to score points.  Biden is famous for invoking his familial tragedies to draw empathy during a debate, as he did during the dust up with Senator John McCain's (R-AZ) maverick VP choice Governor Sarah Palin (R-AK) in 2008.

For the 2020 Vice Presidential debate, Senator Kamala Harris  should be well experienced, as she participated in six monthly Democrat Presidential Primary debates before dropping out before the Iowa Caucus with virtually no support.  

Harris made the most of her first debate appearance by going after the jugular of front runner Joe Biden by indirectly accusing him of being a racist for opposing school bussing in the 1970s.


 Harris' verbal hit must have been preplanned, because the next day her campaign store was ready to roll with "That little girl was me" t-shirts and stylized social media posts.  

In some senses, Harris' hardball did not politically hurt her ambitions,  as Joe Biden chose her to be his running mate (or is that vice versa?).  But in a more intangible sense, that attack leads to a perception of unlikeability and phoniness amongst even  diehard Democrats.  

Mike Pence's style is certainly less confrontational than President Trump's demeanor. Pence has a well earned reputation as an Evangelical Christian, so don't expect bombast or invective.  But before successfully being elected to Congress in 2000, Pence hosted a syndicated daily radio talk show for seven  years.  Pence branded himself "Rush on decaf", meaning that he was just as conservative as Rush Limbaugh but without the bombast.  Pence also hosted a weekend public affairs television program.  Skill sets developed from these experiences, such as being comfortable on camera, calmly discussing issues and controlling time, might be quite helpful during a debate.

One of the distinctive qualities of the Biden/Harris campaign is controlling the media narrative, as both candidates eschew taking unscripted questions from the press and have extremely limited campaign events which are meant for television. The mainstream media has not hidden their support for the Democrat ticket.  Thus this might be the opportunity for Republicans to impeach candidate Harris by posing hard questions. For example: "Senator Harris, how did you reconcile Joe Biden's opposition to school bussing with your hurt feelings  over racism?"   On the one hand, if Pence fails to propose such pointed questions, it is a lost opportunity.  On the other had, would soft spoken challenges get ignored and make the interrogator inept?

One of the major criticisms of the first Election 2020 Presidential debate was the disrespectful over-talking and insults between the participants.  There is little danger of those traits from Mike Pence.  That is not as sure of a bet with Kamala Harris.  Harris played the adult in the room for the second 2020  Democrat primary debate, which is easy to do with a crowded stage, but that may come off differently one-on-one.

It seems that the Biden/Harris campaign is banking on a visual perception to sell a major component of their campaign.  Due to COVID-19, Harris insisted that the daises be placed at a safe 12 apart.  In addition, the Democrat debater and the moderator will be surrounded by a plexiglass barrier.  This staging may draw attention to the Biden/Harris contention that the Trump Administration has been inept in handling the viral pandemic.  In marked contrast, Vice President Pence declined the see thru cage, which also may be sending a message.

For those that eat, sleep and breathe politics, the Vice Presidential debate will be of temporary great import.  But my visceral instinct is that it will have little impact, aside from confirming impressions of the candidates. In this cycle, that impression may not be a good thing. 


Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Debating the Debate Take Aways

Presidential debates are not like Oxford Union style debates, which can be scored on points and form. Often, the policy points do not matter.  What often is the take away from a presidential debate is a zinger (usually pre-planned) or some canned ham (scripted witticism).  Occasionally, the demeanor or appearance of a participant is what is long remembered.  Then there are the blunders, both verbal and non verbal.

To give an example of how seemingly superficial factors sway voters, consider the dichotomy of perceptions that people had about the Kennedy/Nixon debate in 1960.  Those who listened to the debate on radio generally thought that Vice President Richard Nixon won on points and substance.  People watching on television, however, thought that Senator John F. Kennedy (D-MA) won the day as he looked collected as well as tan and rested. 

[L] Vice President Richard Nixon (R-CA)  & [R] Senator John Kennedy (D-MA) during 
1960 Presidential Debate, Sept. 22, 1960

 The rest of the story touches upon Nixon’s demeanor, health, and appearance.  Television viewers opined that Nixon looked nervous.  Despite being a ground breaker for long form televised ads (the “Checkers” speech from 1952), the camera did not love Nixon.  He had nervous demeanor which did not display well. Nixon came to the debate coming from a campaign appearance, whereas Kennedy had polished talking points which he rehearsed with aides the weekend before.

 On top of that, Nixon refused television make up as he heard that Kennedy had declined TV make up.  Instead, Nixon tried to  his five-o-clock shadow with “Lazy Shave”, which melted off under the hot television lights during the debate. That contrasted with the clean shaven Democrat challenger. 

[L] 1960s Lazy Shave Ad [R]Button of New York Review caricature by David Levine

Nixon also looked in pain, green and sallow.  This is attributable to being hospitalized for 12 days during the general election campaign due to a Staph infection.  These deficiencies really came across to the television audience.

Zingers are common during presidential debates, as they are the source of post debate water cooler humor and can crystalize a perception of a candidate.  Take President Barack Obama’s quip to ex Governor Mitt Romney (R-MA) in 2012 when Romney opined that America’s major foreign policy concern should be the Russians.  Obama joked: “The eighties called and wants their foreign policy back.”.  This painted challenger Romney as out of touch with a sardonic smile on his face. 

Sometimes zingers have some substance to them.  After President Ronald Reagan had a shaky first debate in 1984, there were concerns that the 73 year old President might not be up to a second term.  But in the second debate, Reagan was prepared for this issue and said: “I will not make age an issue in this campaign.  I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”  Everyone laughed, including Reagan’s opponent ex Vice President Walter Mondale (D-MN).  That charming canned ham dispelled any doubts and Reagan went on to win in a landslide. 

An awkward phrase tossed out during a debate can come back to haunt a candidate.  During the 1976 presidential debate, incumbent President Gerald Ford was attempting to fend off a challenge by then Governor Jimmy Carter (D-GA).   President Ford asserted that there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. The moderator was incredulous at this answer and Ford offered examples of how the people of Yugoslavia, Romania and Poland do not feel dominated by the Soviet Union. 

This incredible response was given at a time that there were Eastern Europe behind the Iron Curtain and within Soviet hegemony of the Warsaw Pact.  Later, Ford’s campaign tried to spin that the spirit of Eastern Europe was never dominated by the Russians. But that blunder was a stand out blunder and may have tipped the scales of an election.

Body language can deliver debate body blows to a campaign.  During the 1992 Town Hall Presidential Debate between incumbent President George H.W. Bush, challenger then Governor Bill Clinton (D-AR) and Reform Party candidate H. Ross Perot, there were timed questions and answers between the three candidates and the audience.  The camera caught President Bush “41" looking at his watch.  

[F] President George H.W. Bush & [B] H. Ross Perot at
Richmond Townhall Debate, 1992

 He may well have been figuring out what portion of the debate they were in to switch tones or emphases.  But the spin from this Richmond Town Hall debate was used as a cudgel later in the campaign to show that President Bush was bored and out of touch.

With this background in mind, we need to consider the expectations game and the later spin.

[L] President Donald Trump and [R] ex Vice President Joseph Biden 
at the Presidential Debate in Cleveland, OH Sept. 29, 2020

Former Vice President Joe Biden (D-DE) spent the better part of a week putting an early lid on campaigning, supposedly doing campaign prep.  Cynical sorts have suggested that the Biden campaign may have been adjusting the candidate’s clock to avoid “sunsetting”, which would not have Joe at his best.   Many Republicans questioned the vigor of Biden’s campaigning and though he might not be physically or mentally up to the job.    However, expectations had been set so low, that a sympathetic news media could proclaim Joe Biden’s debate performance as a triumph if he merely appeared.   

The first (and possibly only) Election 2020 Presidential Debate in Cleveland was a food fight between an incumbent street brawler and “Lunch Bucket” Joe who on prior occasions has threatened to beat up his opponent in back of the school.  Let’s not forget the third debater in this supposedly mano-a-mano imbroglio, moderator Chris Wallace. 

In the first minutes of the debate, Wallace lost control.  But instead of letting the principle fighters duke it out, Wallace seemed to tag team with Biden, asking candidates questions pointedly rooted from a progressive perspective (climate change, racial justice, COVID-19 and “science”), interrupting Trump when he was on a roll, not allowing retorts to obvious distortions, prompting Biden when he answered the wrong question and not allowing pressure when Biden refused to answer.

Biden’s performance of surviving the Cleveland debates may give him the ability to avoid sharing the stage with President Trump for the remainder of Election 2020 because of the unpresidential atmosphere.  But calling his opponent a clown, a perpetual liar and a racist had nothing to do with this so c’mon man (sic).  Such a strategy would align with a campaign which has been critiqued for “Hidin’ Biden”, giving structured pressers with preplanned questions and responses typed out on a teleprompter.  Biden’s staff may feel like they got the credibility which they needed, the debate cast Trump in a negative light and further debates might cause unforced errors.  But in the post debate hubris, Biden’s staff promised to do all of the scheduled debates.

President Trump did not do much debate prep but seemed to wing it. He lived up to his reputation of counter punching and raring for a fight. Honestly, it was not pretty. Trump used sarcasm, redirection and interrogatories to verbally attack his opponent.  For those who liked Mr. Trump’s scrappy style, they may have been pleased. Those who are anti-Trump were not going to be won over.  The unstated objective may not have been to sway undecided voters, but to convict the base while dividing the opposition.

For instance, “Moderator” Wallace asked the question about race, Trump keyed in on Biden’s 1994 lead on the crime bill when he kept referring to Super Predators, which still rankles the Black community. Then he shifted his answer to law and order.  This has elements of answering the question that a debater wants, painting the opposition and playing to your strong suits.  Trump could have touted his Administration’s success in the 2019 prison reform bill, which aided disproportionately impacted African Americans, but he did not.  Was this a missed opportunity? Perhaps.  But Trump wanted to do a quick hit on his opponent and then segue to a prominent campaign theme of law and order, which is a sharp contrast to Biden.  Despite making inroad in polling African American men (presumably from economic opportunity), it is likely that Trump was trying to depress Black turnout for Biden, which has been taken for granted by Biden (e.g. “You ain’t black if you aren’t voting for me” from the Breakfast Club).

Trump’s pivot on the question to law and order plays well with communities that peaceful protests caused burnt out small businesses.  In instant polling on Telemundo, Latinos disproportionately thought that Trump won the debate, which seemed linked to law and order. This was further cemented when Trump pressed Biden on which law enforcement groups endorsed the Democrat, and there was no reply at all.

When the topic shifted to public health and insurance, Biden wanted to tout the virtues of Obamacare and paint President Trump as heartless. Trump wanted to show that Democrats want to wipe out private insurance and pointed to the Bernie Sanders manifesto which Biden supposedly had bought into towards the end of the primaries.  Biden insisted that the manifesto was not his plan and distanced himself from Sanders.  Trump chimed in that Biden just lost the left. Obviously, Bernie bros will not be happy that they were pushed to the side.  That might dampen some turn out on the left, even if was a “necessary evil” so Biden might triumph.

The debate in Cleveland did not feature a spin room, but that did not really matter because the mainstream media had their narratives already established.  Biden survived so he thrived.  Trump acted “unpresidential”.  In addition, it echoes the Biden campaign’s narrative that “this clown lies all the time”.   More establishment Republicans tsk tsk the street brawl flavor of the debate.  Some commentators on the right lament missed opportunities. It certainly did not look pretty.

In rereading the debate transcript, Trump was able to strongly reinforce his law and order message, offer negative news about Biden family corruption which the “fake news media” has ignored, and shown that Biden is a politician who is light on accomplishments in 47 years of public life and lacks leadership now.   If Trump did not have to debate Chris Wallace, there were some instances which Biden’s ramblings might have shown that he’s lost some steps, but Trump’s challenges redirected the contentious conversation.

Time will tell if there will be more presidential debates in Election 2020 and what messages will resonate among the electorate. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Tide Pod Toddies -- A San Francisco Treat?

Well, it would make for a colorful cocktail, but poisonous.  

Alas slightly more poisonous than the intransigence coming from the Speaker's office at the Capitol.