There will be much policy talk in these debates about the economy, the deficit, Medicare, Obamacare, Libya, Israel, Iran, the whole nine yards. But viewers will likely look for character cues, those rare moments when a candidate inadvertently reveals something real about himself (or something that seems real, or something that confirms what people already think is real).
So it went in 1976, when President Gerald Ford inexplicably insisted that the Soviets did not dominate Eastern Europe (reinforcing the perception that he was a tad slow on the uptake); in 1988, when Michael Dukakis spoke in legalese after he was asked how he would respond if his wife was raped and murdered (reinforcing the perception that he was soulless and robotic); and in 1992, when the senior George Bush peeked at his watch in the midst of a debate where he was taking citizen questions (reinforcing the perception that he was out of touch with people’s pain).
Ah yes, spontaneity. And this is where Romney really needs to be careful.
Off script, his character cues have hurt him — like when he said that the $374,000 he earned in speaking fees over a recent 12-month span was “not very much,” or when he said that America’s “middle income” was between “$200,000 and $250,000” (the nation’s median income is $50,000), or when he boasted that wife Ann has “a couple of Cadillacs.” Granted, those were not debate remarks. But it was during a debate when he turned to Rick Perry, in the midst of a policy dispute, and said, “Ten thousand bucks? Ten thousand dollar bet?”
I’ll go out on a limb here and suggest that the median-income lunch-pail lugger would be reluctant to place 20 percent of his annual pay on a sporting bet. If Romney says anything on Wednesday that’s even remotely like what he said to Perry, he’ll be dead politically on Thursday. Rest assured, he has been warned.
But his biggest problem is that fat-cat fund-raising video, where, in private, he painted “47 percent” of the electorate as government-addicted moochers who pay no income taxes and who refuse to take responsibility for themselves. (The moochers include soldiers, seniors, young people, and the working poor.) Obama has launched a new ad that quotes from the video, and don’t be surprised if he alludes to it in the debate, if only to make Romney play defense.
Obama, aided greatly by Romney’s unforced errors, has managed to make this race a referendum on the challenger. The “47 percent” video has fed the prevailing narrative and buttressed Obama’s poll rise. Indeed, Romney’s hopes for a miracle comeback may be dashed if nearly half the American public watches the first debate and wonders:
“What difference does it make what he says to our face, when we already know what he says about us behind our backs?”
Dick Polman is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.