Debate Expectations Are Being Set -- With a Wink

Debate Expectations Are Being Set -- With a Wink

By Scott Conroy - September 28, 2012

To hear the Obama campaign tell it, the chances of the president out-debating Mitt Romney in Denver next week are roughly on par with the Washington Generals' hopes of ever eking out a win against the Harlem Globetrotters.

Obama press secretary Jen Psaki has been particularly emphatic in declaring the president an underdog. All week, she has lamented that the demands of the presidency have left him with only “a little bit of time” to prepare for the debates and not nearly as much opportunity as the campaign would like for him to “sharpen and cut down his tendency to give long, substantive answers.”

Conversely, Psaki told reporters on Air Force One, Romney has taken more time to prepare “than any candidate in modern history”; she compared his training for the three candidate faces-offs to that of “an Olympic decathlete.”

Asked on Wednesday what would be the worst thing that could happen at the first debate, Psaki’s wry reply suggested that she was in on the joke.

“Well, he could fall off the stage,” she said.

Meanwhile, chief Obama strategist David Axelrod has been particularly effusive in his praise for the Republican nominee, to whom he has otherwise offered almost nothing but unadulterated disparagement over the past six months.

"Mitt Romney had many, many debates and he was very good in them," Axelrod told Reuters. "By and large, when he needed to bring it, he did. He memorizes his set pieces and he delivers them well. He obviously has no hesitance at all about going after someone."

The expectations game is a quadrennial ritual that campaign operatives on both sides inevitably play ahead of the first general election debate, in the unlikely hope that their efforts will make an even competent performance by their candidate appear to be extraordinary.

But this year, Republicans are scoffing to a greater degree than usual at how the Obama camp has downplayed the debating abilities of a man whose ascent to the presidency was due in part to his oratorical prowess.

“Getting Ben LaBolt, David Axelrod, and Stephanie Cutter together to talk about how horrible Barack Obama is going to do in the debate would be a perfect skit for ‘Saturday Night Live,’ ” said Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus in an interview on Thursday. “It’s like slapstick comedy. I can’t even believe they’re making that play. I mean, he’s the king at speeches and debating, and he’s the loser at following through with the promises in those speeches.”

Told of Priebus’ assertion that the Obama campaign’s spinning had reached “Saturday Night Live” levels of parody, LaBolt matched his Republican counterpart’s reference by harking back to a 1990s “SNL” skit featuring a down-on-his luck character portrayed by Chris Farley.

“Republicans spent so much energy building up October 3rd as a game-changing moment for Mitt Romney that they’re trying to put the genie back in the bottle,” LaBolt said. “But if anybody believes that Mitt Romney hasn’t spent more time preparing for the debates than any candidate in recent history, I’ve got a van down by the river to sell them.” 

While Team Romney has not aggressively downplayed the challenger’s chances of racking up a much-needed debate win, they have not been shy about assigning a handicap to their standard-bearer.

“He hasn’t had the experience that Barack Obama’s had on the national level in one-on-one debates with [John] Edwards, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain,” Priebus said of Romney. “But I think Mitt’s going to be solid, and he’s going to be prepared.”

Romney has made debate preparation a priority, spending at least four full days this month getting ready for the three upcoming face-offs against Obama.

But despite time constraints that come with his job description, the president has managed to schedule a three-day debate training camp for himself beginning Sunday in a Las Vegas suburb.

In the end, the expectations game will likely have a negligible impact, especially since both candidates are widely viewed as competent in the debating arena.

According to Craig Shirley, who has authored two best-selling books on Ronald Reagan, the former governor of California did benefit in his lone 1980 debate against President Jimmy Carter because he was widely perceived at the time as either “a lightweight Hollywood actor” or a “nuclear-crazed cowboy.”

Reagan’s competent performance went a long way toward changing those assessments just a week before Election Day, but that instance was the exception rather than the rule in recent presidential history.

“It’s an inside-baseball parlor game,” Shirley said of the pre-debate chatter. “I don’t think the American people give a wit about all of this, frankly.” 

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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