Ahead of the first presidential debate Wednesday, it has been reported that Mitt Romney is practicing his one-liners.According to The New York Times, “Mr. Romney’s team has concluded that debates are about creating moments and has equipped him with a series of zingers that he has memorized and has been practicing on aides since August.”
Ohio GOP Sen. Rob Portman has portrayed President Barack Obama during dress rehearsals, in order “to get Mr. Romney agitated and then teach him how to keep his composure, look presidential.”
Since some of Romney’s election-year humour has fallen flat, the news that he is working on canned lines has invited ridicule.
The liberal blog Daily Kos started a discussion thread devoted to predicting Romney zingers.
On Twitter, wags speculated that Romney would recycle Ronald Reagan’s famous “there you go again” line from the 1980 debate with Jimmy Carter.
Romney has tried to humorously puncture Obama before.
“President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans,” he quipped in his GOP convention speech, “and heal the planet.”
The crowd recognised this as a dig against Obama’s overpromising and occasionally messianic rhetoric, but in his own acceptance speech Obama portrayed Romney as dismissing the importance of climate change and other environmental concerns.
In terms of effectiveness, rehearsed lines have a mixed track record in election year debates.
Reagan had some of the most successful. Not only did he brush off Carter’s attacks on his 1965 opposition to Medicare with “there you go again,” but he asked the question that helped frame the 1980 presidential race: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”
In 1984, after a disappointing first debate performance had raised questions about whether he was too old for the job, Reagan delivered a line that put the age issue to rest: “I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
Even Democratic challenger Walter Mondale laughed, though he later admitted in an interview, “Yeah, he got the audience with that, yeah. I could tell that one hurt.”
The second debate ended the only competitive portion of the 1984 campaign and Reagan cruised to a second term in a 49-state landslide, winning just shy of 60 per cent of the popular vote.
If Romney actually does plan to reprise some of Reagan’s greatest hits, he should remember that recycling isn’t always a good deed.
Reagan tried to reuse “there you go again” in 1984, but Mondale was prepared.
“Remember the last time you said that?” Mondale asked. “You said it when President Carter said you were going to cut Medicare … And what did you do right after the election? You went out and tried to cut $20 billion out of Medicare.”
In 1988, Dan Quayle was warned not to compare himself to John F. Kennedy if Democratic vice presidential nominee Lloyd Bentsen attacked his political experience. Rattled by repeated questioning, Quayle disregarded this advice and used the line anyway.
Bentsen’s obviously planned rejoinder — he smiled the moment Quayle mentioned Kennedy’s name — was one of the most effective put-downs in television debate history.
“Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine,” Bentsen said. “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
“That was really uncalled for, senator,” Quayle sputtered in response.
“You’re the one that was making the comparison, senator,” Bentsen shot back icily.
“I can remember suggesting, stay away from any such comparisons,” Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who advised Quayle during the 1988 debate preparations, later recalled. “I didn’t see the haymaker coming, necessarily.”
As the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2000, Joe Lieberman walked into a similar trap when he tried to zing Dick Cheney during their debate.
Mentioning the money Cheney had earned from Halliburton, Lieberman joked, “I can tell my wife is out there, she wants me to go out in the private sector.”
Cheney replied, “I’m going to try to help you do that, Joe.”
Cheney also delivered a withering line against 2004 Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards.
“Now, in my capacity as vice president, I am the president of Senate, the presiding officer. I’m up in the Senate most Tuesdays when they’re in session,” Cheney began. Edwards was then a freshman senator from North Carolina.
Then Cheney moved in for the kill: “The first time I ever met you was when you walked on the stage tonight.”
Yet even good zingers have their limits. Neither of Cheney’s commanding debate performances had much impact on the presidential race. Bentsen’s debate with Quayle was the high point for a Democratic ticket that ultimately lost 40 states.
The general impression conveyed by the debates is often more important than the content.
When George W. Bush and Al Gore debated in 2000, there were a few memorable lines: “lock box” for the Democrat and “fuzzy maths” for the Republican.
But Gore is remembered less for anything he actually said than for his sighing and eye-rolling. At one point, he got into Bush’s personal space as if he was trying to intimidate him. Bush simply looked at him and tipped his head in recognition.
Gore was ruthlessly mocked by “Saturday Night Live” for changing his personae in each debate, which had a bigger impact than the exchanges where he outperformed Bush on the finer points of public policy.
As a candidate who has occasionally struggled with likability, it is something Romney will have to keep in mind as he hones those zingers.