During the 2004 presidential election campaign John Kerry was described, somewhat implausibly, as the “greatest debater since Cicero”. The man bestowing this mighty accolade was not a member of Kerry’s own campaign team; he wasn’t even a Democrat. The words, which were fully intended to be taken seriously, came from the mouth of George W Bush’s notorious campaign adviser, Karl Rove.
Presidential campaigns, understandably, tend to talk up their own candidates and slag off their rivals. Their guy is the one who can make a difference, change the course of history. The candidates rarely need much encouragement to boast of how much the world will change if only they are elected. At the last election Barack Obama even referred to his possible presidency as the moment that “the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal”.
That all changes the moment we reach the debates, the first of which takes place tonight in Denver. Over the past few days the game has become one of lowered expectations. Each side is talking down their own man, while praising their opponents’ debating chops. Romney’s team are suddenly full of praise for Obama, describing him as “one of the most talented political communicators in modern history”.
In response, Obama’s team has touted Romney’s superior debate experience – the Republicans, of course, held 19 debates during the primary campaign. What they don’t dwell on is the quality or otherwise of his opponents in those debates. Frankly, anyone would look like a viable presidential candidate when stood next to Herman Cain, Michelle Bachmann and oh, um, there was a third one, wasn’t there… That’s it, Rick Perry – oops.
The problem with this strategy is that voters don’t tend to forget everything that happened before the debates. At the last election the McCain campaign had spent so much time casting doubt on whether Barack Obama had the experience to be president, building up this fear that he was a “celebrity” with no substance and questioning his patriotism that all Obama had to do was appear capable, confident and wear a flag pin.
Tonight in Denver, though, both sides will hope that so long as their guy manages to speak in complete sentences and doesn’t swear then the media will believe they have exceeded expectations and therefore “won” the debate. It might work. So here’s my prediction. Romney won’t make any mistakes. He’ll have a decent line or two on the economy. And in the aftermath the media will say that Romney won and the race is back on. Which will be almost as implausible as comparing John Kerry to a Roman.