Mitt Romney has turned into such a skilled debater that he could trounce President Barack Obama in their three head-to-head encounters in the run-up to the election, former Democratic Labor Secretary Robert Reich believes.
Romney “is going to be debating somebody who is not nearly as good a debater as his reputation,” Reich tells Atlantic Magazine in its September issue. He says that under live questioning, Obama “can seem kind of wooden” and “at a loss for words.”
“Even if Romney is scripted and not spontaneous, he will come across as ‘on his game,’ ” Reich tells the Atlantic. “The danger for Obama is that Romney can still look better than Obama, if Obama does not have the same degree of discipline about the debates.”
Reich, now Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, was quoted in an extensive article in the Atlantic by its longtime national correspondent, James Fallows. The magazine’s report was based on an examination of tapes of Romney’s debates throughout his political career.
That first began with three contests against Democratic Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy for the U.S. Senate in 1994 and continued with Romney’s successful 2002 quest for the statehouse, his failed 2008 presidential bid and finally with the 2012 Republican presidential primaries.
Reich ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for Massachusetts governor in 2002. Romney defeated Shannon O’Brien in the general election.
“He will have done a huge amount of homework,” Reich says of Romney. “He will have moot debates with debating partners, as they all do. But he truly will have internalized a lot of the questions and the most-effective responses.
“He will have the zingers ready, and he knows the importance of those zinger lines. He will have it down — even the humor. He will know that self-deprecating humor is enormously useful, and will have rehearsed it.”
Generally, debate watchers will see a comfortable, confident Republican presidential candidate with a style that embodies “faultless preparation, crisp and precise expression, a readiness both to attack and to defend, and an ability to stay purely on message,” the Atlantic reports.
The magazine says Romney’s weaknesses are “thin factual knowledge on many policy issues, a preference to talk in generalities and a palpable awkwardness when caught unprepared and forced to improvise.”
He will face an incumbent president who is a seasoned debater, having sparred with Hillary Clinton, and who has had four years’ experience in setting policy. But Obama’s theme from 2008 — “Change you can believe in” — has now become “Things could be worse” and “I need more time.”
Thus, “the Romney team has the impossible challenge of trying to imagine every question or attack line that might come up in debates with Obama, while the Obama team tries to imagine what Romney’s might have missed.”
Still, the Atlantic continues: “Debates are and have been his strength. The Romney who took on Teddy Kennedy 18 years ago remains a highly useful guide to the candidate who will stand next to Barack Obama in the three debates scheduled this fall.”
This Mitt Romney solidified his strategy within minutes of his first debate with Kennedy in 1994, two weeks before the election. It came in a response to why the six-term Kennedy, 62 at the time, was not trouncing the younger upstart.
“People in Massachusetts have been watching, for 32 years, Sen. Kennedy,” Romney said in his response. “They appreciate what he has done, but they recognize that our world has changed and that the answers of the 1960s aren’t working anymore.”
With that, Romney’s basic tact was set: “That it was possible to love Teddy Kennedy but recognize that his time had passed, and that the ‘real’ answers weren’t the ones Kennedy could present,” the Atlantic reports.
“This is instantly recognizable as his frame for the 2012 presidential race as well: his opponent is likable but not up to the job.”
Romney then added: “People recognize that government jobs just can’t do it for Massachusetts. We need private-sector jobs. And so they are looking for people who have skill and experience in the private sector, who know how to help create jobs, who will do the work of traveling from state to state and around the country to bring jobs to Massachusetts.”
The Atlantic report concludes, “Through the rest of that evening and in the follow-up debate two days later, Romney did not succeed in breaking Teddy Kennedy’s connection with the people who had voted for him six times before. But he did his level best, with a variety of tools and tactics he has relied on ever since.”
They are: attack your opponent, defend your record, anticipate the opposition’s arguments and be ready to counter, show “a flash of sly wit’ — and stay “unwaveringly on message,” bringing “every question on every topic back to his main theme.”
It was, in this case, “Sen. Kennedy was great for his time; that time has passed; I know about business, which is what we need.”
Kennedy won, but Romney got 41 percent of the vote.
During the 2012 presidential primaries, Romney, in none of the nearly 50 televised hours, was “judged the big loser; in many, he was the clear winner, and as the campaign wore on, the dominant image from the debates was of a confident Romney, standing with a slight smile on his face and his hands resting easily in his pockets, looking on with calm amusement as the lesser figures squabbled among themselves and sometimes lashed out at him,” the Atlantic reports.
A few gaffes occurred — most notably, the “$10,000 bet,” offered to Texas Gov. Rick Perry during an Iowa debate — but, overall, “As his rivals were felled, or destroyed themselves, Romney kept moving ahead,” the Atlantic reports. “His mistakes were few, and his focus was steady, on whichever of the sequential challengers was most threatening week by week.”
Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign manager, tells the Atlantic: “Romney is a seriously under¬rated debater. The truth is, he under¬stood what his job in all those debates was. When it was to go out and finish Rick Perry, he did it. When it was to hold the lead in New Hampshire, he did it.”
Even David Axelrod, Obama’s chief campaign strategist who prepared the president for his debates with Arizona Sen. John McCain in 2008, praised Romney.
“As a debater, he is remarkably disciplined,” Axelrod tells the Atlantic. “It is very unlikely that he is going to come in there without knowing much of what he is going to say, or without having practiced it relentlessly or delivered it over and over.
“He is very good at internalizing the one-liners and knowing when to fire. And he can run off large set pieces from memory pretty effectively.”