Jonathan Chait Is Wrong about Debate Formats

I’m not all that hung up on Obama’s terrible performance in last Wednesday’s debate or in the upcoming ones.

But I do think Jonathan Chait is wrong that the Jim Lehrer format was Obama’s best chance because the upcoming debate formats are worse.

The VP Debate: the Angry Old Man

Chait argues, first of all, that Joe Biden will try to refute Paul Ryan’s budget kabuki, which will end up making the Vice President look like an angry old man.

But you can’t expose your opponent’s misleading budget numbers to win a presidential debate any more than you can expose your opponent’s misleading budget numbers to win a swimsuit competition. The audience has no concept of the underlying facts. The audience will only be able to grasp the atmospherics of the debate. And Paul Ryan is a world-class bluffer. He will spout figures with winsome authority, and Biden will come off as an angry old man.

When DC Democrats talk about Biden’s upcoming debate performance, they seem to forget how Biden did in his debate against Sarah Palin in 2008. That was one of the biggest challenges in 08, pitting a guy with over 30 years service as a successful policy wonk Senator against a blithering, but very attractive female, idiot. It is often difficult for men to get the dynamic of debating women–both respecting them but not bullying them–right, and this was all the more dangerous. But Biden nailed it.

Whatever Biden says to rebut Ryan, he is of all four candidates the most personable to people outside of the Beltway. What are called gaffes inside the Beltway are often regarded as authentic outside of it.

And when Biden delivers lines like the one from his DNC (after 9:00 in the video)…

My dad never failed to remind us that a job is a about a lot more than a paycheck. It’s about your dignity. It’s about respect. It’s about your place in the community. It’s about being able to look your child in the eye and saying ‘honey, it’s going to be okay.’

… He credibly addresses men and women who otherwise aren’t being spoken to in this election.

If Joe Biden is an angry old man, he’s a lot like the angry old men who will swing this election.

The Town Hall where the questions voters want answered finally get asked

Then there’s the Town Hall debate, where real people rather than a crusty old PBS host get to ask the questions. Chait thinks Obama will fail here because he’ll spend time filleting Mitt rather than answering questions.

Obama’s campaign is talking up its planto roll out a new, tougher Obama who will challenge Romney’s slick evasions. But a town-hall meeting is a whole different animal. In a one-on-one debate, you can fillet your opponent. A town-hall meeting consists of undecided voters pressing the candidates for answers. The focus of the event is on answering the questions of the voters. Using their questions to assail your opponent is bad form — indeed, the Regular Voters who ask the questions, and serve as proxies for the public, can be counted on to implore the candidates to stop attacking each other so much.

But one of the problems with the last debate was precisely in the stupid choice of questions Jim Lehrer asked. Lehrer’s jobs question turned into a tax discussion. He didn’t ask a single question about women’s issues. And his ObamaCare question avoided questions about the substance of the policy as distinct from setting up contrast between identical programs.

I would expect that the questions from real people will be far more favorable to Obama because the things voters care about provide Obama to describe where he has been successful and where the guy who brags about creating $9/hour jobs he admits don’t pay the bills tends to fail.

Plus, some of Mitt’s biggest campaign gaffes have come when he responded to regular questions with douchbag answers–the “corporations are people” problem. Obama may be standoffish, but Mitt is standoffish and tone deaf when speaking with real people. And that, too, should serve Obama.

Debating RomneyShambles

Then there’s the foreign policy debate, an area where even Republicans recognize Mitt’s weaknesses. Chait thinks this will go badly because it won’t provide Obama an opportunity to talk about domestic issues.

And then the final debate centers on foreign policy. Obama can try to use some of the questions to turn to domestic policy, but that risks a scolding from host Bob Schieffer.

But unless Mitt pulls another total Etch-a-Sketch–even from the content of his speech today–he’s going to say really stupid things, such as playing up Russia as our worst enemy.

More importantly, just about every foreign policy–except torture–that Mitt aggressively embraces is unpopular with voters. Mitt almost certainly will call for starting a new war, while Obama will claim (not entirely credibly) to have ended two wars. Even on trade, where Obama’s championing of three new trade deals, Mitt could tack left of Obama, he has chosen instead to accuse Obama of not supporting free trade.

The NYT suggested today that Obama let his disdain for Romney overwhelm his

Mr. Obama made clear to advisers that he was not happy about debating Mr. Romney, whom he views with disdain. It was something to endure, rather than an opportunity, aides said.

If the sulky Obama that resulted shows up at the last two debates, he may well lose those, too, just as badly as the first.

But there’s no reason to believe that’s baked into the upcoming debate formats.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

25 replies
  1. OrionATL says:

    jonathan chait wrote:
    “…But you can’t expose your opponent’s misleading budget numbers to win a presidential debate any more than you can expose your opponent’s misleading budget numbers to win a swimsuit competition. The audience has no concept of the underlying facts. The audience will only be able to grasp the atmospherics of the debate. And Paul Ryan is a world-class bluffer. He will spout figures with winsome authority, and Biden will come off as an angry old man…”

    i absolutely despise this kind of thinking whether from a dem wiseman or one of them expensive dem campaign advisors.

    underlying such a view is a fear of offending.
    underlying such a view is a fear of voters as too unsophisticated to be educated.
    underlying such a view is a fear of losing.
    underlying such a view is the fear of the merely modest complexity of political argument.

    i suspect that chait is subconsciously fears that the chattering media mob of which he is a member will downgrade the v-p if he dares state the truth about ryan’s preposterous lying.

    so, j.c., if the v-p can’t be direct in calling an opponent a liar on his lies, what may he do instead?

    look down and smirk?

    to lead effectively, you have got to be yourself and present your real self to those whom you propose to lead.

    to win in politics in a way that counts in the long-run, you cannot be afraid of losing.

    my advice to the veep –

    call the sonofabitch on everyone of his lies,

    show the voters what terrible damage such fantasy-based lies can do to an economy,

    and tell the clamoring, chattering media mob to go fuck themselves.

  2. seedeevee says:

    I am sorry, but the last thirty years (1982-2012)of any “policy” successes can only be claimed by Republicans and Reagan democrats.

    To push Biden, of all people, as a success is to claim every bad Republican Idea stolen by Democrats as a positive.

    And for you to then play the Romney “etch-a-sketch/flip-flop” game and complain about asshole political savants like Ryan is a bit too much.

    The actions of Biden and Obama hurt the long term success of the Democratic Party much more than the soon-to-be-forgotten lies of Romney and Ryan.

    Look how easily you have forgotten every Obama lie. Or have you just been resting on your single-payer health care success that Obama brought us?

  3. OrionATL says:


    “…Look how easily you have forgotten every Obama lie. Or have you just been resting on your single-payer health care success that Obama brought us? …”

    you arethinking and writing from a stereotype that simply does not apply to the emptywheel weblog.

  4. emptywheel says:

    @seedeevee: Congratulations. I believe every single line above insinuates I’ve said something I didn’t.

    Not to mention you contradict yourself about the success of “Reagan democrats” who are a constituency, not electeds as compared to Obama.

    You seem to have this crazy belief I care for Obama. I don’t. But Mitt is really far worse.

  5. seedeevee says:

    “That was one of the biggest challenges in 08, pitting a guy with over 30 years service as a successful policy wonk . . .”

    Uhh, that statement was yours. Was it satire that I just did not get? You are the one claiming Biden as a “successful” whatever. I know I ended up criticizing Obama in a mild Biden puff piece, but, there it is.

    I do believe that you do not particularly like Obama.

    To say that Reagan Democrats are a constituency and not an actual branch of the Democratic Party is a bit much. Are the Blue Dogs (Reagan Democrats in a Southerner Costume) a figment of my imagination? It is like saying (any description here) Democrats are a constituency of the Democratic Party and not actually represented by a named or un-named wing of the Democratic Party.

    It is perfectly legitimate to label elected politicians as “Reagan” Democrats – Obama foremost.

  6. emptywheel says:

    @seedeevee: As a factual matter Blue Dogs are not only different things from Reagan Democrats, they don’t even resemble each other ideologically. They have nothing to do with each other.

    And to call a black man a Reagan Democrat is all the more absurd. Reagan won those Democrats (a bunch of blue collar white men, symbolically in Macomb, MI, a working class county created by white flight out of Detroit) in part by mobilizing racism. So you just said that Obama, a centrist black man is JUST like a bunch of economic populists who will trade that populism for the resentment of race. In fact, when Obama won, Stan Greenburg (incorrectly) declared that Reagan Dems were over bc they finally weren’t voting based on race.

    As for Biden–yes, he did make policy for like 36 years in the Senate, serving for an extensive period as Ranking or Chair of two powerful committees: Judiciary and FR. Now, as a threshold matter, YOUR statement about centrists would suggest Biden would do well. And he did, though not because he is a centrist but because he’s a good legislator–a deal maker. I may not like his policies, but he knows policy in a way Palin still does not.

  7. readerOfTeaLeaves says:

    But one of the problems with the last debate was precisely in the stupid choice of questions Jim Lehrer asked.

    Understatement of the week.
    I concluded the debate format has now been outgrown, and something new needs to be devised.

    Democracy was not well served by that careening disaster.

  8. tinao says:

    When will folks stop throwing their mind, body and souls away for those who split hairs on why to kill? When the question is how to stop. When biden starts addressing that question, I might listen.

  9. tinao says:

    It’s about time real catholics face down the money grubbin christians who have learned much from their rivalry BANK.

  10. tinao says:

    Or is it the central bankers we should face… “Oh my, I’m just too emotionally overwhelmed!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  11. Eric Hodgdon says:

    Extending our grace upon these two out of touch political parties prolongs the sufferance of the People.

    Wisdom is learning not to continue the cutthroat cannibalistic capitalism (CCC) few enjoy, brought to light by our two major parties when they lowered the standards of reasonable laws.

    Will we ever hold true to our mission at home? providing the required equalization of those factors which mark us as decent people, instead of the current descending nation?

    Mutually Beneficial Economics (MBE) must replace CCC by new government.

  12. JohnLopresti says:

    Lehrer has a standard formula for asking the Republicsans’ preferred questions, set in a framework the talking points from Crossroads GPS have outlined for the benefit of the Brooks Brother Rebels in the wings.

    It’s subtle media style, but Lehrer has gotten inured to his own instrumentality for the reactionary elements in US politics. Lehrer’s program’s m.o. has developed like that for years.

    I look for a few mercurial replies from the current vice president; and some humor.

    Ryan would be as detrimental to the Republican party as an ultimate leader as erstwhile Lieberman would have been for the Democratic party. Lieberman found room on the reactionary side of the spectrum after helping the presidential ticket lose the 2004 election. I can imagine where Ryan’s growing room would be, given that he would be slated to become the cleanup person after the VC Bain Capital maven would have vitiated New Deal programs, New Frontier, Great Society.

    The art in town halls is resonation, plus creative history telling that illustrates where the opposition’s weaknesses are and what the democratic Party is trying to set in motion. The Kyle Sampsons of the Senate have gummed up the works with filibusters plenty during the past four years, even despite the Democratic Party’s willingness to compromise. Biden will get the Senate humming in another four.

  13. seedeevee says:

    @emptywheel: I appreciate your lawyerly obfuscation and your admirers love. Nevertheless, it is extremely weak tea to call Biden a “successful” anything, unless you are a supporter of government – and Democratic Party based — policies of the last 30 years (As I wrote before).

    You are not the one to determine “factual matters” in this case. Please make as many lawyerly pleas as you wish. Reagan Democrats and Blue Dog Democrats are peas in the same conservative Democratic Pod. There are no substantial differences in the two groups.

    Yes, The Black Man That Is President did say he admired Ronald Reagan.

    “”When the future looked darkest and the way ahead seemed uncertain, President Reagan understood both the hardships we faced and the hopes we held for the future. He understood that it is always “Morning in America.” That was his gift, and we remain forever grateful.”” — Obama

    “When Obama stood before Congress, the Cabinet and the American people to deliver his second State of the Union address, both the Reagan persona and policies put in appearances. He proposed a freeze in discretionary spending and federal salaries, a push to simplify the tax code and billions in cuts to the defense budget, and he made new calls for a bipartisan effort to repair Social Security. Each of these had been proposed before by another third-year President coming off a midterm defeat in a period of high unemployment. “Let us, in these next two years — men and women of both parties, every political shade — concentrate on the long-range, bipartisan responsibilities of government,” Reagan said in his 1983 State of the Union, “not the short-range or short-term temptations of partisan politics.” –,9171,2044712,00.html#ixzz28pU4UOl1

    If you think the “only” determining factor of being a Reagan Democrat is being a racist, you are wrong. You would, apparently, believe that Log Cabin Republicans do not exist as Republicans, since Republicans “Hate the Gays”. Alan West, Condi Rice – not Black, Not Republican?

    Now back to the successes of Biden . . . . .

  14. brendanx says:

    Biden should destroy Ryan, for whom callow (and callous) youth is no advantage here. It should be simple: Ryan has tried to privatize Social Security and voucherize Medicare. Obama was passable defending Medicare, but he stabbed Democrats in the back by giving Romney his seal of approval on SS; he’s just not on our side when it comes to it. Biden can at least convincingly pretend he’s on our side.

    After a ruthless, flawless campaign that also managed to be substantive (how much taxes Romney pays and his views of the 47% are precisely the issues) I was deeply shaken Wednesday night. Obama’s task was to hold Romney up as a liar and a laughingstock and finish him off. Instead, he didn’t fire, as his enemy was executing a suicidal flank march across his front, i.e., etch-a-sketching, disavowing everything he’s ever said for the past year in pretending to be a moderate.

    He didn’t fire on anything else, or, to take the very useful boxing analogy, he didn’t throw a punch. In fact, he went right into the clinch, and played a rope-a-dope that was mainly “dope”. He should have had a Detroit-Caymans-Bain-Chinesesweathshop-bet-against-America diatribe ready to KO Romney when he said “your heart is where your money is”, or when Romney mocked him for “picking losers” (He did, after all, pick Detroit). In fact, he should have been planned in advance to deliver that spiel at least twice, regardless of what what said (that 47% “never came up” is bullshit).

    In the foreign policy debate he can’t rest on C-in-C laurels and “gravitas”. He has to destroy Romney and hold him up to scorn and ridicule. I will view the substance of the debate with distaste, hoping only that Obama does this. He needs to pain Romney as a pampered professional candidate (six years now?) who weakens America because no one can take him at his word.

    As far as Iran goes, one concrete suggestion. Avoid mentioning Israel as much as possible: further pandering to Israel will make Obama look weaker than he already does without any upside, while pointing out that it’s not the President’s job to outsource his job to Tel Aviv will not be a winner with the American branch of the Israeli press. Instead, he needs to point out that Romney will rush us into war with Iran like Bush did, that Romney will be brave with other people’s blood and sacrifice lives for cheap political points, like he did on that pile of dead bodies in Libya.

    Please have him deliver a line to the effect that Romney’s foreign policy experience consists of investing in China, the Caymans and Switzerland. When Romney comes back with a retort, use the “betting against America line”: How can you represent our interests abroad when you’re betting against us at home?

    Fat chance, though.

  15. emptywheel says:


    Reagan Democrats are BY DEFINITION people not voting Democratic. You don’t even have the BASIC facts about Reagan Democrats who by definition vote Republican.

  16. marksb says:

    Agree with Petrocelli. And blueskybigstar.
    I was kinda’ hungry when I started reading, but after seedeevee now I’m whipping up a large baking dish of triple-chocolate brownies, served warm with Greek yogurt topped with a dollop of blackberry jam. Have to run an extra five miles this weekend, but totally worth it.

  17. Petrocelli says:

    @marksb: It was Thanksgiving weekend in Canada, and the Farmers made some incredible Blackberry Jam, Crabapple Jelly & heavenly Pies. I also have to increase my workouts, but it’s totally worth it !

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