Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


In judging a presidential debate, don’t forget the nonverbal cues and ‘gaffes’

In watching the first 2012 Obama-Romney debate, I forgot that what matters in a debate has almost nothing to do with what matters in a president.

The feeling was unanimous that President Barack Obama, who was believed to be in good shape in the 2012 election heading into the race, had performed so badly against former Gov. Mitt Romney, that the outcome was put into doubt.

MinnPost has asked me to embarrass myself again. No, not with this post, which I assume will only confirm your suspicions that I can’t keep this gig up much longer before the men with the nets come to take me away, or at least come to tell me to stop repeating myself. But MinnPost has asked me to participate in an event featuring audience watching on a big screen TV of the first Clinton-Trump debate, after which my esteemed colleague Cyndy Brucato and I will offer instant reaction and analysis. (Apparently it’s sold out, but you can get on the waiting list if you’re a glutton for punishment.)

I say they’ve asked me to embarrass myself again because I did a similar gig in 2012 and I embarrassed myself that time. The underlying problem that caused me to flub hasn’t gone away. The problem is I’m a substance guy. I just keep backsliding to my belief, almost religious in its irrationality, that the electorate wants to know how the candidates would govern, and that figuring this out is mostly looking for a combination of their specific policy proposals, taking into account their proven ability to persuade or compromise wisely to get some version of those proposals adopted, plus the kind of serious personal-assets inventory that might give us the confidence to allow a candidate to wisely make war-and-peace decisions.

Of course, at some level I understand there is an unwritten law of the universe that prohibits anything truly substantively new from occurring in presidential debates. In 2012, we had two normal candidates (which is code for: No Trump). They had records of government service, they had positions of longstanding, some of which they may have revised a bit heading into the campaign. But they could be held accountable for their past performance, past positions and current positions.

‘Not much, nothing new …’

On that basis, I watched President Barack Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney debate, and I heard pretty much nothing that I hadn’t heard before. So, when my turn came to talk about what I had seen, I said, basically, not much, nothing new, they both went over the arguments they’d been making all year, using the facts they’d been using all year.

Article continues after advertisement

My bad. I forgot that what matters in a debate has almost nothing to do with what matters in a president. Usually, the “big moment” of a debate is what we have come to call a “gaffe.” Someone says something stupid, not because they are stupid (very few truly stupid people get this far) but because they just did, whether because of the pressure or because they had been overcoached, or whatever. Or, if they don’t say something wrong, the “gaffe” may consist of doing something wrong, and by “wrong,” I don’t mean truly wrong, but something that allows a TV audience to falsely believe a window has opened into the candidate’s soul and revealed something obnoxious, something that causes the candidate to cross the famed “person-I-would-less-rather-have-a-beer-with” threshold.

Three things about that, folks. A) You will not be having a beer with either of them, so relax; B) You can’t really tell what they would be like at the beer event from what they are like on camera and under bright lights during this incredibly pressure-packed reality TV show; and C) The list of qualities that will make someone more beerable is quite a bit different from the list that will make him or her trustable with the nuclear codes.

Thanks to the Google, you can find any number of efforts to list and hype up the great gaffes of past debates. Here’s one. In my opinion, none of them rises to the level of anything we should be seriously taking into consideration in deciding whom to support for president. The gaffes are not caused by ridiculous behavior by the candidates. What’s ridiculous is to call them gaffes and even more ridiculous to factor them seriously into one’s choice for president.

Gaffe lists often begin with Nixon

The gaffe lists often start with something to do with Richard Nixon’s appearance in 1960. He didn’t wear makeup. He was less handsome than John F. Kennedy (and therefore was stupid to agree to the televised debate). The color of his suit was too light and showed poorly on black-and-white TV, whereas JFK’s more media savvy team had him tanned and rested and in a dark suit.

How is this a gaffe? Does it tell us anything important about Nixon? I say no. It actually makes me like him better that he ignored advice about how to play himself on TV or about the supreme importance of makeup.

Probably the dumbest wrong thing anyone ever said in such a debate was when Gerald Ford “freed Poland” (as the usual shorthand reference to this gaffe goes) during the 1976 debates. Ford was asked about the Helsinki Accords that Ford had signed, and whether that agreement was a virtual acknowledgement that the Soviet Union had dominance in Eastern Europe. In his answer, Ford famously said: “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford Administration …”

If you take Ford literally, it sounds like he was somehow so clueless as to be unaware that, since the end of World War II, most countries in Eastern Europe were dominated and controlled by Moscow.

Ford was nowhere near that clueless. He was president at the time and had been in Congress since 1948. He knew perfectly well that Eastern Europe was under Soviet domination. He had bravely and wisely signed the Helsinki agreement, which was an important step toward the U.S.-Soviet “détente” that reduced the chance of the Cold War leading to an apocalyptic nuclear hot war.

Ford knew about Soviet influence in Eastern Europe, but based on a political calculation, one assumes, he decided to say that the United States was not content to have Soviet domination continue forever. (And, as a matter of fact, it did not continue forever). But he didn’t say that. He said something that, if he meant it, would have made him too clueless to be president.

(Ford’s paragraph-long gaffe concluded with this sentence: “The United States does not concede that those nations are under the domination of the Soviet Union,” which I think is further evidence that Ford thought he was talking about whether he accepts Soviet domination of Eastern Europe as permanent, rather than whether he was of the then-current situation in Eastern Europe.)

Many gaffes are like this, saying something that is much dumber than what you meant to say. What Ford said was dumb, but thinking that it was an indication of his cluelessness of the basics of geopolitics was even dumber, and that even-dumber dumbness is committed by the pundits and those in the audience who made too big a deal out of it.

Dukakis’ ‘gaffe’ over capital punishment

Democratic 1988 nominee Michael Dukakis was opposed to capital punishment. Lots of people are, and this was no secret. Debate moderator Bernard Shaw asked him whether he would oppose the death penalty even for someone who raped and murdered his own dear wife. Dukakis said yes, and repeated his long-time opposition to capital punishment.

It would have been pretty ridiculous if he had changed his position, on the spot, now that someone had pointed out what might happen to his wife. It would have been bad taste to make a joke, and say that the only exception to his long-held position against capital punishment would be for someone who murdered his wife.

But Dukakis committed a third blunder, according to gaffe-watch: He didn’t show much emotion and merely repeated his long-held position. The critics suggested that he should have at least found some way to get emotional, when asked to contemplate the rape and murder of Kitty Dukakis. It’s quite possible that we should consider the ability to stay calm under pressure a good quality in a president. But, by staying so calm and cool while repeating his opposition to the death penalty, he failed some kind of regular-guy test.

Of course, if he could have a do-over, Dukakis would start his answer by saying that the electric chair was too good for anyone who did that to his wife, that he would prefer to personally rip the rapist-murderer limb from limb and eat his liver. That would’ve been smarter politics but, I would suggest, would have shown us nothing relevant about his fitness to be president.

You can go through the famous gaffes one by one and they are all idiotic nothings, if you are trying to decide who should be president. The first George Bush got caught on camera during a debate looking at his watch (horrors!) which people took to mean that he was bored and wanted to get back to his day (which, at the time, was being president). Geez, what kind of a-hole looks at his watch?

I could do about 10 more of these, but they all, in my humble opinion, are things of no consequence that were made into things of great consequence. I’ll mention just one more, to set up my ending:

Clinton and Obama and likability

In 2008, during a Democratic primary debate in New Hampshire, an idiot questioner asked Hillary Clinton what she would say to Granite Staters who, according to some poll, thought she was more qualified to be president than Barack Obama, but they just found Obama more likable.

Clinton had the good sense to gently mock the question, but while she was getting going, Obama interjected “Hillary, you’re likable enough.” Maybe the key here is whether Obama sounds sarcastic, or whether he was truly trying to say something nice to Clinton, or whether he was trying to steal the moment by showing how likable he was, or — I don’t care. It somehow became a famous gaffe.

Which brings me to the ending that goes back to the beginning of this rant. I left off my opening anecdote with my own blunder of debate punditocracy when I said in front of the audience of MinnPost readers in 2012 that I hadn’t seen anything in the first Obama-Romney debate that was new or would change the race much.

Judging by the transcript, that was true. But what I missed wasn’t in the transcript. It was all in the nonverbals. It was all about how Obama seemed. He seemed like he wasn’t really having a good time, like he wasn’t really happy to be there, like he wished he were somewhere else.

I’d be a terrible drama critic. The feeling was unanimous that Obama, who was believed to be in good shape in the 2012 election heading into the race, had performed so badly that the outcome was put into doubt. Here’s how the Guardian reported it:

Romney was forceful from the start, accusing Obama of repeatedly portraying the Republican’s policies as inaccurate, and he maintained that momentum throughout. Obama, looking tired and at times irritated, remained largely calm.

In the spin room afterwards, Romney’s campaign team hailed it as a victory. Eric Fehrnstrom, the campaign spokesman, could not contain his glee.

“Governor Romney clearly won,” he said. “If this was a boxing match, the referee would have stopped it.” He predicted the election would be close.

David Plouffe, one of the architects of Obama’s victory in 2008 and a senior member of the president’s campaign this year, was subdued. “We are going to come out of this debate OK,” he said, adding that the Romney team had needed a game-changer and this was not one.

Another member of Obama’s campaign team, Stephanie Cutter, insisted Obama had won the debate on substance but, unusually for this tough spokeswoman who normally gives little ground, she admitted Romney had won on style and preparation.

A CNN flash poll of registered voters had 67% saying Romney had won it, while just 25% gave it to Obama.

One of Bill Clinton’s best-known strategists, James Carville, told CNN he had been left with “one overwhelming impression … It looked like Romney wanted to be there and President Obama didn’t want to be there. It gave you the impression that this whole thing was a lot of trouble.”

There it is. Obama, despite seeming like he didn’t want to be there, managed to get re-elected. He was able to undo the damage, during the second and third debates, by seeming like he really, really wanted to be there, and we’ll never know how close he came to blowing re-election because he seemed like he didn’t want to be at the first debate.

A matter of nonverbal cues

By the way, there’s nothing in the transcript to suggest that Obama didn’t want to be there. It was entirely a matter of facial expression and body language and other nonverbal cues for I-don’t-really-want-to-be-here.

And because I am a fool for substance but try not to attach too much importance to body language, I missed the only thing that “mattered.” When I told a good friend of mine, who was present that night, what I writing for this post, he replied: “Oh yes, I remember it well. We all knew you were wrong.”

Of course, we’ve not seen anything or anyone like Trump before in a presidential debate. The closest we have come to that experience was watching Trump in the debates during the primaries, when he did everything we thought we knew was guaranteed to alienate the sentient public, and it apparently won him the nomination.

So, when my turn comes to publicly analyze the first debate, I’ll try to remember not to mention anything anyone said.