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

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.

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.

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Pat Berg on 09/22/2016 - 08:30 am.

    Debate “winners”

    I just don’t get the whole concept of “winning” a presidential debate.

    I don’t see it as a *contest*. I see it as an opportunity to listen to both candidates in the same place and at the same time talk (hopefully substantively) about their positions and policies so that I can compare and contrast. And also look for signs that positions are changing situationally.

    But “winning” or “losing” in this context just doesn’t make any sense to me, and never has.

    • Submitted by Kyle Lysford on 09/22/2016 - 10:11 am.

      Completely agree

      And I would only add that the idea of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ in a debate furthers the (unproductive) perception of ‘teams’ and ‘sides’ in politics. It seems so silly to me to have a politics of ‘red team blue team’ and it encourages people to take leave of their mental faculties in favor of simple-minded cheering for a label rather than engage with the ideas and philosophies presented by any given party. We’ve become more obsessed with labels (is he/she a ‘true’ conservative/liberal?) than with the substance of their philosophies, or what those words actually mean. For instance (warning–random and off-topic tangent upcoming) when Republicans claim to be the party of ‘personal liberty’ but then argue against things like universal health care on the grounds that they see taxes as against the value of ‘freedom’, I see many people just accept that framing and argue within it. To me, if you are actually concerned with personal liberty, it seems that the liberty afforded to citizens by having a guarantee to health care more than cancels out the concerns about not wanting to pitch in tax dollars. *Life*, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, right? Not paying taxes isn’t the same thing as having freedom, although the ideas have somehow become conflated in our political discourse. Republicans seem to have no problem spending money on ‘liberty’ by funding the military, so the argument of liberty=no taxes doesn’t even hold water in their own worldview. It’s just funny to me that the party so vocally concerned with ‘freedom’ is also vehemently in favor of economic and tax systems that help to reinforce class boundaries and favor the wealthy (they’ve earned it right?) which limits freedom and choice for many.
      ….However, I seem to have wandered pretty far off my point. Back to it.

      I can’t imagine a single person agreeing 100% with a party’s platform. I’m voting democrat (for President anyway) because more of the party’s platform aligns with my beliefs and philosophy on how I would like to see the country governed, not because I ‘am’ somehow a democrat in the way that someone identifies their gender or any other part of their identity. (Well, that along with my opinion that the Republican candidate is completely unfit to hold any public office anyway).

      This leads me to something I appreciate about Eric’s analysis in general. Many people have this notion (mistaken, in my mind) that so-called ‘objective’ reporting should not include the reporter’s biases. That, of course, is actually impossible. In my mind, the goal is to be aware and transparent about your biases as well as you can, and explain your thought process. Tell me WHY. While Eric obviously has what I would describe as a progressive slant to his writing, I don’t see it as the same thing as having a progressive agenda in the same way that say, Fox news has a conservative one. On that point, I would actually argue that Fox news has strayed pretty far from conservatism anyway, but that’s yet a whole other ramble. I don’t think that Eric tries to distort reality to fit his vision, I think that he tells you what he sees and what he thinks about it and tells you up-front what his values are.

      This comment really went off the rails, thanks to anyone who managed to finish it. Hopefully there was at least 1 coherent thought somewhere in there :). I’ll try to stay more on the actual point at hand next time…

  2. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 09/22/2016 - 12:01 pm.

    Eric’s underlying principle–that “substance” matters at all in our presidential debates and campaigns–is not evident in the Trump-supporter camp. There, as in a sad letter printed today in the Star Tribune, people label Hillary Clinton a liar (no proof at all, just a lot of right-wing radio and TV blather over the past decade) and “corrupt” (also no proof), while totally ignoring Trump’s lies and corruption (most recently revealed: paying his companies’ legal settlements on fraud issues with Trump Foundation money donated almost totally by outsiders, not Trump, and paying off politicians with Trump Foundation money). They make excuses for everything Trump does or says that they themselves recognize as disgusting and inappropriate for a presidential candidate. They’re not thinking; they’re reacting emotionally and Hillary Clinton becomes the terrible person they can’t even listen to. Because they aren’t listening to anything related to policy matters.

    I’ve listened, appalled, to lots and lots of Trump’s statements, speeches, rants, and read his many Tweets. I know his positions and where he really doesn’t have a position, because he’s all over the place, trying to cover his a…, just in case. He’s a rumor monger and a serial liar who makes things up as he goes. He is not someone you’d ever want to do business with (he stiffs his contractors and lenders, ends up paying five or ten cents on the dollar that he owes them). I am not impressed wioth “commentators,” but I do read Politifact and other fact-checking groups and have seen Trump’s claims brought down as “pants-on-fire” level lies over and over and over. Yet he gets excused.

    He will do something outrageous at this first debate, and he will not be reined in by the moderator. The moderator will also not let Hillary Clinton address Trump’s inaccuracies or bombast, either. Questions to her will be tough; questions to Trump will tend to fluff.

    And: let’s judge the moderator! For the first time in many elections, the campaigns seem to have eliminated any possibility that they will face the tough interviewers from PBS. The only nationwide non-profit news outlet in the United States.

  3. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 09/22/2016 - 12:34 pm.

    My standard is honesty

    The one thing I expect from Presidents is not to be lied to on matter of substance. The reasons the Bush administration gave for going into preemptive war with Iraq were false, with those who didn’t see the need or urgency portrayed as not patriotic. That was unforgivable. In contrast, 9-12 truly caught us all sleeping, so we forgave something that could and should have been prevented.

    The rules are different this election, Both candidates have been called liars.

    With Hillary, it is based on a few issues – some made up like Benghazi and others like the emails. When someone is caught lying, do they fess up and take responsibility? With emails, she admitted the mistake and hasn’t left a trail of current lies.

    Trump is different. He has no respect for the truth. When he says something the facts clearly contradict, he either keeps saying it – just louder- of denies he said it, or says people out to get him misinterpreted him. Or with the birther controversy, it takes him five years to admit he was wrong, extends the lie by saying Hillary started the rumor (another lie) and then said the only reason he said it to get on with the campaign.

    The media are trivializing the daily stream of lies and personal bigotry coming from Trump, giving him the spotlight that he craves. He is a walking freak show, guaranteed to amaze and amuse.

    But if you want a President who tells the truth rather than what some people want to hear and can be trusted to really mean what he says, he is not the right choice. Of course, he could represent himself as a better person in the debates that he has up to this point, but if even then, can anything he says pass the truth and believability test?

  4. Submitted by Howard Miller on 09/22/2016 - 02:00 pm.

    beware of expectations

    recall that before W Bush and Al Gore debated, there was much op/ed talk about how Gore will wipe the floor with Bush, who struggles to use proper grammar.

    Bush seemed likable – the “have a beer with” standard, Gore not really. And we soon referred to W as Mr. President.

    I sense the same set-up for Clinton v Trump. She’s deep in public experience (true). She’s very experienced in debating (true.) She’s exceedingly well-informed on public policy issues (true).

    But Trump says stuff that amuses people, Hillary Clinton says stuff that puts people to sleep or feel uncomfortable … I fear Trump (whom I oppose for president) will come across human and likable, and Hillary will not. And it will be a closer presidential election than it should be.

    It is a shame they did not include Dr. Jill Stein and Gary Johnson. The conversation might have been worth hearing.

  5. Submitted by Jim Bernstein on 09/23/2016 - 01:01 am.

    Trump Isn’t A Debater, He Is An Entertainer

    Like Mr. Miller, I have a real sense of foreboding about this debate. Hilary Clinton has a far better grasp of public policy and governance than Mr. Trump and will be spot on for thoughtful, reasoned responses. But Mr. Trump will use this debate as an arena much more like reality TV where Mr. Trump is comfortable and can say what he pleases and command the stage with his demeanor. He doesn’t have to be presidential like she must, he just has to be entertaining and not overdo the blowhard. Hilary Clinton is well practiced in the civil and measured debate of the Senate floor or a committee but Mr. Trump will try hard turn this into a spectacle of showmanship which he can easily win. Republican primary challengers were all more insightful and knowledgeable than Mr. Trump and we saw what happened to them.

    I am a supporter of Hilary Clinton – though she is not a good candidate but who might be a good president – and will vote for her no matter what. But I am really worried that this debate could go very badly.

  6. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/23/2016 - 04:55 pm.


    Each of them will be playing to the audience of their supporters.
    The question is how many voters will be attracted (and convinced) by Trump’s invitation to accept vague, contradictory and often impossible solutions to difficult problems.
    They hear what they want to hear.
    As the Bushocrats said: we make our own reality.

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