In the 2004 presidential debates, most critics declared then-Sen. John F. Kerry the winner over President George W. Bush – and by Oxford debating rules, they were right. But the truth is Kerry lost the debates because he was the only candidate on stage who made a damaging gaffe – declaring any U.S. decision on the use of force must pass a “global test” — that haunted him going into the final weeks of the campaign.
Bush quickly turned the Democratic nominee’s comment into an ad, and the “global test” immediately became a staple of Bush’s stump speech. “In the debate ... he said that America has to pass a ‘global test’ before we can use American troops to defend ourselves,” Bush said. “I have a different view. When our country is in danger, it’s not the president’s job to take an international poll. It’s the president’s job is to defend this country.” Kerry was put on the defensive, trying to explain his comment. (”The test I was talking about is a test of legitimacy – not just in the globe, but elsewhere,” he said during a town hall meeting in New Hampshire.) As the saying goes, if you’re explaining you are losing – and lose Kerry did a few weeks later.
The lesson is that the candidate who “wins” a presidential debate is not necessarily the better debater – it’s the one who avoids saying something their opponent can seize on to make voters question their fitness for the Oval Office.
Whenever presidential debate season comes around, we love to recall the memorable lines – such as Ronald Reagan’s famous declaration that he would not make age and issue in this campaign and “exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” But in truth, the zingers are few are far between, while devastating debate gaffes are plentiful.
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In 1976, President Ford looked completely out of his depth when he declared during a debate with Jimmy Carter that Poland was “independent, autonomous” of the Soviet Union (which was news to Poles trapped behind the Iron Curtain). When challenged, Ford refused to admit his mistake: “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration.” Any advantage he had on national security evaporated.
Then in 1980, it was President Carter’s turn to cede national security to his opponent, when he declared “I had a discussion with my daughter, Amy, the other day, before I came here, to ask her what the most important issue was. She said she thought nuclear weaponry — and the control of nuclear arms.” Consulting his 12-year-old daughter on nuclear weapons made Carter look weak – and Reagan exploited that weakness.
Gaffes are most devastating when they seem to confirm a negative impression of the candidate. In 1988, Michael Dukakis was seen as wooden and stilted, so when he was asked “If Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?” — and replied with a dispassionate, monotone defense of his opposition to the death penalty – voters cringed.
In 1992, George H.W. Bush was battling the impression that he was out of touch with the struggles of ordinary citizens. His unspoken gaffe was to look down at his wrist to check the time just as a woman asked how candidates could relate to the economic hardships facing the average American.
In 2012, Texas Gov. Rick Perry was battling the impression that his command of the issues was less than deep, when he announced that he planned to shut down three government agencies as president ... and forgot the third one. “Oops,” he said. He was done.
The challenge for the candidates Monday night, then, is not to get in that memorable zinger, which is often hard to pull off – as Hillary Clinton learned in 2008, when she tried to hit Barack Obama for plagiarizing the speeches of then-Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick (”Lifting whole passages from someone else’s speeches is not change you can believe in, it’s change you can Xerox,” Clinton declared to boos from the audience).
Rather, the challenge Monday night is for both candidates to avoid disqualifying mistakes. Trump’s advantage going in is that he has already made a number of gaffes that might have destroyed other candidates, but have left him relatively unscarred. So the threshold for what can hurt him is relatively high.
Clinton, by contrast, needs to avoid doing anything that confirms voters’ concerns about her health and her honesty. Polls show that less than 40 percent of Americans think she is in good-enough health to serve as president while another 23 percent are not sure. So if she seems tired or confused – or has some sort of health episode during 90 uninterrupted minutes under the debate stage lights – it could finish her. And with just 11 percent of voters believing she is honest, she needs to avoid any factual whoppers or innovative new excuses for her emails.
Bottom line: To win tonight, the candidates don’t have to land a knockout punch, they just need to avoid delivering one ... to themselves.
Marc A. Thiessen, a fellow with the American Enterprise Institute and former chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush, writes a weekly online column for The Washington Post.