Grading the Race for the Lowest Debate Expectations

By
Derrrr, what's debating?Photo: Photos: AFP/Getty Images

With fewer than six weeks left until America votes for its next president (well, the rest of America, at least), the three presidential debates scattered throughout October may be the last chance for either candidate to make a major impact on the race. And yet, if you listen to the campaigns, both President Obama and Mitt Romney are underprepared, outmatched, and destined to embarrass themselves before tens of millions of horrified voters. It's all part of a ridiculous political tradition in which each campaign tries to lower expectations for itself in the hopes that a bad debate performance will be excused, a satisfactory debate performance will be viewed as a surprisingly good one, and a good performance will be seen as pure brilliance. Their efforts so far are more amusing than convincing, however. 

Team Obama:

    • The Pitch: Spokesperson Jen Psaki: Obama hasn't "debated in four years," and his tendency to give "longer, substantive answers" isn't suited for the "shorter format of the debate." 
      How Convincing?: 2/5. He hasn't debated in a while, sure. But he should know how to give a concise response at this point. What does he do during interviews, talk for an hour at a time?
       
    • The Pitch: David Axelrod: Romney "has been practicing for months. I think the invasion of Normandy took less preparation than he's putting into these debates.
      How Convincing?: 1/5. Obama has had plenty of time to practice himself. No sympathy.
       
    • The Pitch: Unnamed Obama aide: Told Buzzfeed that "the president has the tendency to get 'testy' when challenged, and that given his dislike for Romney, 'who knows what can happen.'" 
      How Convincing?: 1/5. What's he going to do, lunge across the stage and strangle him?
       
    • The Pitch: Robert Gibbs: Romney has "been through 20 of these debates in the primaries over the last year" and "bragged that he was declared the winner in 16 of those debates," so he "starts with an advantage.”
      How Convincing?: 2/5. The thing about Romney's recent debate experience is true. But we're accepting as fact Romney's own self-serving assessment of his debate performances now?
       
    • The Pitch: Jen Psaki: Obama "has had to balance the management of world events, governing, time out campaigning and will have less time than we anticipated to sharpen and cut down his tendency to give long, substantive answers."
      How Convincing?: 1/5. Again, Obama has known Romney would be his debate opponent for, oh, about seven months now.
       
    • The Pitch: Jen Psaki: The worst thing that could happen to Obama in the debates is that "he could fall off the stage."
      How Convincing?:  It was a joke, but still, 0/5.

Team Romney:

    • The Pitch: Spokeswoman Andrea Saul: "President Obama is the most gifted speaker in modern political history, so it is hard to imagine anyone outscoring him in debate points.”
      How Convincing?: 2/5. Orating is not debating.
       
    • The Pitch: Rob Portman, who is acting as Obama in Romney's debate prep: Obama is a "very effective debater" who "deals with all these issues ... everyday," while Romney "hasn’t had a debate against a Democrat in over ten years," which is "very different" than debating five or ten people Republicans.
      How Convincing?: 2/5. It's different, sure, but is it harder? Predicting a single opponent's attacks should be a lot easier, for example. We're not totally buying it. 

    • The Pitch: Mitt Romney: “The president is obviously a very eloquent, gifted speaker — he’ll do just fine. I’ve, you know, I’ve never been in a presidential debate like this and it will be a new experience.”
      How Convincing?: 1/5. Romney has participated in 37 GOP primary debates in the last five years. He's not exactly new to debating.

    • The Pitch: Andrea Saul: "The idea a president who is known for his world class oratory, is a world-class debater who laid waste to Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and John McCain, will be unprepared [for the] debates is absurd."
      How Convincing?: 2/5. Besting John McCain makes you a "world-class debater" now?