A Presidential Debate Can Make or Break a Campaign, Here’s How | NYTimes

A Presidential Debate Can Make or Break a Campaign, Here’s How | NYTimes


So presidential debates — I mean, you could choose so
many synonyms for disaster. Murder-suicide. Masterclass. Multi-stage … Make or break … Takedown … Multi-vehicle pile-up … Where to even start? In a live debate,
every second has the potential to
become a viral moment. “And that little girl was me.” But only a few
actually make or break a presidential campaign. “I have no comment.” So we asked these
political reporters, past and present,
to watch some debates. “I’m sorry.” I’d forgotten the
very strange expression on my face. To tell us how these
moments shaped history and why we still talk
about them today. Nobody else
remembers anything that happened on the night
that Rick Perry forgot the third federal agency. “It’s three agencies
of government when I get there
that are gone — commerce, education and the — what’s the third one there? Let’s see.” And this is where it goes
really, really wrong. “You can’t name
the third one?” “The third agency
of government I would do away with.” And he’s going to his notes. “I can’t. The third one I can’t, sorry. Oops.” It was everywhere. This was a historic
political catastrophe. Your best moment might
ricochet in the media, but your worst
moment is actually much more likely to. By the time Chris Christie
got to this debate stage, his presidential campaign
was not going anywhere. By the time he left,
he had done a lot to ensure that Rubio’s
wasn’t, either. “And let’s dispel
once and for all with this fiction that
Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing.” “Let’s dispel
with this fiction.” This was the sort
of pre-baked line that he had planned to drop
at some point in the debate. “But I would add this,
let’s dispel with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn’t
know what he’s doing.” And he does it again. And Christie’s ready. “That’s what
Washington, D.C., does. The memorized
25-second speech that is exactly what his
advisers gave him.” “Here’s the bottom line. This notion that Barack Obama
doesn’t know what he’s doing is just not true.” “There it is.” “Number three.” “He knows exactly
what he’s doing.” “There it is, the memorized
25-second speech.” There it is, and Christie’s ready. “That’s the reason why —” “There it is, everybody.” “— this campaign is so —” Marco Rubio had all the
attention, all the momentum going into this debate,
and all of a sudden, Christie knifed him. It was a murder-suicide,
frankly, in political terms. The weapon of choice
was Rubio’s own words. Trump, as you can see,
has no particular role in this exchange. He really benefited
in a lot of ways, and this is emblematic of it,
from the other candidates thinking that if they could
just take out everybody else and get Trump in a
one-on-one match-up, then they would be the one. “The debate is over.” It’s 1992. There was a very
difficult recession. Unemployment got to almost 8%. Along comes this obscure
Arkansas governor. Bill Clinton had held town halls
all around the country. He excelled at them. It allowed him to make
a personal connection with voters. “In my state, when
people lose their jobs, there’s a good chance
I’ll know them by their names. When a factory closes,
I know the people who ran it.” She starts to nod. She agrees with him. This is a masterclass in
making a person feel listened to and connecting
through eye contact, whereas if you look at George
Bush, he’s looking around. He’s trying to
escape the question. There was no way
George Bush was going to catch up after that. In the 1984 election,
Ronald Reagan was already the
oldest president to serve in American history. And as we got into the
homestretch of the campaign, there were growing
questions about his age and about his mental acuity. Ronald Reagan’s greatest gift,
of course, was humor. “I will not make age
an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit
for political purposes my opponent’s youth
and inexperience.” (Laughter) You can see Walter Mondale. And he can’t help
but crack up, too. And he later told
people that that’s when he knew he had lost
that presidential election. I cover Joe Biden now. He is 76. And there are so many folks,
including many Democrats, who will point to this
moment with Reagan and say that’s the way
that you talk about age. Pictures of Ford had sort of
characterized him as somewhat of a fumbler. “There is no Soviet
domination of Eastern Europe. And there never will be
under a Ford administration.” “I’m sorry. Could I just —” I stopped it because you
don’t trick a president into comments. You go back at him. And you say, excuse me — “Did I understand
you to say, sir, that the Russians
are not using Eastern Europe as their
own sphere of influence?” I knew what he
was trying to say, but he so fumbled it,
that it came out as if he was saying
the Russians don’t have any influence or control
over the countries of Eastern Europe. “I don’t believe
that the Poles consider themselves dominated
by the Soviet Union.” The poor guy,
this performance fit right into
the cliche image that people had of him. (Phone ringing) “Hello.” And it took them
24 hours to put out a corrective statement saying
what he really meant to say, et cetera. But by then it was too late. (Applause) “Dr. Ben Carson.” A gaffe committed
in the current climate with all the reactions
that immediately follow is preserved forever. You’re running against
yourself in effect and against your
own image as you’ve created it over the years.

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