The first rule of Debate Club is that you don't talk about Debate Club — especially when you lose in Debate Club as badly as Barack Obama did last week. Mitt Romney stuck to the strategy I outlined last week and succeeded in delivering a masterful performance, but some of that credit goes to the president, who made Romney's job a lot easier with a stunningly poor performance. Not only did Obama make it incredibly easy for Romney to look presidential in their first and most critical meeting on the national debate stage — the Obama campaign couldn't quit talking about it all week.
Within hours, the campaign tried to blame Romney for throwing off Obama with supposed falsehoods — which is a novel case to make for a candidate to be the leader of the free world. If Obama gets stunned into failure by a politician's spin during a debate, how exactly does that build confidence in Obama's ability to face down people like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hugo Chavez?
By this week, the campaign decided to go after Romney in an ad on what they apparently conceived as their best opening from the debate: Big Bird. The ad attacked Romney for targeting federal subsidies for PBS during the debate, and accused him of ignoring a string of Wall Street villains to go after Sesame Street. While the list consisted entirely of three villains that have already been prosecuted for their misdeeds — two of them by the Bush administration — one didn't make the list: Jon Corzine, whose MF Global blew over a billion dollars in client cash before its collapse. Corzine was and remains a bundler for the Obama campaign. The ad got roundly criticized for its lack of seriousness, and Sesame Workshop almost certainly did Team Obama a favor by asking them to cease and desist the use of Big Bird in political ads.
Voters don't choose presidents on the basis of the bottom of the ticket.
At the same time, Chuck Todd wondered why the Obama campaign continued to insist on talking about the debate. MSNBC's Mike Barnicle asked Todd on Tuesday, "Doesn't this [Big Bird ad] just remind you of the debate?" Yes, Todd exclaimed. "The campaign just can't seem to turn the page on this debate…. Any conversation about that debate, I assume, helps Mitt Romney."
On Thursday, both campaigns get to turn the page with the next scheduled event in Debate Club. Vice President Joe Biden will square off against Romney's running mate, Paul Ryan, in a standard-format debate that will take place at Centre College in Danville, Ky. Team Obama might be able to stop talking about last week's debate, but don't expect any big game-changers to occur — for more than one reason.
Since this will be the only debate between Biden and Ryan, the scope of topics is wide open. However, the moderator will be ABC News' Martha Raddatz, the network's chief foreign correspondent, which suggests that foreign policy will take a central role in the debate. Democrats had hoped to make the relative inexperience of Romney and Ryan in this policy sphere an issue for the last two months of the general election cycle. The terrorist attack in Benghazi and the administration's deceptive responses to the media in its aftermath have almost certainly negated any advantage Biden will have in what had been considered his strongest area of expertise.
The two debaters match up better than some on either side realize. Republicans have been licking their chops for this moment for the past year, believing that Biden will uncork gaffes and embarrass the Obama campaign. He certainly has that problem, but Biden does surprisingly well at connecting emotionally with voters. He did much better at the Democratic convention than his boss did, and given Obama's complete inability to connect on any level at all during the debate, this will provide a clear area of improvement for the Democratic ticket.
Similarly, Democrats are too quick to deride Ryan as a colorless wonk. They know he will bring an encyclopedic knowledge of policy, especially on budgets and entitlement programs, but assume that he will come across as bland and unemotional. Those who have seen Ryan in action know better. He provided a big emotional boost to the Romney campaign this summer, and connects very well with voters on the stump. The White House certainly hasn't forgotten how Ryan bested Obama himself during the ObamaCare "debate" in early 2010, nor how Ryan got Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner to admit that the Obama administration had no plan to address the long-term crisis in entitlement programs and national debt.
In the end, though, this is merely an academic exercise. Voters don't choose presidents on the basis of the bottom of the ticket. That point was made quite clearly in 1984, when Walter Mondale chose Geraldine Ferraro as the first woman on a major-party ticket, a move that generated mountains of praise — while Mondale went on to win only Minnesota in Ronald Reagan's re-election landslide. Four years later, Lloyd Bentsen humiliated Dan Quayle in a debate, and George H.W. Bush went on to thump Bentsen's running mate, Michael Dukakis, by 315 electoral votes. Sarah Palin briefly re-energized John McCain's campaign in 2008 and held her own against Biden in the debate, but Obama sailed to victory nonetheless.
That means Team Obama may get an opportunity to finally stop talking about the last debate, but they almost certainly won't win much from Thursday's, either. Nor do the next two debates look promising for Obama. The next presidential debate will take place in a town-hall format, in which candidates normally pay more attention to the voters than each other. The final debate will focus on foreign policy, which has become a trap for Obama, as noted earlier.
Even if Obama does well in these debates, though, the first impression has already been fixed from last week's contest. Team Obama has made it stick all the more by constantly reminding everyone about how badly he did. Obama's best chance to reverse the slide will be to make the case for his second term outside of the debate halls, rather than focus entirely on Romney as his campaign has done since May in an attempt to disqualify him in the mind of voters. That strategy evaporated in the thin air of Denver, and there won't be any time left to revive it.