Romney’s Tactic: What to Expect in Tonight’s Debate

Moderator beware.

Now that we have seen Mitt Romney in action, it’s safe to say, we know what to expect in tonight’s debate.

Mitt will go out and try to bully the president of the United States. He will bully the moderator, too.

It matters little that the debate topic at the event in Boca Raton, Fla. is foreign policy, or that this format will differ from the last. Romney will try to take early control of the entire event and manage it throughout, from start to finish.

Which means the Republican challenger will speak out of turn and interrupt Barack Obama whenever he can. And, remaining true to the previous two performances, he will talk long after the moderator commands him to stop.

Most viewers might mistake Romney’s rudeness as a reflection of what he describes as his  “passion” for America (minus the 47 percent).

I see the outbursts as a campaign strategy.

Maybe his handlers think the former Massachusetts governor’s boorish behavior makes him appear commanding and presidential. Or perhaps Romney’s people are using his debate tactics to fire up the base. There are many frothy mouthed citizens who, like Romney’s son, Tagg, would like to “take a swing” at Obama. They get a thrill in seeing Romney take verbal jabs at the president.

Romney seems eager to oblige. He constantly interrupts when Obama speaks. At times, he has addressed the commander-in-chief in a tone bordering on total disdain.

Like the moment during last week’s contest when he told Obama, “You’ll get your chance in a moment. I’m still speaking.”

Such crude behavior may raise more questions about the nature and values of the media than about the candidate. In today’s America, where shouting matches on TV are considered entertainment, it is easy to imagine the networks relish the idea of a raucous free-for-all to boost viewer ratings.

Romney’s tendency to get away with bullying also may reflect how far campaign strategists have leaped ahead of reporters’ ability to avoid being manipulated. In the age of new media and multi-zillion dollar Super PACs, campaign operatives are becoming more sophisticated in devising ways to pull that off.

Remember the swift-boating of Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry in the 2004 election against George W. Bush? Using Super PAC cash, Republicans launched a vicious smear campaign against Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran. Bush won the election, partly because the media failed to expose the deceit.

The media learned a valuable lesson from that one: a lie repeated often enough can confuse voters, at least until after an election is won.

Since then, media members have worked harder to expose politicians who try to manipulate voters by lying: It’s called fact checking. Now major network journalists routinely check the facts and report the findings.

With fact checking firmly in place, the media may need to devote more attention to moderators and debates.

In addition to guiding dialogue, moderators are supposed to serve as political referees. As viewers we expect them to enforce the rules and maintain order.

Martha Raddatz certainly did a fine job managing the vice presidential debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan. But then Raddatz didn’t have to contend with the likes of Romney.

Mitt’s performances in these presidential debates has introduced a new low standard, which means moderators have some homework to do.

Sure, presidential debates get testy sometimes. For the most part, however, contestants maintain a certain decorum.

That custom sprang a leak when newsman Jim Lehrer moderated the first presidential debate. He ceded control to Romney’s bullying and never regained it.

Almost from the beginning, Romney disregarded the rules and charged Obama like a raging bull. He was aggressive, often ignoring Leher when he was told his time was up.

Romney’s loutish behavior may partly explain Obama’s dazed reaction in that first contest. Obama is dignified and civil – some say to a fault. He appeared stunned by the vicious tone of Romney’s attacks. Maybe it threw him off his game.

There were times when Obama looked pleadingly toward Leher to intervene, but the moderator seemed unprepared to counter Romney’s discourteous behavior.

So Romney bored in like a boxer repeatedly throwing punches after the bell.

Since then, Obama has said he was “too polite,” suggesting that he too expected Romney to at least observe the debating rules of engagement.

That miscalculation has cost him. Romney’s poll numbers rose after the debate, in an indication that his bullying tactic was a big success.

As a viewer, I was left with the frustrated sense that I had witnessed an event for which there was no one in charge.

In the second debate, Romney returned to his bullying form. Only this time, Obama was ready. Each time Romney tried to dominate, Obama counteracted, denying Romney the upper hand.

Also, the moderator, CNN correspondent Candy Crowley, appeared determined to control the flow. Still, she had to wrestle at times with Romney, who persisted in talking over her.

Back to top