With the first presidential debate approaching, we’re starting to see lots of retrospective pieces about famous debate gaffes of the past. The Wall Street Journal has a greatest hits parade here, and it’s fun because it includes video clips of the various moments. Still, don’t take it too seriously. The most famous gaffe of all, Richard Nixon’s refusal to wear makeup and his profuse sweating in the television studio, probably didn’t actually make any difference. The myth that Nixon lost the debate among TV viewers but won among radio listeners was seriously called into question long ago. And as Bob Somerby reminds us, Al Gore’s famous sighing in 2000 didn’t prevent him from posting a convincing win over George Bush in the overnight polls. It was only after the media got hold of the sighing meme that it took off.
As for the others, who knows? Reagan was already well ahead of Jimmy Carter when he invented the debate zinger in 1980, and it’s pretty unlikely that George Bush looking at his watch in 1992 really made much of a difference. As for the Ford and Dukakis gaffes — well, I don’t know. But I guess I’d like to see some evidence that there was a sharp tick in the polls shortly afterward.
In any case, if there’s anything that partisans of all stripes should hold against Ronald Reagan, it’s the idiotic obsession we now have with debate zingers. Romney’s team has apparently been hard at work on the zinger front, and the New York Times reports that they’ve “equipped him with a series of zingers that he has memorized and has been practicing on aides since August.” Great. I don’t doubt that Team Obama is doing the same, but the big difference here is that the Romney guys actually bragged about it. This is so mind-numbingly stupid that Romney probably ought to be tossed out of the race just for sheer campaign incompetence.