Las Vegas Sun

January 18, 2018

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Trembling before Mitt

Trying to see past the trumped-up humility of debating candidates

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Disregard today’s column. It won’t impress you.

There’s no way around that, not when you factor in how little practice I have at this sort of thing and how much more articulate my fellow columnists are. Also, I went to bed the other night with the sniffles and woke up to a spotty Internet connection, and then there’s the matter of my right pinkie, which I’m pretty sure I sprained over the weekend when I lifted an unusually large martini. So on top of my hangover, I feel a stabbing every time I type a semicolon or a “p,” which is a real problem (ouch!) because you can’t exactly write your way around an entire consonant, unless maybe it’s “z.”

Are your expectations sufficiently lowered?

Then I’m ready for my first presidential debate.

The buildup to the one tonight has been a laughable comedy of tactical self-effacement, with each candidate setting his own bar so low that an arthritic earthworm could clear it.

And while that’s not wholly unusual, it’s surreally at odds with the way the rest of the campaign is being waged. According to the candidates and their teams, this is the most important election in a generation, a crossroads for an exceptional nation whose destiny depends on the selection of a leader with heroic skill and judgment. Just don’t hold out for one who can speak coherently about sequestration or make a subject and a verb agree.

Most days, we’re regaled with President Barack Obama’s boldness in going after Osama bin Laden, his prescience in bailing out the auto industry and his dexterity with a golf club, a basketball, fatherhood or a tune.

But for the past week, we’ve been told that the thought of sharing a stage with that fearsome oratorical beast otherwise known as Mitt Romney has him trembling in his leather oxfords. If he hops away with even three of his four limbs, it’ll be a miracle.

“Gov. Romney, he’s a good debater,” Obama said to voters Sunday night in Nevada. “I’m just OK.”

He sounded like a host inviting people over for dinner and warning them that the arugula would probably be wilted and the steak overcooked to the texture of jerky and they’d be wise to stop first at McDonald’s, so long as they don’t tell Michelle.

And his put-on pessimism was a pale echo of the Romney gilding and Obama gutting done by the president’s allies, who have been unusually generous with reminiscences of the way Obama patronizingly told Hillary Clinton she was “likable enough” during a debate four years ago.

They’ve also volunteered that he tends toward unwieldy answers but, on the flip side, isn’t comfortable with pithy zingers. That leaves him searching between the too-long and the too-short for the just right, a tentative Goldilocks yanked into a gunfight at the so-so corral.

Jay Carney recently told reporters aboard Air Force One that Obama prevailed in 2008 “in spite of his debate performance.” David Axelrod noted in a memo that “five out of the last six challengers were perceived to win the first debate against an incumbent president” and garlanded Romney with adjectives like “disciplined,” “poised,” “smart.” David Plouffe maintained that Romney has “prepared more than any candidate in history.” Any candidate? In all of history? That Plouffe: a farsighted strategist with a political nanny cam on the full sweep of time.

Meanwhile, Beth Myers, a senior adviser to Romney, confined her assessments to the past half-century or so when she wrote that Obama “is widely regarded as one of the most talented political communicators in modern history.” This nonetheless sent Bill Clinton into an emotional tailspin — had she failed to catch his oratorical cartwheels in Charlotte? — and cast Romney as the shaky debater daunted by a rival’s greatness and likely to tumble into a dark sea of split infinitives and weird rich-guy remarks. (“Mr. President, I’ll bet you the contents of my Cayman Islands account ...”)

The Obama camp’s assertions of Romney’s advantage rest on two inarguable realities. One, Romney has indeed been better on the debate stage than on the stump, in many interviews or at the London Olympics. He’s like a Chippendale end table that doesn’t quite go in the den or the family room, but there is that one far corner of the living room where he more or less fits and occasionally gleams.

Two, Romney has had more practice than Obama: some 35 debates over the last two election cycles to Obama’s 20-odd. But the Obama camp conveniently overlooks whom Romney got all that practice against, an all-star lineup that included Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann and of course Rick Perry, whose advisers had to beat back reports that he was on pain pills. They presented sleep apnea as an alternate explanation.

I’m guessing he had the sniffles, too. They’re hell on a debate performance — or, trust me, a column.

Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times.

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