By Gwen Ifill
Special to The Washington Post
As President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney take the stage in Denver on Wednesday for the first of their three debates, they won’t just face off against each other. They’ll also be competing with the rich history of presidential debates — the zingers, questions and comebacks that will be replayed and invoked over and over in the coming weeks. I’ve had the privilege to moderate the two most recent vice presidential debates, and I’ve heard many misconceptions about these events and their impact on a race. Here are a few of the most common.
1. VOTERS USE DEBATES TO DECIDE
For many voters, televised presidential debates serve to focus the mind. Seeing the men who would be president — yes, always men, so far — face off empowers viewers to finally choose a side.
But debates are only part of the American voter’s political diet. Like 30-second ads or stump speeches, they do as much to confirm impressions as to alter them. Think back to some memorable debate moments. Did George H.W. Bush glancing at his watch really persuade people to vote for Bill Clinton, or did it confirm the worst suspicions of those already leaning away from him? Did Lloyd Bentsen dismissing Dan Quayle as “no Jack Kennedy” lose the election for Michael Dukakis, or did it speak to an existing worry that Bush lacked the judgment to pick a No. 2 who could assume the presidency?
Minds were already made up. Gallup polls going back decades show precious little shift in established voter trends before and after debates. The major exception: 1960, when Gallup suggests that Richard Nixon’s lackluster, sweaty performance against John F. Kennedy moved a dead-heat campaign into the Democrats’ column — and that’s where it stayed.
2. CANDIDATES APPROVE THE QUESTIONS AHEAD OF TIME
As if. I get asked this question more than almost any other. (That, and “Is Sarah Palin really as pretty close up?”)
As a moderator, I took my cue from Jim Lehrer, who has moderated a dozen debates and has become the gold standard for the job. He advised me to keep my questions to myself. I went to such extremes to do so that in hindsight, it seems a bit paranoid. Not only did the candidates not see my questions before the debates, but precious few other two-legged mammals did. The Commission on Presidential Debates never saw them. My pastor never saw them. My family never saw them. Even Jim never saw them. And these are people I trust.
On one occasion, when I realized that my hotel room was at the opposite end of the hall from a candidate’s room, I timed my exit from the elevator to dash into my room without being spotted by campaign staffers. On another, I refused to let hotel staff members into my room who seemed like they wanted to do more than freshen the towels.
I’m sure I was right to be careful. I’ve since learned that the campaigns spent as much time sussing out what I might ask as I spent trying to make sure they didn’t find out.
3. THE MODERATOR SHOULD PICK FIGHTS WITH THE CANDIDATES
When John Edwards slyly slipped a mention of Dick Cheney’s daughter’s sexual orientation into an answer in 2004, or when Palin blithely assured 67 million viewers that she did not think it was her responsibility to answer my questions, I let it pass.
Not every moderator would have done that, but I concluded in each case that I had two choices. I could raise my voice, arch my eyebrows and express outrage. However, this would have made the debate about me and not the candidates. And guess what? Moderators don’t matter.
My other option was to leave it up to the candidate’s opponent to call him or her on ducked answers. I took this option. Why, after all, are there two candidates on stage if not to debate each other? Cheney took Edwards to task. Biden let Palin slide.
I might behave differently in an interview, but in a debate, it is not the moderator’s job to do the debaters’ job for them.
4. HE WHO ZINGS, WINS
This one is almost too easy to debunk. Lloyd Bentsen. Lloyd Bentsen. Lloyd Bentsen.
In the 1988 vice presidential debate, Quayle was apparently miffed at being asked for the third time by the moderators whether he was prepared to be president. The 41-year-old candidate replied that he had as much experience in the Senate as John F. Kennedy had when he ran for president in 1960.
When Judy Woodruff turned to Bentsen for his reply, he pounced. “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy,” he said sternly. “I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” The audience hooted. The exchange went down in history.
Probably the other most memorable zinger fell in 1984 from the lips of Ronald Reagan, then 73 and debating Walter Mondale, a man 17 years his junior. In their first debate, Reagan seemed at times vague and confused. Not so in their second meeting: “I will not make age an issue of this campaign,” he said. “I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Zing.
But did either exchange shift the outcome of the election? Reagan won 49 of 50 states; Mondale only his home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia. This probably had more to do with the Democrat’s pledge to raise taxes than with the debate smackdown. As for the Dukakis-Bentsen ticket, it managed to turn a 17-point post-convention lead into an Election Day drubbing.
5. DEBATES ARE THE LAST BEST CHANCE FOR CANDIDATES TO DEFINE THEMSELVES
No, “Saturday Night Live” is.
Whether it’s Tina Fey as Palin, Amy Poehler as Hillary Rodham Clinton or Jason Sudeikis as Romney or Vice President Biden, a dead-on impersonation that lampoons a candidate’s most cartoonish qualities can leave a nasty mark.
Gerald Ford was a gifted college athlete, but Chevy Chase convinced us that he was a bumbling buffoon. Bill Clinton is probably as skilled a politician as has ever graced the national stage, but Darrell Hammond spawned a generation of grainy-voiced, winking Clinton impersonators by portraying him as a leering man of untamed appetites.
In 2004, when I moderated the Cheney-Edwards debate, the “SNL” spoof featured that week’s host, Queen Latifah, playing me. But I didn’t know what would happen in 2008. In the interim, I’d met Queen Latifah and joked that she should play me again if the opportunity presented itself. She replied, “Sure, if there’s material.”
Palin’s candidacy in 2008, and my return as moderator, provided plenty of material. To this day, whenever I speak at a college, I am asked what I thought about being played by her.
I always reply: “Are you kidding? How else would anyone remember I was even on the stage?”
Ifill is managing editor of “Washington Week” and senior correspondent for the “PBS Newshour.” She moderated the vice presidential debates in 2004 and 2008.