A closing statement train wreck

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After last week’s debate, one of the more common criticisms of President Obama is that he stumbled a bit during his closing statement. But for those who got a little hysterical about this a week ago, take a couple of minutes to consider then-President Reagan’s closing statement during his first re-election debate in 1984.

We’ve talked before about how routinely incumbents struggle in their first debate, but this Reagan clip was something of a train wreck. Early on, he went on a tangent about those who weren’t better off than they were four years prior; he meandered his way through a series of statistics; he put himself on the defensive over military spending; and he seemed to lose his train of thought several times.

Dave Weigel noted yesterday, “This was bad. Reagan knew it was bad.”

“As soon as he left the stage,” reports Lou Cannon in President Reagan, “Reagan confessed to [adviser Stu] Spencer that he had flopped.” According to Jack Germond and Jules Witcover, when Mondale left the stage, he confided to an aide that “This guy is gone” – as in mentally not all there. Two days after the debate, RNC Chairman Paul Laxalt held a press conference admitting that Reagan had blown it, but “it wasn’t because of any physical or mental deficiency… he was brutalized by a briefing process that didn’t make any sense.” Why mention mental deficiency? Because the “drive-by media” was covering the debate that way, bringing on mental health experts to ask what the hell happened to Reagan.

Political communications were much different in 1984 – no Internet or social media; no daily tracking polls; no Intrade; one cable news network instead of three – but the public response was harsh enough that Reagan quickly slid seven points in the polls. Had it happened today, I suspect it would have been far worse.

Obama’s taken a similar hit in the polls, but the difference is, his lead was much smaller going into October, and less ground to give.

As for the bigger picture, ABC’s Diane Sawyer asked President Obama yesterday whether it’s possible his performance handed the election to Romney. Obama, not surprisingly, said, “No.”

I’ll confess, I have a hard time understanding the premise. There are, to be sure, plenty of fickle people out there, but I find it hard to fathom a significant number of voters thinking, “I had a set of priorities and a sense of where I wanted the country to go, but one candidate delivered pre-scripted lines better than the other candidate did for 90 minutes, so now I have an entirely new set of priorities and want the country to go in a very different direction.”

I’m sure this happens, but I find it hard to understand.

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A closing statement train wreck

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