The unseemly handwringing

Updated
 

Behind in the polls and widely expected to lose, the presidential challenger proudly boasted after winning a fall debate, “Today, we have a brand new race. Today, everything is different.” The candidate’s aides argued that voters were finally giving their guy a second look and rethinking their support for the president.

Chris Wallace said the incumbent’s bandwagon “hit a bad rut last night and the president seemed to know it.” The incumbent mentioned the debate at a rally the next day, and tried to make the best of a bad situation, but Wallace added the debate gave the challenger “new life.”

I’m referring, of course, to 1984.

If you missed last night’s opening segment – especially if you’re one of the Democrats who responded to Wednesday’s debate with dread and despair – it’s well worth your time. Rachel noted the recent historical record, and the pattern that emerges.

Incumbent presidents nearly always lose their first (and in some cases, only) debate. It happened to Ford in 1976; it happened to Carter in 1980; it happened to Reagan in 1984; it happened to Bush in 1992; it happened to the other Bush in 2004; and it happened to Obama this week. The exception was Clinton in 1996, but as Rachel noted, the scorecard for sitting president – one win, six losses – points to a trend.

With this in mind, the Democratic handwringing over the last 36 hours is a bit much. As Rachel put it, “In terms of the nationwide Democratic bedwetting that’s going on today over the challenger having won this first debate against the incumbent president, Barack Obama – come on, kids. Buck up. Challenger wins first debate is not a headline that should surprise anyone. Let alone cause anyone to tear their hair out in disbelief.”

In terms of why this happens as often as it does, there are competing explanations.

I’m inclined to think incumbents are simply at a structural disadvantage: challengers have just wrapped up a season of primary debates, which gave them valuable experience and practice, and have extensive time to prepare for the big event. Presidents, meanwhile, are four years removed from their most recent debate, and have an executive branch of the government to run while squeezing some prep into their schedule.

Plus, in this week’s case, Romney’s just really good at debating. For all of his many faults, this is arguably his single greatest skill.

Regardless, the political world needs to calm down a bit. Republicans dancing in the end zone should ask Presidents Kerry and Mondale whether winning a debate against an incumbent is a ticket to the White House. Democrats on the verge of panic might want to do the same.

Debates, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama

The unseemly handwringing

Updated