Arthur Cyr: Obama, Romney should take a debate lesson from Reagan

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"Are you better off?" Ronald Reagan rhetorically asked the audience during his 1980 debate with President Jimmy Carter. President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney should each take a lesson from Reagan's performance.

In fact, Americans were better off, as high inflation and unemployment sharply declined, but most people did not feel that way. Carter's erratic leadership, compounded by the Iran hostage crisis, created an image of ineffectiveness. Reagan projected great confidence and connected with the audience.

The debate between Obama and Romney has confirmed each shares Carter's taste for facts and policy references. However, neither put forward a vision comparable to Reagan's persuasive performance.

The debate reconfirmed American preoccupation with the economy and health care. Obama has consistently charged Romney's tax and economic proposals favor people in the top income brackets.

Not surprisingly, this generated intense disagreement in the debate, as each candidate stressed commitment to that all-important middle class.

Presidential debates are important but are only one factor in multifaceted campaigns, and previous presidential elections have seen dramatic late shifts in opinion. In 1968, which had no presidential debates, Democratic nominee Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey eliminated a 12 percent opinion poll gap in October and barely lost to the Republican candidate, Richard M. Nixon.

In an equally dramatic example, in 2000 the Democratic presidential nominee, Vice President Al Gore, was trailing by 7 percent 10 days before the election. He erased this and in fact finished ahead of Republican George W. Bush in the popular vote, though he lost the White House when the U.S. Supreme Court awarded the contested state of Florida to his opponent.

The Bush-Gore presidential debates did not play a decisive role, though the lesser-known Bush had the opportunity for an introduction to the national viewing audience. His folksy personable style, a major political asset, was projected effectively.

The 1980 debate remains the most important example of directly influencing the election. Carter led Reagan 47 percent to 39 percent in late October polling. After their single debate encounter on Oct. 28, Reagan surged ahead and won the election by 51 percent to 41 percent. Reagan was already well known but vulnerable to criticism of extremism. In the televised exchange, he erased the problem.

Additionally, Reagan in contrast to Carter was willing to debate insurgent independent candidate John Anderson. Their televised encounter provided the Republican nominee with additional visibility, along with extremely important credit for openness and fair play.

Vice presidential debates can also be important. In 1976, Republican vice presidential nominee Sen. Bob Dole stressed Americans had been killed and wounded in "Democrat wars." The mean spirited attack contributed to the Republican election loss.

Youthful Sen. Dan Quayle, running mate of George H.W. Bush, became widely regarded as a political liability, and this was confirmed by a weak debate performance. He began comparing himself rhetorically to John F. Kennedy. Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Lloyd Bentsen's debate rejoinder to Quayle that 'you're no Jack Kennedy' had a devastating impact.

Romney's aggressive approach has been credited by pundits, and is essential to overcome the continuing if narrow Obama advantage in polls. He won the debate on points, and has two more opportunities for a knockout.

Sen. Joe Biden was effective in the 2008 vice presidential debate with Gov. Sarah Palin. This time, he faces a more formidable foe in Rep. Paul Ryan.

All four candidates will have facts, but for each presenting a vision is vital.

(Arthur Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College, in Kwnosha, Wis.)

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