Opinion: The sad truth about what really matters most at presidential debates

Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 25 books, including the forthcoming book, “Our Nation at Risk: Election Integrity as a National Security Issue.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

As President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump square off in the CNN debate next Thursday evening, the most consequential moments will probably revolve around the one-liners the candidates are sure to unleash.

For all the time the candidates spend honing opening statements, memorizing statistics and reciting points of policy, it’s the zingers and awkward gaffes that are likely to be the most important part of the debates.

Like it or not, quips and gaffes have tended to be the most impactful elements of televised presidential debates since they started in 1960, when Sen. John F. Kennedy squared off against Vice President Richard Nixon. While appearances certainly matter, the candidate who delivers the most clever remark, or utters the worst line, stands to move the needle the most.

Some candidates have famously stumbled in front of the cameras. Few come close to Republican President Gerald Ford, who in one of his 1976 debates against Jimmy Carter, appeared to say that the Soviet Union did not dominate Eastern Europe. His intention was to proclaim that the satellite states rejected the legitimacy of Soviet domination; his words made him sound like a bumbling president who didn’t know about foreign affairs.

In 1988, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis couldn’t have looked worse when he answered CNN anchor Bernard Shaw’s question about whether he would support the death penalty if his wife Kitty was raped and murdered by saying: “No, I don’t, Bernard, and I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all my life. I don’t see any evidence that it’s a deterrent and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime.” Dukakis, who prided himself on being a technocrat, just looked ice cold. His opponent Vice President George H.W. Bush was licking his chops.

Many decades later, in 2012, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney blundered by playing into the perception that Republicans were demeaning to women when he tried to boast of his commitment to diversity by saying, “I had the chance to pull together a cabinet, and all the applicants seemed to be men … I went to a number of women’s groups and said, ‘Can you help us find folks?’ And they brought us whole binders full of women.” The awkward phrasing went viral, helping President Barack Obama at a time when women heavily favored Democrats.

While a poorly phrased sentence can play into negative perceptions of a candidate, perfectly delivered words can deflect ongoing criticism and land a stinging punch.

Few presidents were as good at the one-liner as one-time movie actor Ronald Reagan. In 1980, he responded to President Jimmy Carter’s long-worded statement explaining how his Republican opponent would cut Medicare by simply saying, “There you go again,” making it seem as if Carter was being hyperbolic.

Four years later, with questions swirling about his being too old for a second term, Reagan said of his opponent, former Vice President Walter Mondale, that “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

When President George H.W. Bush seemed unable to grasp a town hall debate question about how the debt impacted him personally, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton almost jumped out of his seat to provide a perfect answer: “I have seen what’s happened in this last four years when — in my state, when people lose their jobs there’s a good chance I know them by their names. When a factory closes, I know the people who ran it. When the businesses go bankrupt, I know them.”

Bush didn’t seem to understand the pain of the questioner. Clinton did — showing his empathy in just a few words. Suddenly his leading a small state was a virtue rather than a weakness.

Fast forward to 2000. Vice President Al Gore, who was already under fire for sighing during an earlier debate — which was perceived as arrogant — walked toward Texas Gov. George W. Bush in a move that appeared intended to intimidate. But the Texas governor just looked up, nodded, and kept talking, leaving his opponent looking aggressive and awkward.

The memorable moments, both good and bad, have not in themselves been turning points. But they strengthened and helped cement existing perceptions that voters had about the candidates.

If anything, the centrality of the one-liner has become increasingly important in the era of the internet. Given that much of the debate is experienced only through the circulation of short clips that people consume on their computers or smartphones, these are the moments that will be played again and again, with the potential to reach voters who don’t normally pay attention to politics.

In Thursday’s debate, there’s ample opportunity for the two candidates to roll out well-rehearsed lines about the other. Biden will want to find the words that convey he is a leader who understands how to govern, who brings stability to the government and who respects the sanctity of democratic institutions. Without playing into the hands of Republicans who charge that the multiple prosecutions of Trump have been politically motivated, Biden will want to remind the electorate that Trump is a convicted felon. But it’s not only the words, it’s the way Biden will deliver them — and aiming to avoid perceptions that he is too old to serve another term will be crucial.

Trump, who brings to the stage the ferocity of a UFC fighter, will likely concentrate on his opponent, unleashing a barrage of accusations that Biden is not capable of handling the responsibilities of the office and that he is a pawn of the “radical left.” Trump may also focus on the conviction of Biden’s son Hunter on gun charges to raise questions about corruption in the White House.

For years, we’ve heard from both Biden and Trump in speeches, news conferences and interviews; little of their biographies or of their policy views will come as a surprise to anyone. But when they get in the debate studio, side by side, the way they aim zingers at each other, and any verbal stumbles that result, will stand out, potentially making or breaking the candidates on the national stage.

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