Beware the Diminishing Returns from Wonks in Debates

Mitt Romney's epic takedown of President Obama in Wednesday night's debate has increased GOP enthusiasm for next week's clash between Paul Ryan and Joe Biden. Ever since his selection as Romney's running mate, GOP voters have relished Ryan's expected mauling of the Vice-President. After all, Joe's a little bit crazy and Ryan has more command of the facts and details of government policy than just about any politician. Against these expectations, however, I have one caution: Remember 1996. 

In 1996, Bob Dole gave a temporary boost to his Presidential campaign by selecting Rep. Jack Kemp as his running mate. Kemp was the Paul Ryan of his day, with a winning pro-growth supply-side message. It was heavy on individual empowerment and entrepreneurial economic growth. My friends and I openly relished the all but certain beat down he would deliver on the hapless, animatronic Vice President Gore. We didn't have high hopes for Bob Dole, but at least we could count on winning the VP debate. Alas, those hopes were colossally wrong. 

On virtually every count, Gore bested Kemp in their match-up. Kemp got tripped up on data and statistics and his pro-growth message of freedom and liberty never reached through.  I think I might have stopped watching even before it was over. 

I'm not suggesting Ryan is going to pull a Kemp when he goes up against Biden next week – just that wonkiness and facts and figures only get you so far in this kind of debate. This isn't an Oxford-style match up in which factual points are scored. Its as much of a contest for voters' hearts as their minds. 

On Wednesday, Romney kept his remarks at the 30,000 foot level, punctuating them with just enough facts to support his arguments. He relayed a narrative vision for jump starting the economy that could connect with voters. One of Obama's chief failings was that he got tripped up with data and statistics that were treated as their own self-contained arguments. It was just a jumble of numbers that didn't lead anywhere. 

Ryan should probably try to figure out the number of stats he wants to use in the debate and cut that number in half. He should, like Romney, use just enough facts to support his narrative. His focus should be on the narrative, though. Voters are looking for a vision for the country, not an audit. 

A further challenge for Ryan is that Biden is likely to say some crazy shit. He is such a gaff-omatic that he is, ironically, immune from gaffes. It is simply already baked into his cake. For the media, each gaffe is just another "there goes Joe" moment. He will answer any Ryan statement with wildly exaggerated emotional points. 

After Obama's shellacking, the media will do everything in their power to assist Biden. Obama's performance was so pitiful, it was simply beyond the media's power to try to cover for him. If Biden can simply manage to look at the camera, though, the media will happily try to put their thumb on the scale. 

A second Obama-Biden loss in the debates would be a trend. And that trend is not the media's friend.

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