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That's Why Incumbents Used To Say No

Mitt Romney makes his point as President Obama listens during Wednesday's debate in Denver.
Getty Images
Mitt Romney makes his point as President Obama listens during Wednesday's debate in Denver.

In case anyone was wondering, this week's presidential debate demonstrated why incumbent presidents and others leading in the polls used to refuse to debate their challengers.

After John F. Kennedy used the first TV debates to boost his campaign against incumbent Vice President Richard Nixon in 1960, there simply were no debates until 1976. Running again with a big lead in 1968 and 1972, Nixon declined to debate and won both times. Lyndon B. Johnson also demurred in 1964 without damage en route to a landslide.

Since then, we have seen seven sitting presidents agree to debate their major challengers, and nearly all of them suffered for it.

Gerald Ford in 1976 might have held on to the White House had he not debated challenger Jimmy Carter, who four years later saw his own re-election bid die after debating Ronald Reagan.

In 1984, as the incumbent, Reagan seemed dazed and confused through much of his first debate with Walter Mondale, and an otherwise ho-hum contest briefly got hot.

In 1992, President George H.W. Bush was already trailing when he took the stage with Bill Clinton and independent Ross Perot. His lackluster showing confirmed the dynamic that cost him his office.

His son, George W. Bush, also had a rocky outing against challenger John Kerry in 2004, although he recovered well enough to minimize the damage and win narrowly in November.

The one exception to this pattern came in 1996, when President Clinton was running for a second term and used the debates to slam the door on Republican Bob Dole. Clinton was arguably a better president on stage than he was in office, but he was surely better on stage than Dole. In fact, he made it look so easy that the team in the current White House might well have thought their man would do the same.

So we have had three presidents who debated and lost (Ford, Carter, George H.W. Bush) and three who debated and went on to win (Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush). The Obama case will be the tiebreaker.

That is not nearly so reassuring a scorecard as Democrats seem to think it is when they bring up the "incumbents stumble in first debate" argument. On the other hand, it can also be said that the debating incumbents who lost had a lot of other problems and might well have lost anyway, and a less than stellar performance has not been consistently fatal.

One thing is clear at this point. The change this first debate has already wrought in the campaign dynamic is more than a cautionary note for President Obama. It casts his entire re-election rationale in an unflattering light.

In essence, the question posed is this: If he was not focused enough to represent himself well in this critical meeting with former Gov. Mitt Romney, how well focused is he on the rest of his job? Is the president the inspirational orator or the magisterial professor we have seen in the past? Or is he as halting and hesitant about the problems he confronts in the Oval Office as he seemed in confronting his rival onstage in Denver?

Romney stole the headlines with his star turn as a corporate executive fighting a boardroom battle with the weapons of his trade. But he would not have been so clear a winner if the president had been on his game, sure of his aces, returning fire point for point. In those moments when Obama did have strong points to make, he barely seemed able to find the words.

This was where the trifecta of incumbency, a lead in the polls and high voter expectations hurt the incumbent. Most Americans told pollsters this week that they expected the president to win the debate. They and much of the media imagined the law school professor Obama cutting through the blustering corporate executive Romney. Instead, the professor seemed not to have prepared for the lecture, and the businessman was making the pitch of his life.

Had he been at his best, Obama might have begun the end for Romney last night. But he manifestly failed to do so.

We may have gotten a glimpse into just how overconfident Obama and his inner circle had become. They clearly do not regard Romney as highly as they did John McCain four years ago and perhaps cannot imagine themselves losing to him. That is classic incumbent behavior and provides the challenger with a marvelous opening.

So the crucial question is whether the president will take Romney seriously enough to change his demeanor in the latter two debates. He has to punch back without becoming petulant, get tough without being unpresidential. If he can do that, he can recover. If he cannot, the small cushion he built up in September will not be enough to secure a second term.

After his weak performance in the first 1984 debate, Reagan came back in the second with his famous vow "not to exploit my opponent's youth and inexperience."

His chief of staff, James Baker, was asked the next day whether it was a good idea for the incumbent to debate. Baker said he wouldn't comment on whether having a debate was a good idea, but added "it was a good idea to have two."

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Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for
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