Jacob Heilbrunn

The Presidential Debates: Romney and Nixon

One person who is posthumously benefitting from the upcoming debates between President Obama and Mitt Romney is Richard Nixon. Footage of Nixon debating John F. Kennedy in 1960 is popping up everywhere as commentators look back at the debates that have taken place over the decades.

The debates have their own lore. For those who watched the 1960 debates on television, Kennedy seemed to be the clear winner. For those who listened to that era's version of "wireless," Nixon gave Kennedy a licking. Nixon of course had been holed up in a hospital for several weeks, confined to a bed because of a knee injury he suffered that turned into phlebitis. Look at the pictures of him and he appears gaunt, haggard. He had clearly lost weight and muscle, while Kennedy, puffed up on cortisone shots, portrayed himself as youthful, vigorous, ready to get American up and running again to challenge the Soviets after the somnolent Eisenhower years. In 1960, Nixon muffed it at the debates. It wasn't simply his appearance. He was cowed by Kennedy. He largely agreed with much of his program, soft-pedaling the differences between the two men. The debates ended up elevating Kennedy. In response, Nixon never engaged in a presidential debate again, neither in 1968 nor in 1972.

Can Romney administer a similar knockout punch to Obama tonight? Like Nixon, Romney is basically a moderate. But unlike Nixon, he doesn't have the same resentment of the Eastern establishment, the neuralgic sense of its resentments and fears. Romney enjoyed a cossetted childhood. He went to Harvard. He was Governor of Massachusetts. As the son of a grocer, Nixon, by contrast, couldn't afford to go to Harvard. Nixon would probably marvel at Romney's failure to connect with the constituencies that propelled him to the presidency in 1968.

The belief, or hope, among some conservatives is that Romney will take on Obama directly and resuscitate his campaign. One theory is that Romney always does well in debates. But how hard was it really to demolish the likes of former pizza magnate Herman Cain? Or a puffed up Newt Gingrich? The one time he faced a serious opponent was when he debated Ted Kennedy, and he wiped the floor with Romney.

If Romney does not do well tonight, then his campaign will be over in all but name. Already the apprehension among Republicans is that he will drag down the GOP in congressional races, while a surging Obama leads the Democrats to maintain control of the Senate and add seats in the House. But the 2012 race may still have a few surprises left. As Maureen Dowd notes in the New York Times today, the Libya debacle suggests that the White House went into overdrive to try and contain the political damage--thereby exacerbating it. Was there, as Dowd asks, "complicity in duplicity"--did the Obama administration replicate the kind of politicization of foreign affairs that marked the George W. Bush administration?

But the debate tonight will revolve around domestic affairs. It is Romney's last shot. If he can emancipate himself from GOP dogma, he'll have a fighting chance. He won't simply be battling Obama but also his own party, which views him with deep mistrust. But if he fails, he may take it down along with him and set the stage for Obama to win big.