Once, while reflecting on his tumultuous tenure as Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War, Robert McNamara said: "Don't answer the question you were asked. Answer the question you wish you were asked." This may have allowed the folly of the Vietnam War to continue for nearly a decade, but it was also great politicking. Don't lie, McNamara was saying -- though he did a bunch of that too -- just evade.
This is what we're going to see tonight in the first presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. We already knew that. But the strange thing is, no one will care. All that matters, it seems, is how graceful the evasion's done. Research came out last year in a Harvard study called, "The Artful Dodger: Answering the Wrong Question the Right Way," which said, more or less, that we only notice if a politician has dodged the question when the deception was "egregious."
And Mittens, baby, that's you.
The reason why Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan were so good at debates had little to do with what they said, because most of the time they said very little. Their bullshit was so beguiling that relevance didn't matter. We all just liked to listen. And this also provides a clue as to why Mitt Romney has sucked so badly lately -- and will continue sucking tonight. Mitt Romney is terrible at evasion. It's embarrassing.
All the dude wants to do is talk about the economy, and we get that. But it's become so obvious that his attempts to steer every single conversation or interview back to employment numbers has backfired completely. It's made him look stilted and tone deaf. Indeed, if Mitt Romney wasn't Mitt Romney we'd almost feel bad for him, but only if he promised us an afternoon of yachting, vanilla ice cream, and horseback riding.
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Here's the truth: Mitt Romney is a terrible politician. He may be good at business or doing Mormon things like not drinking coffee, but in terms of spewing nonsense, and delivering it in a way that people don't care that nonsense is being spewed at them, is simply beyond him. What the Harvard study says is that listeners are abundantly susceptible to being duped. As soon as a question is over and the respondent begins his or her answer, the substance of the question dissolves, and all that remains is the answer. The only time, however, that this isn't true is when the answer has nothing to do with the question.
Which is why Mitt Romney will lose tonight. He's fallen victim to the cataclysmic self-delusion that if he keeps talking about the economy, he'll win the election. This has worked with past challengers, Clinton and Reagan two recent examples. And it's even worse for Obama. No president in the last 70 years has won reelection with an unemployment rate higher than 8 percent.
But Romney so overplayed that hand, so hammered at every inquiry with economic tropes and platitudes, that he's ruined the goodies and himself. Tonight, he'll continue this misadventure, trotting out capitalistic retorts no matter the question. This will annoy the audience. And Romney will lose because of it.