Blog Posts by Walter Shapiro

  • Unserious debates for serious times: how the empty, vacuous Obama-Romney faceoffs failed voters

    In the 2016 debates, triggered by anti-plagiarism software, an on-screen headline should immediately notify voters whenever a candidate repeats 10 or more words in the precise order that he has used them before in public. This technological adjustment would be designed to embarrass candidates who lapse into stump speeches (“I know what it takes to create 12 million new jobs”). And it would move us closer to the dream of presidential debates as an exchange of ideas, not sound bites.

    Here’s another proposal.

    The saddest part of Monday night’s debate was moderator Bob Schieffer’s repeated plaintive pleas to “get back to foreign policy,” so if two future candidates cannot bother to devote a full 90 minutes to global issues, they would be obligated to jointly sign a binding contract declaring “The 21st century will never be an American century.” No more talk about American exceptionalism and “this nation is the hope of the earth” if you neglect to mention India in a presidential debate.

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  • The problem with foreign policy debates: We can’t predict the next crisis

    During the 2008 foreign policy debate between Barack Obama and John McCain, there was no mention of drone strikes. Syria popped up only in a single sentence, and Libya was part of the vast swath of the global landscape ignored by both candidates. Even China (then, as now, our banker of last resort) was referred to in passing only five times—and one of those was a reference to Richard Nixon’s landmark trip.

    These geopolitical gaps are part of the built-in limitations of foreign policy debates. Many global problems that will be high on the agenda for the next four years in the White House will never be discussed or even contemplated.

    Monday night’s debate in Boca Raton, Fla., is unlikely to be so contentious that it will become known as the Choker in Boca. But with the two candidates out to land blows in an agonizingly close race, all foreign policy questions will be seen through even more of a political lens than exists in the White House. Short-term thinking rather than global strategy

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  • About last night: Obama and Romney hate each other. Did we learn anything else?

    The atmosphere between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney grew so toxic during Tuesday night’s donnybrook of a debate that you half-expected moderator Candy Crowley and the citizen questioners to don hazmat suits for protection.

    So if Romney is elected in November, you can just imagine the frosty silence on Inauguration Day 2013 during the traditional, the-torch-is-passed presidential limousine ride from the White House to the Capitol. For all the attention devoted to “The Presidents Club”—the hidden bonds between current and former occupants of the Oval Office—it is hard to envision Obama and Romney ever becoming secret chums like Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

    That in-your-face personal enmity between the two candidates was one of the few revelations that emerged from an evening of haymakers at Hofstra. Obama’s aggressiveness may have revived his wilting poll numbers, but beyond the theatrics, little that either candidate said provided new insights into how he would govern from the Oval

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  • In Iowa, it’s already Election Day. Who’s winning?

    URBANDALE, Iowa—Elizabeth Smith, a 28-year-old substitute teacher and volunteer canvasser for President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign, fearlessly bounded past a white “Trick or Treat” ghost haunting the entrance to a Mission-style house in a comfortable neighborhood of $200,000 homes just west of Des Moines. The specter that should have frightened her was the cheerful middle-aged man named Mike standing on the porch wearing a white T-shirt, jeans and a Pioneer Seed cap.

    Smith’s primary mission on a drizzly Saturday afternoon was to persuade proven Obama supporters to take advantage of Iowa’s permissive early voting rules. Mike (who did not want his last name used) had been there at the beginning for Obama. He is a life-long Republican who crossed over to help fuel the breakthrough victory of the jug-eared senator from Chicago in the 2008 Iowa caucuses.

    But now Mike, a family-practice physician, is an undecided voter. There was not a specific point when the balloon of hope popped,

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  • Was Biden too mean in the veep debate for ‘Iowa nice’ voters?

    NEWTON, Iowa – Right under the picture of Marilyn Monroe, the muted television set at the Newton Family Restaurant was tuned to the Fox News recap of the vice-presidential debate as the on-screen headline blared, “The Gloves Are Off.” But chatting with the 7 a.m. Friday breakfast crowd, many of them night-shift workers and retirees, it was hard to find anyone who actually watched the bare-knuckle brawl between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan.

    That’s not entirely true, because Joyce Gilbreaith, a retiree sharing sausage patties and hash-brown potatoes with her husband Bill, admitted to me: “I watched about 10 minutes of it and then turned it off. I got sleepy. I don’t like any debates like that – they’re so unfriendly.”

    Heidi Rodgers caught the beginning of it before she had to leave for her job as an overnight customer service manager at Walmart. “Biden was laughing at Ryan,” she said. “Something about malarkey. It didn’t seem like Biden was taking it seriously.”

    Morning-after

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  • The potential presidencies of Joe Biden and Paul Ryan: why you should watch tonight’s debate

    DES MOINES, Iowa—It has been 67 years since Franklin Roosevelt died of a cerebral hemorrhage in Warm Springs, Ga., and 49 years since John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. This is the longest stretch of presidential health and survival since John Tyler moved into the White House following the death of William Henry Harrison just 30 days after he was inaugurated in 1841.

    So as Joe Biden and Paul Ryan take the stage in Kentucky tonight for the lone vice presidential debate of 2012, it is understandable that most voters view the job as an assistant president rather than in traditional constitutional terms. Who wants to dwell on theoretical tragedy? It is wrenching to contemplate a transition that Harry Truman described in 1945 as, “I felt like the moon, the stars and all the planets had fallen on me.”

    If either Biden or Ryan were ever to ascend to the presidency in the next four years, he would govern with a different style and emphasis than the man he succeeded. This is not surprising

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  • Four theories on why Obama lost the debate

    As part of the slow, downward slide of civilization since the publication of Theodore H. White’s “Making of the President 1960,” most books about presidential campaigns have morphed into the breathless David-Axelrod-was-nervous view of backstairs history. But when the now-it-can-be-told chronicles of Campaign 2012 come out, I will rush with panting eagerness to read why Barack Obama gave the worst debate performance of an incumbent president ever.

    In the interim, though, there is no credible insider account of what triggered the Debacle in Denver. Maybe, as Obama aides suggested even before the debate, it’s simply that the demands of the presidency got in the way of rigorous rehearsals. Or maybe there’s merit in Al Gore’s theory that the president was left listless by his rapid exposure to Denver’s altitude. Of course, the Mile High City is exactly the same elevation as it was during the 2008 Democratic convention, where Obama gave a rousing acceptance speech.

    Knowing that we’re

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  • Why the first Obama-Romney debate will be about policy, not values

    Fifty-two years ago, in the studios of WBBM in Chicago, Richard Nixon rejected theatrical makeup to cover his dark stubble and opted instead for a dusting of a powdery substance called Lazy Shave. When the cameras went on for that inaugural 1960 presidential debate, John Kennedy projected youthful vigor and Nixon looked like the sinister figure emerging from the political sewer in a Herblock cartoon in The Washington Post.

    The mythology surrounding the Kennedy-Nixon debates has underscored the obvious truth of the television age: Visuals matter. But there is also a less obvious debate lesson from half a century ago – preparation matters as much as looks. A well-rested Kennedy stretched out on the bed in his hotel suite and batted around likely questions with aides as if he were preparing for a Harvard exam. Nixon, exhausted from his campaign travels, spent a few pre-debate hours alone with his yellow legal pad.

    For all the hype, presidential debates are not windows into the souls of

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  • Ohio ground game: Three yards and a cloud of dust

    LEWIS CENTER, Ohio—For all the fascination with high-tech campaign apps and social networking strategies, the volunteer armies for Barack Obama and Mitt Romney go into battle equipped with the oldest political weapon of them all—the clipboard. The voter contact lists may be based on sophisticated algorithms, but the streetwalkers and the door-knockers of politics still depend on time-honored techniques like broad smiles, practiced pitches and infinite patience.

    Wearing a bright red Romney T-shirt and carrying dog treats to win over barking pets, Sharyn Sytsma stands on Natalie Chubb’s front porch and says, “My name is Sharyn—and I’m a volunteer for the Ohio Republican Party.” We are on Big Sur Drive (the Ohio Big Sur without oceans or mountains) in this affluent Columbus suburb where houses go for more than $300,000. This is a Republican neighborhood and within seconds Sytsma—whose only prior political volunteer work was as a college student for Richard Nixon in 1968—is racing back to

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  • Goodbye, Columbus: Why top Ohio Republicans think Romney has lost the state

    COLUMBUS, Ohio – There are only two plausible explanations for what is going on this week in this swing state central to virtually all Mitt Romney’s victory strategies.

    Either many top Ohio Republicans are in the grips of the worst panic attack since an Orson Welles 1938 radio drama convinced thousands that the earth was under attack by Martians. Or more likely, judging from the comments of these GOP insiders, Romney’s hopes of carrying Ohio are fast dwindling to something like the odds of winning the Powerball jackpot.

    Presidential candidates have rebounded from downbeat polls before, especially when we are still five weeks from Election Day. So Romney’s problem is not just the recent Ohio surveys that show him losing to Barack Obama by as many as 10 percentage points. Instead, what is striking is the funereal interpretation that downcast Ohio Republicans derive from these numbers. Maybe Romney isn’t down by 10 points, they argue, but the GOP presidential nominee seems destined to lose

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