In the 1984 presidential debate, incumbent Ronald Reagan was asked the pointed question of whether or not he believed his old age would hinder his job as president. In a brilliant aversion, Reagan responded with a line that would make history.
“I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth an inexperience.” The crowd burst into laughter and it was at this point that Reagan’s opponent, Walter Mondale, said he had known he had lost the race.
With the ever-rising presidential expectations, humor is perhaps one of the most important and powerful tools for a candidate to manipulate in public discourse. Not only does it convey that sense of “normality” and charisma that we all know the public yearns for in their presidential candidate, but it can also be used to diffuse attacks made by the opponent and soften otherwise ruthless attacks the candidate makes against the opponent. Humor, especially quick-witted humor, can also allude to high levels of intelligence and ability to think in the abstract.
Ronald Reagan was not the only presidential candidate to ever use humor in a debate, however. In fact, just about every candidate since him has seemingly made a conscious effort to insert some sort of funny quip into debate rhetoric. George W. Bush was notorious for his self-depreciating humor, most notably during his late-night comedy show appearances but also during debates.
Bush, who’s intelligence was often questioned by his foes, once prefaced a serious statement in a debate with the line, “Now, I’ve been known to mangle a sylLAble or two myself….” Not only did this help endear him to voters, but it also helped break up some of the scrutiny surrounding his grammatical correctness.
In the recent years, especially in the 2004 campaign, we saw President Obama run circles around his opponent, John McCain with regards to exemplifying charisma to the public. He even brought out the humor during the primary when he responded to Hilary Clinton’s attack that his only asset was his likability by saying, “Well, you’re likeable enough, Hilary.”
Humor has not been absent from this year’s campaign, either, and both candidates came out to Wednesday’s debate with their humor dial’s turned up. However, while President Obama has always been the decidedly funnier and easygoing candidate, it was Mitt Romney whose sense of humor was more profound during this debate, starting from his opening statement.
After President Obama congratulated the first lady on their anniversary, Mr. Romney joked in his opening statement about how happy Obama must be to be spending his anniversary with him rather than out with his wife. This brought chuckles from both the crowd and the President. From there began Romney’s much needed humorous roll.
In attempts to humorously discredit the President, Mr. Romney threw in some other quips later on in the night. After Obama attacked Romney’s tax plan as being one that would reduce taxes on the wealthy, Romney refuted it and then joked, “Look, I’ve got five boys. I’m used to people saying something that’s not always true, but just keep on repeating it and ultimately hoping I’ll believe it.” By this, Obama’s attack was blunted and Romney was given a one up on the relatability scale.
Another attack blunted by Mr. Romney through the use of humor was one that alleged his plan would give tax incentives to companies who took their plants overseas. To his, he quipped with a chuckle,” Now, I’ve been in business for 25 years and I have no idea what you’re talking about. I maybe need to go get a new accountant.”
While this didn’t elicit the same degree of laughter that his other comments did, it was a decidedly effective maneuver in discrediting the president’s statement while simultaneously highlighting his own business record.
There is no arguing that Mr. Romney asserted clear rhetorical prowess over the President this past Wednesday. Analysts and average people on both sides of the political spectrum have agreed on this. Yet while it was important for Mitt Romney to show he could hold his own next to President Obama, it was arguably more important for Mitt Romney to show he could do so while still at ease and with a sense of charisma.
The presidential hopefuls persona has long been plagued by a stigma of aloofness and robotic-like mannerisms. Many voters have claimed to be turned off by him for these reasons alone, and it has in turn contributed to his stumbling campaign. Thus, his almost witty performance in Wednesday’s debate exceeded most people’s expectations.
We all know how the expectations game goes: all you have to do is exceed them to be the winner. Going forward, it will be interesting to see if Mr. Romney can continue to easily portray his sense of humor, and furthermore, to see if President Obama will be able to get back into his groove as the charismatic politician we all know he is.