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Verbal Jousting And The Fate Of The Nation

Chris Matthews’ views on how debates can steer a campaign

On Wednesday, Oct. 10, prior to the second presidential debate, when Chris Matthews came to Hofstra University’s John Cranford Adams Playhouse to discuss current presidential election debates, he was quick to rank them in importance with the more seminal oral contests of the 20th century.

“Parents and the old people will remember this—the debates matter. This one coming up on Tuesday and the one last week certainly do,” Matthews declared. “This is either going to have things swing towards Romney or it’s not. A draw will not stop the swing toward Romney. Last week, 67 million people watched the first presidential debate. People will watch to see if Romney will be as good as he was last week. They’re going to watch to see if Obama can come on strong this time. They want to see how Romney is prepared to meet him knowing he’s going to come on headstrong. So it’s going to be quite the climactic event—Romney knowing that Obama has to win and Obama knowing he has to win.”

Debates And How They Affect Political Fortunes

Between his time as aide to Edmund Muskie and Tip O’Neill and his authoring of six books including Kennedy & Nixon: The Rivalry That Shaped Postwar America, the Philadelphia native is well equipped to opine on past presidential campaigns. According to Matthews, there are three presidential debates that changed history and were catalysts for who became president: Kennedy-Nixon in 1960, Carter-Reagan in 1980 and Bush-Gore in 2000. In looking to the past, Nixon’s approach to Kennedy in their debates not only caused him to lose, but could provide a cautionary tale for President Obama should he stick with the approach he used in his first debate with Mitt Romney.

“The biggest reason Nixon lost the debate is the same reason the president lost the debate last week—when you go into a debate and say you’re not going to get tough with the other guy or go in there and play defense, you will lose. Because he or she will be on the offensive side and you will be on the defensive side,” he explained. “If you go back and look at the transcripts of the Kennedy-Nixon debates, Nixon kept saying he agreed with his opponent, his values, he’s a good guy and I see very [few] differences with our methods. You’re saying nothing. [The electorate] want[s] to know that your purposes are different; that your reasoning is different; what you want for this country is different. It has to be important or why get involved.”

Vice-presidential debates are usually given short shrift in the grand scheme of a campaign, but for Matthews, they are not only more entertaining on a different level, but can occasionally turn the tide in a positive manner for the lead person on the ticket. And for that reason the MSNBC host felt that how Vice-President Joe Biden fared against Congressman Paul Ryan could determine which way the polls could tilt.

“Vice-presidential debates are absolutely interesting I think because they’re the middle-weight fight. A lot more punches thrown. Not much defense. It’s all offense,” he said with a grin. “The good news for Vice-President Biden is that he’s been doing this kind of thing for 40 years. The bad news for Joe Biden is that he has to have a clear win. It must be said that night that it was a clear win for Biden. No mixed reviews. If there’s a draw tomorrow night, it will not blunt the effect of Romney’s performance against the president. The trend will continue and that is bad news for that ticket. That’s how this race stands right now; just by that fraction. Anyone who has ever watched a political debate you’re watching this to the point of decision for the American people right there.”

Winning Or Losing Debates: How It’s Done

Figures, both national and global, regardless of political alliance or opinion, were highly critical of President Obama’s demeanor during the first of three presidential debates on Oct. 3 in Denver. Experts say Obama took a balanced approach, rather than attack Romney on the video that appeared on YouTube that showed the Massachusetts governor reportedly dismissing 47 percent of the country who will vote for Obama “no matter what.”

“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what,” Romney said in the video. “All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what.”

Matthews, who was recently seen fuming on HBO’s Real Time With Bill Maher concerning the president’s strategy in Colorado, felt Obama needed to come out swinging in the next two debates in New York and Florida respectively.

“So here’s the question after that hammering he took last week when he returns next week,” Matthews stated. “Can he erase the strong impression Romney made about him being capable of bringing economic hope to the country? Can he make people decide that they were wrong to see Romney as an acceptable alternative like they did last week once they saw him that way? Can Obama convince the country that Romney is not a winner when they want so much to get a winner in the White House?”

Matthews felt Romney struggled until the first debate and that Obama-backer and former President Bill Clinton can do something that the current president failed to do, which is explain his presidency. The MSNBC host lauded Clinton on his speech at the Democratic National Convention. According to Matthews, Clinton is the only former incumbent to win his first debate since before the Carter administration.

“Clinton has never been as good as he is right now,” Matthews said. “Another thing that went wrong for Romney in addition to the bad performance in Europe in his first foreign trip as a top candidate and a rather lackluster convention was that comment that went out from that backroom of his fundraiser down in Boca Raton, FL, where this May he was talking to the wealthy people down there and telling them that basically he was dismissing 47 percent of the country as a bunch of hopeless moochers. You don’t want that 47 percent to hear about it because they know you’re talking about people on social security, disability or with student loans.”

Questions & Answers

Usually, question and answer sessions with panel members consist of students asking about presidential preference, bias in the news media, radical ideas and the like. The answers from panelists, for the most part can be a simple rewording of the question with a few words tacked on explaining their point.

Not with Chris Matthews.

In an almost “McAvoyean” style from HBO’s The Newsroom, Matthews pounced on clear, partisan questioning with demonstrative, forceful answers rivaling Jeff Daniels’ character, Will McAvoy.

Concerning biased news coverage whether it is Fox News, CNN or MSNBC, Matthews took issue with the idea that objective journalism is simply reporting what’s occurred and spitting it back to a camera or typing it out on a keyboard. A student called objective journalism an “endangered species” referring to the leaning to the left or the right that certain media outlets showcase.

“What was the job of the media during the Iraq War that you call objective journalism?” Matthews exclaimed. “Parade coverage or ‘Oh, the tanks are going by. Oh, we’re embedding ourselves in the war.’ That’s your job as a journalist? To report what’s happening? You’re wrong. The real job of a journalist is to be critical…to tell the people what they think is going on; to see what’s going on.”

Matthews became adamant that a reporter’s duty is to sift through the fluff, dig deep and find the story. The job, according to Matthews is to think outside the press release, the question and answer sessions and the TV drivel.

“A real journalist cuts through the malarkey of the cover story, the press releases and tries to tell people what’s really going on,” he said.

The excitement of the campaigns on both sides stands to build as the second Tuesday in November approaches. One of the worries the left has if Romney became presidnet, according to Matthews, is how he would handle middle east situations.

With national unemployment declining to 7.8 percent, Matthews hopes that regardless of who wins the White House, the winner finds a solution to fix the country’s ever-growing debt. Media reports state that the announcement of the decrease, albeit a slight one, should aid Obama in his re-election bid.

“Whoever gets in, should be able to see the country is dying for some fiscal solution,” said Matthews.

Conspiracy theories flooded the right wing media when General Electric CEO and Republican Jack Welch tweeted a few minutes after the rate was announced on Oct. 5, two days after the first debate.

“You know it wasn’t some people,” Matthews said, addressing a student who asked about reports that “people” were skewing the rate. “Why don’t you say Jack Welch. It was Jack Welch who showed up at 8:30 in the morning and decided that by 8:35 when he tweeted, five minutes later that he had examined these numbers thoroughly and found them to be somehow wrong. That’s what he did in five minutes.”

The student responded that he felt it was “ridiculous that someone would [infer] that the numbers would be skewed by the president of the United States.”

Matthews, although a liberal by trade, was quick to point out the president’s performance at the first debate lacked substance and was unabashed in stating that Obama needed to bring his “A” game to Hofstra.

“Answers will come here at Hofstra when they go at this again,” said Matthews. “If Obama doesn’t bring a position of strength against the other guy, you have to bring forth your best argument. If you don’t blow your own horn, who will?”

Following the Hofstra debate on Oct. 16, Matthews declared on MSNBC that he thought Obama was the decisive winner.