Commentary: The forgotten campaign

Oct 4, 2012

Well, by now there have been a zillion analyses of last night’s debate, most of which agree challenger Mitt Romney came on stronger than a curiously laid-back President Obama.

There’s not much I can add to that except perspective. I have seen every presidential debate since they became a permanent part of our political landscape back in 1976.

What we tend to remember are the one-line zingers that destroy a candidate. The devastating “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy” putdown of Dan Quayle, or Ronald Reagan’s four-word destruction of Jimmy Carter‘s presidency, “There you go again.“

There weren’t any of those last night. I can tell you which was the most one-sided debate I’ve seen: Walter Mondale’s overwhelming defeat of Ronald Reagan in their first debate in 1984. Reagan frankly looked senile.

But everyone loved him anyway; he recovered magnificently with a B-movie joke about his opponent’s comparative youth in the next debate, and he went on to win every state except one.

Today, nobody remembers anything about that first debate --or indeed, about the vast majority of these contests.

The weirdest moment in any debate I’ve seen involved another candidate from Michigan, President Gerald Ford. The power went out during his first debate with Jimmy Carter. Neither man wanted to be thought of as weak, so neither sat down. Instead, they stood there like mannequins, staring straight ahead, for nearly half an hour.

If it had been me, I would have gone to the bathroom and thereby either lost the election or won the coffee addict vote.

But while all the focus was on the presidential debate yesterday, I was thinking about another Michigan contest which has frankly vanished from view. Less than a year ago, we thought we might have an exciting U.S. Senate race between incumbent Debbie Stabenow, who is trying for a third term, and a man who looked like her most formidable opponent ever. Former House Intelligence Committee Chair Pete Hoekstra clearly had the credentials to be a senator, and Stabenow looked vulnerable.

But while it ain’t never over till it’s over, this race appears to be so over it has disappeared from the radar. Hoekstra began badly with his famous Chinese girl TV ad that got him accused of racism. He eventually shambled to a fairly easy primary victory, but since then, has almost totally failed to get the voters to notice, let alone support him. Polls now show him trailing by 16 points.

Yesterday, Hoekstra pretty much admitted that in an interview with the Detroit News, saying “I think I’m behind,” acknowledging he has had trouble raising money, and charging that was because the Romney campaign had essentially given up on winning Michigan.

Last weekend, Hoekstra made what looked like a bizarre campaign trip to … Israel. He said he wouldn’t reveal which high-ranking leaders he met with, but said they wanted America to act tougher than it has. How that is supposed to help him win the Senate is a mystery to me. Republicans have now controlled both houses of Congress for most of the last 20 years.

But in Michigan, they’ve won only one senate race in forty years. You’d think party leaders would be trying to figure out why.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.