Did Mitt Romney Get 'Zinger' Strategy From George W. Bush?

President George W. Bush said debate winners are measured by their zingers, a strategy Romney may employ in tonight's debate.

By SHARE
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Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore and Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush wait for the start of a debate at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Much has been made of reports that GOP nominee Mitt Romney's team has been arming him with an assortment of zingers and witty one-liners with an eye toward decisively beating President Barack Obama in this evening's presidential debate and turning the race upside down. From where did Team Romney derive this strategy? It could have come from He Who Must Not Be Named By Republicans: George W. Bush.

[ Check out editorial cartoons about the 2012 presidential election.]

As I was doing a bit of research for this slide show on memorable presidential debates, I came across an interview Bush had given PBS about his debates against Vice President Al Gore in 2000. Around four minutes into the piece, Bush gives his take on what's important in a debate:

The zingers. I think Ronald Reagan in 1980 came up with some zingers and that became the measure of success to a certain extent … Unless there is the zinger or the kind of the cute line or whatever, the quotable moment, there's no victor in a sense.

How classically Bush-ian that his measure of success is who had the better zinger. Of course he's right inasmuch as the zippy sound bites will be replayed over and over again. But as I argue in my column this week, presidential campaigns are rarely if ever made or broken by single lines in debates. Reagan was already leading Carter in 1980, for example, before he deployed "there you go again" (and as Ed Kilgore notes today, "Are you better off…?" doesn't really qualify as a zinger). And it doesn't seem realistic to argue that his clever line about his opponent's "youth and inexperience" was the only thing standing in the way of a Mondale administration.

[ See political cartoons about Mitt Romney.]

And as Susan Milligan points out today, the notion of a "winner" in a debate is a bit simplistic anyway.

Of course there's a bit of irony in the idea of George W. Bush giving debate advice since his success in the 2000 was due more to Al Gore's ineptitude than much Bush did (though his bemused reaction to Gore invading his personal space was pretty deft). And 2004 is one of the very rare examples where polls moved substantially after a debate—and they helped Sen. John Kerry close on Bush.

There's one thing we can depend on regarding Romney and the debates tonight: Even if he is taking a page from the Bush debate playbook, he won't mention the last Republican president if he can possibly avoid it.