“Zingers” That Aren’t

The professed intention of the Romney campaign to deploy a few well-rehearsed “zingers” in tonight’s first presidential debate doesn’t deserve anything like the attention it’s getting. Of course they think they’ve got a good debate plan; that’s what debate prep is all about. All the talk about “zingers” is just raising expectations that Mitt’s got some devastating lines in his pocket that will reduce Obama to quivering jello, and that’s not very likely to be the case.

I do, however, want to object to one example of a “successful zinger” that’s been frequently cited: the famous Reagan “Are you better off…” bit from 1980, which was heavily utilized during the Republican Convention this year. That wasn’t a “zinger” in any sense I would recognize the term. Does anyone really think millions of voters heard those lines and immediately said: “Huh! Am I better off? Never thought of approaching it that way!” No, Reagan’s closing lines were simply a very efficient and accessible way of stating the obvious. His accomplishment in the debate wasn’t to convince voters to treat the election as a referendum on Carter’s performance; it was in offering reassurances that an electorate already prepared to “fire” Carter could elect Reagan without suffering the negative consequences the Carter campaign was frantically predicting. And the debate, if it mattered at all, simply reinforced a strong pro-Reagan trend that was well underway in any event.

I should hope by now that regular readers have heard enough about the 1980 analogies that have exercised a death grip on the conservative imagination this year to understand their irrelevance: you know, vastly worse economic conditions, big national security concerns, third-party candidate, bigger “swing vote.” But let’s add to the list the fiction that Reagan turned the election with a “zinger.”

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.