Arizona governor debate: Was Jan Brewer really that bad?

The Jan Brewer gaffe in the Arizona governor debate Wednesday was one for the history books. But there have been plenty of cringe-worthy moments in debates – and they don't always matter.

Matt York/AP
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, R, greets Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry Goddard prior to a televised Arizona governor debate Wednesday in Phoenix.

Jan Brewer’s debate performance on Wednesday was not good. She’s said so herself.

The incumbent Republican Arizona governor, matched against Democratic opponent Terry Goddard, babbled a bit with her opening statement (“I have done so much and I cannot believe we have changed everything!"), but the awfulness really rolls at about 38 seconds in, when she runs out of things to say, looks down, clasps her hands, and pauses for five seconds or so. She clasps her hands, and gives a sort of combination sigh and giggle, and then says “We have, uh ... did what was right for Arizona.” (See video below.)

Yes, it was bad. Was it the worst debate performance ever? That’s what Democratic strategist James Carville said on CNN this morning.

“I’ve seen a lot of meltdowns in debate. That’s about as bad as I’ve seen,” said Mr. Carville.

Well, that’s a matter of, um, debate.

The debate bloopers hall of fame

National politics has seen some pretty memorable stumbles – mistakes of style and substance that rank up there with Governor Brewer's.

In 1976 Gerald Ford famously said, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe” in a debate with Jimmy Carter. (There was, back then. Trust us.)

In the 1988 vice presidential debate, Dan Quayle likened his political experience to that of John F. Kennedy. It was this misstep that opened the door to Lloyd Bentsen’s famous riposte, “Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.

In terms of cringe-worthiness, who can forget Adm. James Stockdale? He was Ross Perot’s running mate, and in the 1992 he opened by saying “Who am I? Why am I here?”

Voters asked the same thing.

And remember Al Gore’s endless sighing in his 2000 debate with George Bush? That’s one reason he’s an environmental activist today.

The point here is that debate gaffes are legion. Do they matter? That depends on outside political circumstances.

Generally speaking, debates themselves are an important influence on political outcomes, but only at the margins. In presidential debates since 1960, only once has a candidate significantly gained in the wake of a debate, and then held on to the bump. That was in 1980, when Ronald Reagan asked Americans “Are you better off?” in a debate with Carter. He jumped seven points in the polls.

That said, debates reinforce voters’ notions about candidate character. Mr. Gore’s sighing hurt him because Americans already perceived him as pedantic. Mr. Quayle’s attempt to link himself to JFK boomeranged and only emphasized his inexperience.

Was it a fatal fumble?

But debate gaffes aren’t fatal. Listen to these reviews: In 2004, Republican author and former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan said George Bush had “the worst debate performance I have ever seen” in his first match-up with Sen. John Kerry. (That was the one where Bush said, of the presidency, “It’s hard work. It’s hard work.”)

Of President Obama’s performance in an April debate for Democratic candidates, Obama supporter and Atlantic Monthly blogger Andrew Sullivan said, “It was a lifeless, exhausted, drained and dreary Obama we saw tonight.”

Both those guys won, in case you forgot.

So, why was Brewer’s performance so bad? Carville suggested lack of sleep, and that’s a possible culprit. But rule one of debate preparation is know the format – will there be an opening statement? Are there chances for rebuttal? Things like that.

On Thursday, there was a chance for both candidates to make a statement at the beginning of the debate, and Brewer did not have one – either on paper, or in her head. That is flat out bad political preparation, due to either her own slip or bad work by a staff member. If it’s the latter, that staff member’s ears are probably smarting.

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