October 11, 2011
By Ed Koch
I have no doubt that after his debate with President Obama, Mitt Romney was in a celebratory mood. No one expected that the first presidential debate would be a game changer. Debates rarely have a lasting or significant impact. Further, to have what we had during the first debate required a perfect storm. Not only did the challenger have to be brilliant, but the incumbent had to be really terrible. But that is what happened.
The talking empty heads on the left led by Chris Matthews were insufferable and merciless in their attacks on their candidate, the President. The most unfair and undoubtedly most painful for the President was to hear many of his former supporters in the media say he can't speak without a teleprompter. My impression from several meetings with him before and after his election in 2008, is that the President is a thoughtful and superb speaker who is great on his feet. At one point, I heard him speak – four of us in the room – for 20 minutes and he was excellent.
Saying this takes nothing away from Romney who I always thought was an excellent speaker. His command of statistics and facts at the first debate was formidable. I am not getting into the controversy of whether his "facts" were always factual. There is no question in my mind that he has a command of the issues and, like most of us engaged in political debate, will use hyperbole because of the passion of the moment, not because we intend to mislead.
I have some familiarity with President Obama's situation, having in 1977 in the Democratic primary for Mayor first endlessly debated with six candidates in the primary and after winning the primary election but with less than a 40 percent victory, having to participate in a runoff with Mario Cuomo. I got 19.81 percent of the vote; Mario got 18.74 percent; Abe Beame got 17.98 percent; Bella Abzug got 16.56 percent; Percy Sutton got 14.42 percent; Herman Badillo got 10.97 percent; and Joel Harnett got 1.53 percent.
The runoff that followed took place 10 days later and involved, I am sure, more than 15 debates. Mario Cuomo is probably one of the best speakers and debaters in the country. I'm not bad, but I don't come close to him in debate ability. In our first debate and in the several that followed, he bested me by wide margins. The first time it happened, I was unnerved. Then I thought to myself, it isn't the best debater whom people will vote for. They will choose the person who they think has the vision and ability to lead the city back to stability and solvency. The city, at the time of the election, was on the edge of bankruptcy.
So my advice to the President is recognize your strengths which include high intelligence, courage, passion, integrity, likeability and most importantly, being on the people's side of the issues. Here the people's side is defined as moderate, responding as most middle income people would to the situations facing this country.
I would also say to the President – put aside the anger that you might feel towards those, like Chris Matthews and a host of others, from whom you might have expected more support at a moment you needed it, so that it doesn't take away any of your energy and ability to concentrate on what it is you have to do to prepare for the next debate and, ultimately, lead this country for another four years.
Your next 28 days are in a way like my ten days with Mario. At the time, I concluded that if the people of our city wanted the best debater, they would vote for Mario, but they would vote for me if they wanted the best leader. In your case, I would refer to the race between Ike Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson. The latter ran over Eisenhower with his beautifully written speeches which were superbly delivered. But in the general election, the people chose Eisenhower because they knew he would be the best leader for the country, even if his speeches left much to be desired. In my view, they made the right choice, and I think they will do so now.