Political Animal


October 03, 2012 11:27 AM “Zingers” That Aren’t

By Ed Kilgore

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 is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Bo on October 03, 2012 11:43 AM:

    Hopefully, the bright lights, the debating skill of his opponent and his own complete inability to give a straight answer to any question will cause Mittens to "self-zing" before the night is over.

  • Jeff on October 03, 2012 11:55 AM:

    Oxymoron! You used "conservative" and "imagination" in the same sentence!

  • bigtuna on October 03, 2012 12:02 PM:

    Good grief. I hate to keep playing the cultural card, but I live with these mormon corporate types, and lets be clear: they are culturally programmed to not be able to do zingers. "zinger" and mormon cannot even co-exist in the same sentence. Let me give you a list of prominent LDS politicians:

    Harry Reid; Orrin Hatch; Jon Huntsman, jr.,; WIllard Romney; George Romney: Brent Scowcroft; Mike Lee; Mike Crapo [ID]; Rob Bishop; Jason Chaffetz; Jeff Flake;Dean Heller;Wally Herger; Buck McKeon; Mike Simpson.

    With perhaps the exception of Chaffetz and Lee, who are all complete arses, most of these guys could not tell a joke to get out of a wet paper bag ....

    Irony, sarcasm, etc., do not play in the mormon world. The reason Willard comes off clunky when he does it is that his 50+ years of his life has drummed it out of him ...
    Joanna Brooks, the NPR's favorite mormon of the moment, is so far from the reality of rank and file mormons that she might as well be from ... California.

  • Peter C on October 03, 2012 12:09 PM:

    Well, I hope Romney tries for ‘zingers’, because, frankly, they are much harder to execute than they would seem. They require a very careful modulation of tone and expression. Reagan could pull them off because he was an ACTOR. But, unless you can muster real emotion (righteous indignation or heartfelt sorrow), if you try a one-liner, you are fairly likely to come across as a self-satisfied ass. Lord knows, Scott Brown did, and he’s regarded as a skilled campaigner. Romney is widely held to be wooden and mechanical; his delivery might please the hyper-partisan, but ‘normal’ people won’t react well to a smug rich guy out to lower his own taxes.

  • c u n d gulag on October 03, 2012 12:09 PM:

    The good "zinger" Reagan pulled wasn't against Carter, it was against Mondale - 'I won't hold by opponent's youth against him.'

    I have to admit - I HATED Reagan with a white-hot fury not matched until W (and topped!), and even I laughed at that one!

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on October 03, 2012 12:16 PM:

    Since when is dropping "zingers" actually considered debating? If Mitt just once to do one liners I would recommend that he just go all Def Comedy Jam and challenge Obama to a contest of "Yo Mama" jokes...

    And for Mitt's sake (not that I really care about his sake), I hope he has some good explanations for his zingy little zingers. Heaven forbid Mitt's asked to elaborate on one of those zingers.

    And, OMG, that he (or his team) is using the word "zinger" just screams "I'm an old GEEZER!!!!" Will Mitt refer to the Obama as a young buck or whippersnapper during the debate?

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on October 03, 2012 12:17 PM:

    "wants to do one liners"


  • Ahcuah on October 03, 2012 12:22 PM:

    Another Reagan zinger: "Well, there you go again." Actually, I think Obama could use that effective against Romney.

  • Sab_Fan on October 03, 2012 12:24 PM:

    as I recall, Reagan's real zinger from that Carter-Reagan debate was "there you go again ... "

    I remember at the time that it was certainly seen that way ...

    in fact, Reagan tried to use the same line against Mondale in the first 1984 debate, but Mondale was prepared for it ...

  • Diane Rodriguez on October 03, 2012 12:27 PM:

    Or....the zinger stories are a good way to weigh the up and down sides of using them prior to the performance. The efficacy of zingers in the debate has now been thoroughly and publically vetted.

    The majority feedback has concluded that zingers have no place is "serious" debates. Those looking for a slap down of the President will be confident that Romney could have done so but was taking the "high road" instead.

  • davidp on October 03, 2012 12:36 PM:

    As Peter C says, zingers are hard to execute well. They need to seem spontaneous, and so the appearance of being rehearsed can kill them. Why have they been broadcasting the fact that Mitt's been practicing? Supposing he gets one out effectively, Obama can just say something like "I see that you worked hard at that one."

  • exlibra on October 03, 2012 1:34 PM:

    All this talk about zingers that Mitt is preparing to apply during the debate reminds me of a similar effort done by the incomparable Sarah Palin. Remember? She started the debate with "May I call you Joe?". Throughout the debate she never did, but it set things up for the zinger: "say it ain't so, Joe". It might have been funny had it not been seen coming from 45 minutes away...

    Craptcha touts "knowledge meousa". "me" can't refer to Mitt, though, since he doesn't have any.

  • castanea on October 03, 2012 4:37 PM:

    The Romney zinger thing has me puzzled.

    If he gets off a good zinger, we all can say, "Gee, he must have practiced." Big deal.

    If he blows the zinger, we all can say, "Gee, all that practice and he can't pull it off," and Romney looks the fool.

    If he tries no zingers at all, we all can say, "Gee, all that pre-debate sound and fury signified nothing," and he looks like a fool again for having put the "zinger" meme into circulation.