Thursday, October 20, 2011

Space invaders in politics

About that hand that Romney laid on Perry during their talk-over-each-other battle in the Vegas debate: the Washington Post's Ann Gerhart finds experts who claim that violating the other's space in a debate is always a no-no:


But the debate stage has its own set of rigid rules of engagement, the most important being: Keep your hands to yourself. You can shake hands before and clap a rival on the back after — and even kiss Rep. Michele Bachmann on the cheek — but never, ever make a move on the other guy.


And this is because history seems to favor the candidate whose space is invaded.

During one of their debates in a New York Senate race in 2000, Rick Lazio marched over to Hillary Rodham Clinton to confront her about a pledge she’d made. She ignored him. Now she’s in Kabul, and Lazio is a line in this story.

“Remember when Al Gore walked up to George W. Bush in that debate?” Republican political strategist Ken Feltman says, summoning up a night in October of 2000. “It was a ploy, a technique, but Bush gives him this look that says, ‘This guy is . . . weird.’ It was one of Bush’s better moments. And therefore one of Gore’s very difficult moments.”
 The moment I came across this analysis in a Tim Noah post, my mind flew to the column that made me start tuning in close to Maureen Dowd -- at her best playing live semiotician as opposed to distiller of the week's conventional wisdom.  Oct. 20, 1996:
WASHINGTON— There was a moment, in the San Diego debate, when Bob Dole actually looked as if he wanted to run and hide behind Jim Lehrer's chair.

All night, Bill Clinton had been playing alpha male, throwing gorilla dust at Mr. Dole, hoping to distract his opponent from attacking on character and ethics. In a campaign that choreographs every move for maximum public approval, right down to body language, Mr. Clinton was following his strategists' in-your-face script: You lookin' at me, Bobster? Come over here and say that.

The President kept sidling out from behind his lectern, bearing down on Bob Dole and looking as if he were getting ready to give him a good clip from the side.

Answering a question on welfare, Mr. Clinton crowded poor Mr. Dole so much that the Republican backed away from his own lectern, apologetically murmuring, ''I'm going to get out of your way here.''

On a query about Social Security, the President came so close that Mr. Dole averted his eyes, turned as though he were going to make a dash for it, and ended up seeking sanctuary at the far edge of his lectern.
 Well, the devil can quote body language to his own purposes. As Gerhart's expert admits:
 The strategizing and media training and examination of body language is an “inexact science,” acknowledges Feltman. “It’s more an art of interpretation.”
The political scientists will tell us that these moments, endlessly picked over post-mortem, matter only at the margins if at all. 

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