The dust-up over Charlie Crist's portable fan at the Florida gubernatorial debate has degenerated into a war of words over which side violated the pre-negotiated rules. The truth of who plugged in what device, and on whose authority, may forever remain lost in the murk of Sunshine State politics.
But the issue here is not who is right and who is wrong. The issue is that Governor Rick Scott, by not taking the stage for seven minutes, lost the battle. And he did it in a way that is spectacularly tone-deaf. Non-participation in a debate requires solid justification, especially once the candidates are already on-site and waiting to take part, as was the case in Florida. Whatever the particulars of Crist and his Vornado Air Circulator, the annoyance did not merit the Defcon One response that Scott and his handlers accorded it. In making the event about his own petulance, Scott created a blunder that enters the annals of what not to do in a campaign debate.
Debates are frequently won and lost on the little things. Rick Perry's "oops" moment. Mitt Romney's $10,000 bet. Obama's "You're likable enough, Hillary" line. George H.W. Bush glancing at his watch. Richard Nixon's flop sweat. Al Gore advancing inappropriately on George W. Bush and Rick Lazio invading Hillary Clinton's space to demand that she sign a pledge. The list goes on.
Such mishaps tend to fall into three predictable categories: cosmetic problems (Nixon), strategic miscalculations (Gore, Lazio), and inadvertently self-inflicted wounds (Perry, Romney, Obama, Bush and the watch). Obviously, no candidate ever sets out to damage himself, but in the live arena of a debate, mistakes are easy to make and difficult to undo.
Rick Scott ought to have known that showing up late could only be perceived as an insult to the audience -- not just those in the hall but the extended viewing audience as well. Politicians too often fail to take into account the popularity of debates among voters, and the proprietary feeling viewers bring to these programs. Debaters who show disrespect for the institution -- say, by refusing to step onstage -- are directly insulting the very people whose support they need.
By granting Charlie Crist several minute of valuable airtime alone on the debate set, Scott essentially handed his opponent a huge gift of free advertising. As a number of commentators have pointed out, Scott passed up a golden opportunity to upstage his rival, to use Crist's vanity against him. Instead, Crist got to grandstand, Scott came off as pissy, and Florida politics -- once again -- looked nuts.
The high drama of that opening few minutes worked against Scott on a number of levels. Although the moderator backed up the Scott campaign's point about a rules violation, he also directly attributed Scott's absence to the fan, planting the issue front and center in the public spotlight. The catcalls of the live audience lent an air of anti-Scott sentiment to the proceedings before the debate had even started. And a cutaway shot of the fan in question, whirring innocently behind Charlie Crist's lectern, further reinforced the absurdity of Scott's overreaction.
The key thing about debates, and the reason politicians dread them, is that they are live. Which is to say, the participants get no do-overs. That Governor Scott could not anticipate the damaging effect of seven minutes of dead airtime speaks ill of his judgment. When the candidates reconvene for the final debate on October 21, Rick Scott had better be on time.