During one of the Republican presidential debates in 2008, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney referred to himself as "the candidate of change." When it was his turn to respond, U.S. Sen. John McCain referred to Romney's change of position on a number of issues, including abortion and same-sex marriage, and then added with a laugh, "I just want to say to Governor Romney, we disagree on a lot of issues, but I agree you are the candidate of change."
The ability to fire off a sharp response that leaves a rival speechless requires a quick wit, good ear, and keen mind, which explains why there are so few really good ripostes in political. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once revealed the secret to the spontaneous putdown. "All the best off-the-cuff remarks," Churchill said, "are prepared days beforehand."
McCain understood this. When asked to respond to one of Romney's attacks, McCain said, "Never get into a wrestling match with a pig. You both get dirty - and the pig likes it."
McCain also understood the power of humor to win an argument and connect with voters, which, of course, helped him win the GOP presidential nomination four years ago.
By contrast, the GOP presidential debates this year have had had all the wit and intellectual gravitas of professional wrestling without any of the athletic ability and entertainment value.
Tonight's CNN debate in Mesa, Arizona, will be the 20th for the GOP presidential nomination.
McCain, like many of us, has seen and heard enough. According to a recent column by Hendrick Hertzberg in The New Yorker, McCain says the "mudslinging" between Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, in particular, have "driven up" the "unfavorabilities" of "our candidates, all of them."
Or maybe it's just the candidates themselves are so unlikeable they've driven up their own "unfavorabilities. This is, in part, because the candidates--Romney, Gingrich. U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum-are, or appear to be, humorless.
Romney can buy all the ads and endorsements he wants but money can't buy a sense of humor. Rick Santorum perhaps opposes humor on religious grounds, Ron Paul on constitutional grounds, and Newt Gingrich on economic grounds. If Gingrich can't make money off something, he doesn't see much of a point to it.
A sense of humor is one of the most underappreciated qualities in politics--behind only honesty and integrity. If you can get a voter to laugh with you, you can get their vote. If you get a voter to laugh at you, you end up like Dan Quayle.
The GOP candidates like to compare themselves to President Ronald Reagan. But none have the Gipper's wit and warmth. The GOP candidates are more like second-rate talk-radio hosts. They have nothing in common with Reagan - unless they're instead referring to right-wing radio talk show host Michael Reagan.
Ronald Reagan was so popular because of his sense of humor, which he used to win friends and disarm political enemies. He also found it to be a political weapon.
When Reagan ran for a second term in 1984, he was in his 70s and critics questioned whether he had the vitality for the office. During a television debate between Reagan and his Democratic Party challenger Walter Mondale, a reporter raised the issue of age to Reagan.
"I want you to know that I will not make age an issue of this campaign," Reagan replied. "I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience."
Reagan easily won re-election.