Post-Mortem of a Presidential Debate
Hint: there was definitely a corpse at the end.
Well then, I think I now understand why the Obama campaign went to such lengths to lower the expectations for their candidate this evening. In all fairness, as the President was in the position of having to defend the current state of economic pain in America, I think we can acknowledge he was arguing from a position of natural disadvantage, facts being what they are. Setting that aside, I think lying his backside off was probably not the best approach to take.
I was ready to indulge some low expectations of my own for Romney this evening, but while I accept that Obama’s supporters probably did not see anything tonight to cause them to abandon their candidate, I think by most objective standards it can be said that Romney dominated tonight’s debate, and did so despite having the field tilted against him. There is a reason Bill Clinton once referred to Jim Lehrer as “his” moderator, and Lehrer didn’t disappoint on that count tonight.
As a side note, I have to ask how much longer the Dems are going to keep trotting him out for these things. Lehrer was not a spring chicken in 1996.
While Lehrer interrupted both candidates on occasion, and at times seemed intent on making the debate about him, there was one occasion in particular where he interrupted Romney specifically to get Obama to reply to something Romney had said, and another occasion where Obama seemed to have lost his train of thought, and Lehrer conveniently fed him his last line to help him out. Despite this, Romney managed to not only persevere, but did so without being aggressive or over-the-top, and managed to look presidential all the while. One couldn’t help but notice that whenever the camera did a split screen, Romney looked patient, attentive, and in control, while Obama was constantly mugging it up, frowning, shaking his head, and looking ready to interrupt, on several occasions holding up his hand, as if asking Lehrer to intercede for him.
But while the ocular impressions given by the president didn’t go well, when you went to the content of his words, things only got worse. To be fair, the facts don’t favor the president when it comes to competitive debate. Our economy is fairly described as lethargic at best, and when you consider the number of Americans not working who want to be, it’s downright alarming. In a debate focused on domestic policy, this is not a good hand to try to play. But then again, the point is not the debate, the point is running the country, and despite trotting out the tired old line of blaming Bush, as Obama did several times tonight, it’s difficult at this point to escape blame for where we are. I counted at least two occasions when Obama talked about the situation he had “inherited” from his predecessor, but after more than three years, that doesn’t play so well any more. Then there were a number of remarks he made that were objectively false.
I should pause at this point to say that when I use the word “lie” or “lying” I am employing the classic definition of a statement which is known to the speaker to be false at the time it is made, usually for the purpose of deceiving. It’s unfortunate that I should have to clarify this, but many these days seem to be laboring under the misunderstanding that the word either means “a statement I disagree with” or “something said by a Republican.” If one relies on the classic definition, our president took liberal advantage of it this evening. (I might say no pun intended, but that would be… well, you know.) It started off by Obama mischaracterizing Romney’s tax plan repeatedly, despite being corrected by Romney an equal number of times. And it continued, with his claim he had cut taxes for the middle class when in truth he has raised them, that Obamacare lowered costs when in fact we have already seen them go up, that under Obamacare you could keep your doctor and your insurance plan when we’re already seeing people having their plans dropped, that Obamacare would cover all the uninsured when according to the CBO it still leaves more than 30 million uncovered, and in perhaps the most brazen display of dishonesty in the history of presidential politics, he claimed that the 716 billion he cut from Medicare was some sort of “savings” he had ferreted-out in the form of “overpayments.” OK, so I made-up the “most brazen” part, but certainly that must rank right up there. Obama literally tried to preemptively inoculate himself against what he knew must sooner or later be coming. After decades of making an electoral living by accusing Republicans of wanting to cut Medicare, we have a Democrat president who actually did, and not by a little. Obama tried to rob Romney of the points he would score by bringing this up, but all he managed to do was tee it up for him, and to his credit, like a batter in the three-hole eyeing a hanging slider over the plate, Romney hit it out of the park.
So it wasn’t a good night for Obama, but how was it for Romney? We need to keep in mind that this is not the candidate lots of folks on the Republican side wanted, particularly conservatives. And to be honest, Romney said several things tonight I wasn’t wild about. When Lehrer asked him what the federal government’s role in education was, I shouted “NONE!” But then I’m pragmatic enough to understand this answer would have been suicide. Romney’s job is not just to make me happy, but to get elected, and that won’t happen by saying we should cut federal spending on education. Serious conservatives simply must understand and accept the concept of the Overton Window, and the fact that we are not going to move the federal government back to where we would like it to be in a single step. Romney’s answer on education was good, like most of his answers tonight. He was confident, knew all the facts very well, and didn’t overreach. He instead waited for mistakes, and pounced on them. In addition to nailing Obama on the 716 billion dollar Medicare cut, there was one other point where he really stood-out, and this was the point conservatives have been fretting about for two years, the one we consider to be Romney’s greatest weakness. That would be Mass-care, the healthcare plan Romney helped author in Massachusetts. As everyone knew he would, Obama brought it out, like unsheathing a sword. I expect many conservatives and Republicans across the country were holding their breath at this point, but Romney handled it extremely well, and in fact turned it back on Obama by pointing out that while Mass-care was a bi-partisan, state-level program, Obamacare was shoved-through by virtue of partisan control of congress. Romney scored heavily in talking about the panel under Obamacare which permits or denies the type of procedures and treatment individuals can receive, a feature distinct from the state level plan in Massachusetts. The best Obama could do was deny it, but anyone who has read the Obamacare plan (no, not all 2000+ pages, just the important parts!) knows those denials are hollow. I think the worst objective assessment of Romney’s performance on this critical issue is he defended it very well.
Of course I’m not a dispassionate observer, but overall, I think Romney dominated. At the end, there was a point where Romney was talking, and in the split screen you could see Obama mugging again, holding up his pen, asking Lehrer to allow him to break-in, but at this point, Lehrer had given up. I was actually surprised Lehrer didn’t interrupt. It was going to be Romney’s night, and any further intercession on his part could not make a difference, or be reasonably excused.
So what are the take-aways? For Obama, I think he was predictable. He is without question the most ideological president we have seen since Roosevelt, and I think the worry on the right-hand side of the aisle is always, what if he suddenly becomes pragmatic? He certainly didn’t tonight. His strategy consisted of class warfare, blaming Bush, making charges and accusations about Romney’s proposals and plans that don’t fit with anything Romney has actually ever said, and denying the unfortunate and unsavory parts of his own record. In retrospect, not a very good strategy, but based on the real-world record of his administration, and his fundamentally ideological nature, there aren’t a lot of ways he can go. Romney was like a tidal wave. Not the sort of tidal wave you see in disaster movies, but the real-world kind, where six feet of water slowly but irresistibly swamps everything for miles around. Not instant, violent destruction, but deliberate, gradual force that you cannot stop. He was not overly aggressive, but insistent. He knew the facts, responded strongly when he was challenged, and refused to let anything just go unchallenged when it wasn’t true. He didn’t allow Obama (or Lehrer) to define him or pigeon-hole him, and he made his points effectively. The “winner’ of a presidential debate is rarely an objective thing, but to most objective observers, I think it’s fair to say Romney had the better of it this evening.
Will this debate decide the election? I seriously doubt it. For one, debates rarely have decisive impact on presidential elections. Also, an unusually large portion of the electorate this year has already made up their minds. But as with all elections, it’s about who actually shows up at the polls and pulls the lever on the first Tuesday of November, and for those who watched tonight with an open mind, I think they couldn’t help but to learn some things.