by: Chris Thompson
The first of three 2012 general election presidential debates went down Wednesday night. Across the Margin’s Chris Thompson assesses its dramatic effect.
Presidential debates, while not constitutionally required, have since 1960 become a de facto portion of the election process. They’ve been a key factor in the outcome of several tight presidential races1 and have brought the subjects of candidate perception and integrity out from the hustle of the campaign trail and into the comfort of the American living room.
Seeing as they occur late in the election cycle, the main target for these live, televised debates are those of us who still identify as undecided voters. The candidates, through the use of well-rehearsed rhetoric and simplified arguments tailored to what the public can easily understand2, use this platform as a means to sway “swing voters” to their side. And since the inception of the debate tradition there has been a desire–from both Democrats and Republicans–to tightly control the proceedings in order to manipulate our perception of the candidate. To numerous voters this has resulted in the debates being seen as nothing more than shams, lacking in any content or substance, any flickerings of spontaneity or actual answers to hard-hitting questions.
Now as a pragmatist I have a straightforward and practical way of thinking about all things political. And as one who sees the debates for what they have actually become–televised popularity contests–I struggle with what I can take home from these events. Because once I wade through all the rhetoric, the talking points, the half-truths and fuzzy math, I wonder what we’re truly left with. For me, I watch these debates because I’m motivated by a desire to find some spark, some trembling of the heart, some hint of empathy or concern that tells me this candidate is not a liar, is not a dick, won’t compromise his beliefs and spend the next four years screwing me, the ones I care about and this country that I love over. Basically I’m just hoping that one of these guys seems presidential and could be worthy of the title Leader the Free World. I know it’s naïve to think but I want to hope that this type of person still exists in modern politics.
In the one corner we have President Obama, the incumbent, and considered by many scholars to be one of the great orators of the 20th century, holding court with such denizens of the pulpit as FDR and JFK. A seasoned veteran,3 it has been said that when Barak Obama speaks he doesn’t just “give a speech” to an audience but instead has a conversation with them. The takeaway? He’s flush with debate experience, has a natural gift for communication and skillfully wields his rhetorical talents to his advantage. But he took office in the shadow of an economic crisis, promising a turnaround that hasn’t yet materialized and he’s going to have to contend with this reality.
In the other corner we have former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, the challenger, underestimated in my opinion, and stepping onto the presidential debate stage for the first time. An elected official, having risen to the level of state governor and proven competent enough to beat out a deep field of seasoned challengers for the Republican nomination, Romney is no rookie to the speaking stage. He is a well-organized, knowledgeable, and aggressive debater however his skills, while admittedly suitable, have yet to be tested at the presidential level.
I have to admit I’m impressed that Romney even showed up for this debate at all actually. Last week, Beth Meyers, a senior advisor to the Romney camp, released a memo basically lowering the bar for Romney’s debate performance by blatantly stating “President Obama enters these contests with a significant advantage on a number of fronts.” Now I can understand pre-debate jockeying, setting the bar low for yourself while raising expectations for your opponent, thus allowing viewers to be suddenly surprised when your candidate performs well, but I found Romney’s take on this tactic to be flat out balls. Granted, the Obama camp did its own share of dancing with expectations, with David Axelrod, the president’s senior advisor mentioning that Obama has been “too busy running the country to prepare for the debates” and that “debates–and particularly the first debate–generally favor the challenger” but it never came close to attaining the level of despair that the Romney camp achieved in that memo4.
So when I watched the debate live on Wednesday night, moderated by veteran debate-wrangler Jim Lerher and focusing heavily on domestic issues, I was pleasantly surprised on a number of fronts:
One, neither candidate seemed uncomfortable on stage or appeared rigid and frozen, caught awkwardly in the venue’s abundant spotlights. It was quite the contrary actually, as both Romney and Obama looked rather at home in front of the cameras, casting their smiles about and arguing their cases for becoming president. I don’t mean to suggest that they were casual in their efforts, as they were anything but. What I mean to propose is that they both appeared to be confident, certain of their role as their parties’ representative. I found this to be an enjoyable current coursing through the debate as it removed any preconceived notions of awkwardness that I was expecting from the event. Especially from gaffe-prone Romney, who oft times I’ve found painful to watch in public speaking situations.
Two, neither candidate agreed on anything. I found this element of the debate to be truly fascinating. I appreciate differences of opinion and healthy discourses, especially in the arena of politics as it illustrates beautifully what makes our country so great: the fact that we can have opposing viewpoints. The two candidates last night could not have been more opposite, more polarized in their beliefs and Lehrer, in his role as moderator, should be commended for his efforts to emphasize these differences. In an election that is shaping to up to be a close one, a firm understanding of the candidate’s dissimilarity will go a long way to help voters crystalize their choice for president. President Obama’s vision for a government-centric future and Governor Romney offering of an opportunity-based society5 are an excellent example of this fact.
Three, Romney wasn’t afraid to take off the gloves and come out swinging. Mitt hit hard and quick, struck early and often, looking to shake up a campaign with less than five weeks remaining. While Obama played a more passive, presidential role, he did manage to land a few glancing blows to Romney’s eager efforts to turn the debate into a referendum on the presidents last four years in office. Both styles scored big at times but I did get the sense that Romney was the aggressor, hammering away at his talking points repeatedly, successfully driving his message home, and at times even wresting control of the debate away from the moderator. And honestly I expected this… Romney had to be this way. He’s been trailing in national polls as well as polls in key swing states and this was his chance to come out “swinging”. Obama on the other hand, appeared to be rather listless in his attempts to prosecute his case for re-election and for the most part seemed to be on the defensive last night. If I may use an NFL analogy here seeing as it is football season after all, it was as if Obama was trying to hold onto a slim lead late in the game by flooding the field with defensive backs, taking up a lot of time, and making it hard for Romney to put up a big play and score. But it stunk more of bad defense then sound offense. In football the idea of a passive defense is to prevent the opposite team from scoring the big points while allowing small gains. But what Obama didn’t seem to grasp, didn’t seem to notice, was that the entire night Romney, who appeared well articulated and on the attack from the onset, scored numerous small victories. By steadily moving the ball downfield in 3 to 8 yard plays he achieved a lot, caught our attention with his drive, penetrating deep into his opponent’s territory. And although he didn’t make the big score in the end, Romney was able to gain enough yardage to make us consider that he may be a viable challenger for the presidency and that’s a dangerous notion for the Democrats.
The way I saw it for the president going into the debate, was that you attack Romney and gain an advantage by pointing out the contradictions in his positions, of which they are numerous, and drive home the message that he is the type of candidate who will say anything to win an election. Obama did none of this. He failed to take the fight to Romney. He could have hit hard on a number of fronts but he didn’t. He could’ve killed it, riled-up Mitt and stopped the momentum of his drive simply by resurrecting Ted Kennedy’s line about Romney being “multiple choice” on abortion6. But he didn’t. And because of this Romney was able to claim overall ownership of the night.
And there were several instances where Romney took Obama to task over his presidency. One that stands out as particularly powerful was the hammering that Romney gave Obama over not living up to his promise to cut the federal deficit in half. By accusing the president of practicing “trickle-down government“7 and “not getting the job done” Romney implied that Obama’s failure to push harder with his efforts to rein in the spiraling federal deficit and accept the conclusions put forth by the Simpsons-Bowles commission actually resulted in a doubling of the debt. “You’ve been president for four years!” Romney exclaimed before comparing the president to a little boy who couldn’t tell the truth and then finishing the attack with a well-timed message for American families, that the debt being passed down to future generations was “simply not moral”. Obama offered that Romney’s plans for the debt were nothing more than “top-down economics”, benefiting the wealthy at the expense of the middle-class but the argument was nothing more than half-hearted rhetoric lacking the conviction with which his counterpart argued.
So Mitt obviously ate his Wheaties Wednesday morning and his multitude of attacks on the policies of President Obama was a glaring example that he had something to prove to a skeptical voting audience. The sputtering economy served as a backdrop for the debate and as the night progressed Romney went on to attack the Dodd-Frank Act on financial reform8, labeling it as awash in a sea of red-tape and regulation which prompted President Obama to sarcastically ask “Does anybody out there think that the big problem we had is that there was too much oversight and regulation of Wall Street? Because, if you do, then Governor Romney is your candidate.”9 The subjects of how bailouts will affect the economy and how much regulation is too much are sure to come up again and again as we near Election Day and I appreciated the initial stages of a conversation on the topic.
Where I felt Romney lost me, nay scared the shit out of me, was his fear-inducing talk of energy independence. It should scare the shit out of you too if you love trees, waterfalls, fresh air, animals, mountains and beauty. And I don’t mean love in the tree-hugging hippie sort of way either. But in the average person who respects the inherent beauty in nature sort of way and desires for it to still be there when you are old and gray and your children’s children are running around driving your old ass crazy. That sort of way. Raping Alaska and expanding offshore drilling while simultaneously decreasing regulations on the industry is not the sort of long-term, viable answer to our future energy needs. No one is going to win in that situation I promise you. Not us. Not the wildlife and definitely not the Earth. There are so many glaring examples as to why this holds true that it makes my head hurt when I have to even consider explaining it to people. Romney’s efforts to portray President Obama’s attempts to explore energy alternatives and invest in companies with the potential to free us from our oil dependence as a bad thing left a terrible taste in my mouth. It tasted like decay, and death and destruction and it took more than one pint of beer to wash that overpowering taste away. You know Mitt, I like coal too, I respect it as a natural resource and the role it played in making our great nation what it is today, but I’ll be dammed if I’ll support expanding our energy infrastructure to pull more of that black lumpy shit out of the ground. There is only a finite amount of these fossil fuels running through the planet you know and at some point we need to start looking in a new direction, exploring alternatives. At least President Obama has been bold enough to see where our country needs to go in this matter and is making a serious effort to take us there.
Obama came into this debate chomping at the bit, ready for the moment when he could slam Romney on his proposed, vague-sounding, $5 trillion dollar tax cut benefiting the wealthy. But the opportunity to bring Romney to task for this plan never arose simply because of the fact that Romney flat-out denied its existence, saying that he would not enact any tax cut that would add to the federal deficit or benefit the wealthy. My jaw literally hit the floor when out of nowhere a tax policy that Romney has been championing for years suddenly disappeared, reborn and rechristened by Romney as a “tax cut for the middle class”. The sudden exodus of the plan in its entirety frustrated Obama, a frustration which manifested itself in the great one-liner stating that Romney’s “big, bold idea is…nevermind.” Now to be fair, Romney’s tax plan that Obama is referencing occurs over ten years and supposedly blows a $5 trillion hole in the budget via tax reductions and is allegedly revenue neutral, but the key fact is he still hasn’t told us anything about the tax breaks he would get rid of to pay for it. This has lead many analysts, lacking specifics, to assume that the lion’s share of the burden will fall on the middle class. Was Romney flat out lying? Was he playing dumb to the existence of this policy in order to appeal to the swing voters in the final weeks of the race? I could see the political wheels spinning in President Obama’s head as he tried to come to terms with a Mitt Romney suddenly not knowing about the fact that he has been running around the country championing a $5 trillion tax cut benefiting the wealthy. Changing ones story at the last minute is an interesting campaign tactic, and one that I wouldn’t put past the flip-flop prone Romney to employ. The fascinating fact is that if wielded properly, this change in rhetoric could actually be beneficial to Romney’s campaign; pulling in some much needed swing voters. But what he could potentially gain politically he could also lose very quickly as this leaves him open to further character attacks not to mention the fact that he has now become irrevocably linked to his statements. I expect that Obama and the Democratic Party will seize this opportunity to further portray Romney as loose on the issues and capable of saying what needs to be said to win over voters.
One place where I felt Obama crushed Romney was on the topic of healthcare reform and the so-called Democratic Obamacare law10. While Romney seemed beholden to Republican talking points and fear-mongering rhetoric on this issue, Obama was clear, fact driven and level-headed, choosing to use the personal history of his widowed grandmother as an example of why the entitlement programs are sound and lacking a need for substantial reform. At one point, when Romney apologized for using the term Obamacare after saying he would cut the program, the president actually admitted that he liked it, saying that he had “become fond of the term”. The president was subtle in his arguments and convincing, speaking to the American public directly, talking to the voters as adults and laying out his plans to deal with ballooning healthcare costs. His argument that sending Medicaid back to the states would cost the states more and adversely impact those using the benefits may have done a lot for those voters who view the issue of health care as confusing. In invoking a quote by Abe Lincoln “There are some things we do better together” Obama cemented his support for the continued role of the federal government in helping to manage the well-being of our citizens.
In all, I found this first contest to be one of the more substantive presidential debates of modern times. But the truth is the debate didn’t really present anything new to us. Didn’t bolster one candidate ahead of the other or put forth new, groundbreaking policies that would motivate a large portion of the swing voters to one camp or the other. But what it did do was shine a light on the two candidates approaches to these debates. Romney, intense and aggressive, bubbling forth with his myriad facts and figures11 could start to become appealing to the voters simply because he may have put to bed the negative impressions many people have about him. But Mitt, as we all too well know, is good at sabotaging himself so we’ll have to wait and see if he can go the distance blunder-free.
Obama on the other hand, dull and oft time appearing like he couldn’t even be bothered with having to appear at the debate, seemed like he wasn’t interested in engaging those voters who are still undecided. His strategy appears to be more along the lines of speaking to those who already support him, who already have decided to give him their vote and largely ignoring those who already aren’t in his camp. I think this is a failed approach as evidenced by the outcome of this debate and I’m sure President Obama and his camp are already making the necessary adjustments to ensure that the next event is more evenly matched. It remains to be seen who has the bigger numbers come Election Day but what we can be sure of is that Romney will undoubtedly get a bounce from this event, almost guaranteeing that this is now a two horse race for the presidency.
Some memorable quotes from Wednesday night’s debate:
Obama: “You know, four years ago, I said that I’m not a perfect man, and I wouldn’t be a perfect president, and that’s probably a promise Governor Romney probably thinks I’ve kept.”
Romney: “Mr. President, you are entitled to your own airplane, your own house as president, but not to your own facts.”
Obama: “He now says he’ll replace Obamacare and ensure all the good things in it will be in there … Is the reason that Governor Romney is keeping all these plans to replace Obamacare secret because they are too good?”
Romney: “Look, I have five boys, I’m used to people saying something that isn’t always true and keep on saying it hoping ultimately I will believe it. That is not the case.”
Obama: “We do have a difference when it comes to definitions of small businesses … Donald Trump is a small business. Donald Trump doesn’t like to think of himself as small anything.”
Romney: “I’m sorry Jim. I’m gonna’ stop the subsidy to PBS. I’m gonna’ stop other things. I like PBS. I like Big Bird. I actually like you too.”
- most notably the Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960, the Ford-Carter debates of 1976 and the Carter-Regan debates of 1980 [↩]
- a.k.a., dumbing down the public [↩]
- This will be the eighth one-on-one presidential debate of Obama’s political career. [↩]
- A conspiracy theorist might even go as far as to suggest that Romney’s expectations were set so low by the Right so that he could easily exceed and blow those expectations away. [↩]
- Although Romney failed to mention specifics on how exactly he would achieve this. [↩]
- Or by mentioning that Romney characterized 47% of the country as lazy, dubious folk sucking on the teat of government handouts; or by attempting to bring the Romney/Ryan ticket to call for its stance on women’s issues [↩]
- Romney pulled that zinger out last night and I have to admit it makes for a good sound bite. Clearly it is Romney’s attempt to counter the Democratic criticism of Republican’s practicing “trickle-down economics”, but it just screams to me of empty words devoid of any real substance. [↩]
- Saying that it was “the biggest kiss that’s been given to New York banks.” [↩]
- Touché Mr. President. [↩]
- Also known as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act [↩]
- Even if they were lacking substance or any basis in reality [↩]