The Romney Rebound

The first thing that should be said before any estimation of tonight’s debate is that, historically, presidential debates are not the “game-changers” all of the hype would lead one to believe. That doesn’t mean they don’t matter — they do, as John Kerry can attest. But while the first debate often provides the challenger a venue to introduce himself to the public and gain ground against the incumbent President, there has never been a debate so consequential that it turned a race upside down. With the possible exception of Al Gore, no one’s ever snatched defeat from the jaws of victory due to a poor debate showing.

If you’re so inclined, however, you can see all the above as a Lefty’s preamble before acknowledging a near-objective truth: in their first debate, Mitt Romney clearly bested President Barack Obama.

There were a few things Romney did well, and he proved himself to be the skilled debater his reputation foretold. As James Fallows of The Atlantic detailed in an informative and fun-to-read recent feature, Romney is nearly as adept in front of a podium and a moderator as he is maladroit on the campaign trail or talk show circuit. He’s focused, direct, energetic, aggressive, and polished. At times he may veer into being snippy or condescending — and he has an unfortunate habit of being a stickler about the rules, a trait that’s never particularly appealing, but is less so when coming from such a clean-cut and patrician candidate. But his overall affect is that of a confident and skilled master of a debate’s parry and thrust.

Obama, on the other hand, was halting, enervated, and tepid. He often was visibly uncomfortable, searching for words and losing himself in a miasma of rambling digressions, half-hearted criticisms, and defensive filibustering. While he had a few good lines — in particular one that sarcastically questioned whether Romney was vague on policy because his ideas were so good — and, at times, he seemed to be gaining his footing and finding his rhythm. But Romney’s ability to brush off the President’s criticisms and, crucially, keep the reeling off one dire economic statistic after another, resulted in Obama looking as if he was the one who’d never quite before been so close to the klieg lights.

Granting Romney’s considerable skill, I’ve got to say that Obama lost just as much as Romney won. At no point did the President forcefully challenge his Republican opponent to defend politically unpalatable positions — like his commitment to cut taxes for the wealthy or repeal Obamacare’s protections for this with preexisting conditions — and not once did Obama bring up either Romney’s infamous 47 percent comments or his record as CEO of Bain Capital. What’s more, the President rather inexplicably went out of his way at times to emphasize the similarities between the two candidates. On Social Security, health care reform, and even deficit reduction, Obama, unprovoked, granted Romney’s generally similar policy vision. Romney, who more than ever before in the campaign thus far rhetorically positioned himself toward the center, emphatically insisting he did not want to cut taxes for the wealthy or reduce spending on education, was all too happy to agree.

Coming from a man who has spent much of the past two years arguing that his reelection campaign would be about contrasting ideologies and visions of what it means to be American, Obama’s willing conflation was not simply odd; it was malpractice.

Some liberals are hoping the many potentially Pinocchio-worthy statements Romney let loose about his record and platform will ultimately render the face-off a wash or even an Obama win. If Obama’s campaign relentlessly pushes this line with the media, I could imagine it having some traction. But however well his teammates manage to stanch the bleeding, tonight was a clear loss for the President, who saw whatever chance he had of decisively ending the contest drift away from him, carried by his own meandering and bloodless verbosity.

[x-posted at Jubilee]

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43 thoughts on “The Romney Rebound

  1. Kudos for honesty, something I suspect will be lacking from others of your ideological bent. As for “no debate changing” I forgive your youthful lack of awareness of Nixon vs Kennedy.

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    • Exc analysis by Elias. Romney not only won but Barack lost. & FTR, Ward, there’s a fascinating ex-journo now UNC PhD who deflates myths, one of them Nixon-Kennedy.

      http://mediamythalert.wordpress.com/2012/09/30/in-run-up-to-obama-romney-encounter-myth-of-first-presidential-debate-circulates-anew/

      That encounter, between John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon, gave rise to the media myth of viewer-listener disagreement: Those who watched the debate on television supposedly thought Kennedy got the best of it; those who listened on radio thought Nixon was the winner.

      The myth of viewer-listener disagreement was demolished long ago, in a journal article by scholars David L. Vancil and Sue D. Pendell.

      But demolition hasn’t killed the myth.

      Indeed, the notion that viewers and listeners came away with markedly different impressions of the debate’s outcome is just too delicious, and too appealing, for journalists to sidestep. After all, viewer-listener disagreement suggests the primacy of television and the triumph of image over substance.

      And that’s just what the Chicago Tribune suggests, in an article today recalling the first Kennedy-Nixon debate, which took place September 26, 1960.

      The Tribune account says Kennedy won an “unexpected and devastating victory” in that encounter — the first of four debates during that campaign.

      “Yet,” the Tribune declares, “not everyone thought Kennedy had won the debate. Pollsters found that those who heard the radio broadcast thought Nixon won. The very first televised debate wasted no time in demonstrating that the ‘medium is the message,’ a maxim coined by communications guru Marshall McLuhan a few years later and leveraged by campaign managers ever since. Television viewers experienced a different debate from radio listeners.”

      Who the “pollsters” were, the Tribune doesn’t say.

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    • You’re already wrong about how liberals everywhere are receiving and describing this performance, Ward. Hell, it’s getting a better reception by some of the middle-of-the-road types here than it is from liberal hacks.

      More evidence that you guys don’t look or see on this media bias jag you’ve been on since Romney went tits up — you just say things.

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      • If you follow the issues closely, it’s difficult to come up with a way to spin this as a win for the President (save for the aforementioned “perhaps Romney will lose based upon post-debate penalties for his whoppers). I don’t expect the debate to be put in an Obama victory column on that basis, but I do think that Romney’s dramatic reversal of his tax policy and his demonstrating an arm’s-length relationship with the truth will drag down what otherwise might have been a gain. I can’t really comment on how “middle-of-the-road” types who don’t follow the issues would receive the debate, and I have not seen coverage of their collective reception of the debate.

        The idea that Obama could have decisively ended Romney’s campaign is not, in my view, realistic. Romney is more viable, in the sense that people are going to stop poking his campaign with a stick to see if it’s dead, but I’m not expecting that the rebound will result in much more than that.

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        • I don’t think Obama can point out any reversal in Romney’s policy positions without Romeny pointing out that Obama pretty much reversed all of his campaign positions. When Obama was trying to feebly poke at Romney for not offering specifics, I was expecting Romney to response with a crushing list of non-specifics from Obama’s 2008 campaign and after, something about hope and change and holding hands, to the point where they passed a sweeping health care bill with the assurance that they’ll find out what’s in it once it had passed. In that kind of parry and thrust, given tonight’s performance, Obama was perhaps just avoiding a losing argument by not stepping fully into the trap.

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  2. Agreed. Romney won and I’m not sure his lies and flip-flops will come back to haunt him.

    Romney gave a couple of similar performances in the endless Republican debates. For ,o’steel of them, he mostly seemed to be bored with it all, as if the process was beneath him, he swatted Gingrich down like an annoying fly after Gingrich gained some traction.

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  3. “Obama’s willing conflation was not simply odd; it was malpractice.”

    When you’re sitting on a lead, you can afford to blur distinctions and for people to perceive the choice as a push. Romney actually did this quite often in the primary debates. (and it was his opponents, particularly Pawlenty, being too nice and amicable and not drawing enough distinctions that allowed Romney to be the front runner (if not necessary lead at the polls consistently) from wire to wire

    It was the charisma deficit – to Mitt Romney of all people – not the content that Obama lost this debate on. The debate content itself was quite substantive though filled with BS. (as many people on twitter noted)

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  4. What really impressed me about Romney last night is how he tacked so hard to the center on taxes while preserving a fundamentally conservative attitude about the role of government. Now that Romney’s cast off the yoke of defending redistribution-to-the-rich, he can make the standard conservative critiques of Big Government more nimbly. Conservatism has always had a certain anti-establishment bent to it, which is a serious electoral asset when the economy sucks, but Romney’s never been able to tap into it like he has tonight. The line about “trickle-down government” — i.e., an identification of government with illegitimate privilege — is exactly the kind of ideology-scrambling that can tip the electorate in Romney’s favor.

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      • But is he going to be able to stay on point? It seems he jettisoned his tax cut plan in his move to the center. He also had a whole new take on regulations than he’s been championing. This Romney is not the Romney we’ve been seeing on the campaign trail for the last few years. It was Massachusetts Romney, man of the middle.

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        • I think you’re right that Romney has pivoted dramatically. But I think he’s doing it in a way that won’t necessarily alienate the conservatives he’s worked so hard to win over. This is exactly the reason I’ve been cautioning liberals to not get complacent. The Obama campaign will probably have to get pretty ugly — hammering Romney’s flip-flopping as an issue of moral character — to keep this race in the bag.

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  5. Romney simply walked all over both Lehrer and Obama. Stickler for the rules? Romney got away with far too much nonsense. Poor Jim Lehrer was trying to restrain him and Romney just bulled his way through every such attempt.

    Romney’s incapable of any high-minded rhetoric. He didn’t need any. He sloganeered his way through the entire debate and didn’t have one really insightful thing to say. If this is winning, well, both candidates were furiously lowering the bar for the debate and we the audience were not disappointed.

    We might have been disappointed if the bar had been set any higher. Romney was woefully short on any specifics. Romney knew he had to change his stance, rhetorically. While it’s true Obama didn’t win, I wouldn’t say Obama was bested by Romney. Romney worsted Obama in a race to the bottom.

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  6. Listening to the pundits, they all seem to wonder why Obama didn’t bring up the whole 47 percent thing. I don’t see how doing so would have accrued to Obama’s advantage. Unless done properly, it’s the kind of attack that could easily come off as petty and unPresidential. Therefore, it’s best made through ads and by surrogates.

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  7. Yup, Romney won. And he had to turn into a Democrat to do it.

    Regulation’s good.
    Tax cut for the wealthy bad.
    Medicare good.
    Government mucking in personal medical decisions bad.

    Welcome to the Democratic Party, Mr. Romney. I’m sure hope your brief stay is happy. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

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  8. I had the debate on but was multi-tasking and only paying half attention. I don’t know who won. It seems to be that everyone is saying Romney won which makes me think that Romney did indeed “win”. In my half-attentional state, I’ll say that neither seemed to say anything that made my ears perk up and/or made me make that Scooby Doo sound when something ridiculous happens, which I suppose is a good thing. There seemed to be a lot of blah-blah-blahing, pivoting, question dodging, and number manipulation… more than I remember in the GOP Primaries or in the ’08 debates. Maybe my memory was playing tricks on me, but I felt like I got a more substantive sense of the various candidates in those two instances than I did of either in this instance. Maybe I should just pay more attention next time.

    As I said on Tom’s post over on DC, I do think it is important that we understand the “goal” of the debates before assigning a “winner”. I’m a believer in judging success against that which was set out to be accomplished. With this in mind, it is possible that both or neither candidate can “win”. But I’m crazy like that.

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  9. Interesting response from Noah Millman at The American Conservative, The Presidential Debate: a Choice or an Echo?

    Over and over again, Mitt Romney would attack the President on general principles, then the President would say, in so many words, “well, the implications of that view are” and start listing policy implications, and Romney would retort: no, I don’t believe any of that, in fact that stuff you say I oppose is stuff I agree with, and that stuff you say I support is stuff I absolutely will not do.

    He goes through a number of examples, and I recommend reading them carefully; they totally scope Romney out as an empty suit. Or maybe a snake salesman? That’s the choice.

    And his conclusion?

    Romney’s palpable zest for the debate made him look like a guy ready to take charge, and the President’s demeanor suggested some willingness to let him do so. But his refusal to stand his ground on anything – and the marked contrast with the President in that regard – made him sound like a snake-oil salesman.

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    • I’m not really seeing much meat in that essay, other than “um Romney bad I guess, Obama maybe good”

      “Romney would retort: no, I don’t believe any of that, in fact that stuff you say I oppose is stuff I agree with, and that stuff you say I support is stuff I absolutely will not do.”

      And this is…a bad thing? A wrong thing? I’m not sure what conclusion I’m supposed to draw from that sentence.

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  10. 11-dimentional chess theory: the Obama camp was concerned about the number of people saying the race was over and that the growing voter apathy would hurt the congressional races, so they gave Romney the opportunity to close the gap a bit.

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    • I actually had the 11DC theory that Obama wanted to lose so that he could win the later debates closer to the election. The press often seems loathe to declare the same winner in every debate, so giving Romney this one means he can clean up on the rest.

      I doubt it’s true, however.

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