How Romney “Won” the First Debate
I want to clarify something. I was angry the other night. Mitt spent the better part of the debate lying, and you could see in his eyes how hard he was trying, and I even saw signs of rage and desperation, and the president, while pointing out some of those lies and misrepresentations, never really found his stride. And then there was the post-debate commentary, which was simply awful, even by the dismal standards of such commentary.
By no means do I wish to argue — I didn’t then and don’t now — that Obama “won” the debate, in any sense of that word. By the terms of presidential debates, which are about theater, not substance, it was pretty clear that, to put it mildly, he underperformed, though I would note that he has never been much of a debater. Whatever the reason(s) — he was disengaged, Romney’s constant lying and pretending to be a moderate threw him off, he was intentionally trying to remain calm and above it all, not wanting to go negative — he was just… off. Romney left the door open so many times with his blatant dishonesty, and there were many occasions for the president to drive a point home, either about his own record or about his Romney’s right-wing policies and/or complete disingenuousness, but instead of engaging he stood back and let Romney take the debate to him, setting the tone and otherwise scoring points with little pushback from Obama.
Yes, there’s a reason so many of Obama’s liberal-progressive supporters, including some high-profile media figures, almost lost their minds. Myself, I was live-blogging, and so often listening more than watching, but I found myself saying “come on… come on… come on…” numerous times, pulling for Obama to step up and tear down his lying opponent. But with a few quiet exceptions it was not to be, and so the result was that Romney “won” — such is the clear consensus that emerged, and I can’t say I disagree.
But what made me angry in terms of the reaction was that Romney only won by the standards of the debates that entirely ignores substance… and the truth. And this was being pushed all throughout the media, including by supposed non-partisans. I encapsulated my thoughts in the caption to the photo I included at the top of our live-blogging post:
Mr. President, I’m gonna win this by lying, dissembling, hiding my real views, not answering direct questions, acting all aggressive, stringing together complete sentences, treating the voters like idiots, playing right into the media’s need for drama, and exceeding ridiculously low expectations by not drooling all over myself.
It was all an act, you see, and Romney was the better actor, at least according to expectations of how one ought to conduct oneself during such an event. Ultimately, I wrote this:
I suppose this could reset the expectations for the next two presidential debates… Maybe if Obama shows some passion, like, say, by jumping up and down on Oprah’s couch, the media will give him some credit. But of course far be it from the media to talk policy, to hold Romney accountable for pushing unpopular plans with math that doesn’t even come close to adding up and refusing to answer questions about what his positions actually are what he would actually do as president. Much easier to say Romney was passionate and held his own and Obama looked like he didn’t want to be there.
Simple “analysis” from simple minds, as usual — from the likes of Gloria Borger and John King, two of CNN’s embarrassing crew.
Again, I don’t wish to suggest that I thought Obama did well. But I do think it was closer than the CW would have us believe, mainly because I think Romney actually hurt himself, perhaps badly, by lying so much, by throwing the right-wing Republican base under the bus in his quest to come across as a moderate with appeal to independents, by presenting himself as a shameless, flip-flopping opportunist who will say anything for votes, and by providing the Obama campaign with so much ammunition. Yes, it was Republicans who were so gleeful after the debate, and the day after as well, and still now, saying that Romney’s supposed trouncing of Obama resets the campaign and gives Romney the clear advantage, and the polls will likely show some tightening, but over time Romney may well have added to his troubles — if Obama can take advantage of his lying and if he performs better in the two debates to come. (And thankfully, as David Axelrod noted yesterday, adjustments will be made.)
Am I just trying to find a silver lining? Maybe. But I do think substance — and the truth — matters, and while Obama may not have “won” the battle Wednesday night, he may have gained simply by being on the side of truth. And while Romney may have scored points by coming across as Obama’s “equal” up on stage, holding his own against the far superior Obama (which is what this suggests), he frequently came across as an arrogant prick without an authentic core, reinforcing the image that over the course of the campaign has come to define him, an image based on a huge amount of evidence.
There is still much for Obama to do. He has powerful ads running in the key swing states, and he has successfully defined Romney as an out-of-touch plutocrat who doesn’t give a shit about those below him on the socio-economic ladder, but he needs to use the platform of these debates to remind voters of Romney’s 47%” remarks, of his job-destroying / outsourcing record at Bain, of his tax shelters, of his massive proposed tax cuts for the rich, of his plan to destroy Medicare, and so on. This is all being communicated in other ways, but voters need to hear it from the president himself.
Next time, he must not allow Romney to get away with it.
(Cross-posted from The Reaction.)