If you’ve been following news coverage over the past few weeks of the Presidential election, there are a couple of things that you certainly would have noticed. The first of those is that President Barack Obama is pulling ahead in the polls in several key swing states, including Ohio and Florida. In fact, Nate Silver’s blog has given him about an 85% chance of winning the election according to a summation of all the polling data available, so things were starting to look bleak for the president’s Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
Just as emphasized as the widening gap between the two candidates was the narrative spun by both sides in attempting to paint themselves as the underdogs in the Presidential Debates, which began on Wednesday night in Colorado. The Romney campaign released a memo asserting that the president would focus on undermining his challenger rather than presenting a clear set of objectives for his second term in office, while Obama and crew said that he didn’t consider himself the front runner and that he expected Romney to win. This posturing definitely resembled that of any major sporting event, where both teams are trying to grab the underdog mantel and run with it so that they have that motivating factor behind them as they attempt to get psyched up for a game.
With those two storylines being the dominant ones in the papers and on cable news, the two candidates faced off with the nation watching, and as soon as the words started being exchanged, pundits from around the political world started to speculate on who was winning, and ultimately who won the contest. There is a significant temptation to pick winners in these things, but the fact is that who wins is simply a matter of taste. There is no real way to quantify who actually won a debate, but rather we rely on completely superficial means to do so.
The one example that you constantly see commentators bring up was the trouncing that John F. Kennedy laid on Richard Nixon in the 1960 debate. The commonly referenced adage is that radio listeners thought Nixon had won, while television viewers thought overwhelmingly that Kennedy was victorious. The reasons for this varied, with radio listeners liking the substance of what Nixon was saying, while television viewers enjoyed Kennedy’s youthful appearance and were appalled at the feverish Nixon (he had a temperature of 102 at the debates, and declined make-up before the discussion began). It was a perfect example of how appearances can dictate the “outcomes” of these dog and pony shows, and that’s why the discerning voter will look at the recaps of these debates and show some hesitancy in accepting their verdict of who won or lost.
In addition, the notion of there being a clear winner or loser is undermined by how well-rehearsed any political candidate is in their talking points. They may not have the exact wording of the questions that they will be asked (as they did not tonight), but even still, the odds that they will detour from their scripts and say something unexpected are miniscule, and therefore, the debates have really lost a bit of their luster, as well as their stature in adequately determining who the more qualified candidate for the position is. Instead, they have become just another blip on the timeline as days tick down to election day on November 6th.
Following this first debate, the conventional wisdom seems to be that Romney was the winner. People blasted the president for his seeming disinterest in the proceedings, and they lauded Romney for going for the jugular more often. What they failed to realize was that Obama performed in nearly identical fashion to the way he did in 2008 against Arizona Senator John McCain. He stuck to the professorial tone that he has used for many years, allowing his challenger to take all of the serious verbal swings. This is a tactic that usually works very well for a front-runner, as they are more likely to be hurt by a hubris-infused mistake than a challenger who is desperately trying to draw distinctions between himself and his opponent, while reining in the distance between the two in the race.
McCain did that quite a bit in 2008, really trying to hammer Obama from all angles. Whereas his act was viewed with consternation as the deluded ramblings of an angry old man in that election, Romney struck a much more authentic tone in this exchange. His more youthful appearance certainly helped, and it didn’t appear that he was grasping at straws in quite the fashion that McCain was. For his “victory”, the content wasn’t necessarily important, but the delivery was nailed.
What really stood out in this debate was the lengths to which both candidates went to prove correct the accusation that Romney leveled early on, which is a take-off on a popular line that liberals have used against the current generation of conservative candidates. That phrase is that if a person repeats a lie often enough, it eventually is accepted as fact. Democrats have used that accusation quite a bit as Romney and his running mate Paul Ryan have hammered Obama on his $716 billion in cuts from Medicare, and now Republicans have finally turned the tables on them.
Romney’s accusation hit home, in part because they were true, but also in part because he ended up doing the exact same thing, thereby validating a point of contention that I have made quite often that Republicans lack a sense of irony. The biggest example of this was his repeated insistence that the $716 billion that Obama cut from Medicare was actually to the detriment of seniors, when repeated analysis has shown that it actually is going to lengthen the life of the program by about eight years. The president attempted to rebut this frequently, but Romney kept bringing it up.
Obama, in turn, did the exact same thing about the $5 trillion in tax cuts that he has accused Romney of setting up to help his rich buddies. Romney repeatedly asserted that he was not intending on cutting down the share of the tax burden that the wealthy will carry, and also said that he will not cut their taxes on top of middle class families, but Obama kept bringing it back up anyway. Whether the president’s claims are factually accurate can be spun in a multitude of ways, but the point is that the point is definitely under contention, and Obama acted as though it has already been adjudicated.
Each candidate also had one particularly strong moment in the debate that impressed me. Romney’s was when he was discussing how his government would handle reducing the deficit, and he described reducing the deficit as a moral imperative. In very convincing language, he described how he would apply a litmus test to every government program, which would basically be “is it worth it to borrow money from China to finance this program?” It may be an over-simplification, but it was just about as concise and true to platform as he has been in recent months, and it was a riveting bit of rhetoric from the Republican nominee.
As for Obama, he was at his best when he was dismissing Romney’s notion that he could work in a bipartisan way to end the gridlock in Washington. He brought up the damaging fact that Romney had disagreed with a proposal to allow $1 in revenue generation for every $10 in budget cuts when asked about it in a Republican primary debate, and hammered home the Simpson-Bowles recommendation that any deficit reduction would have to come with a mix of revenue and cuts. Obama spelled out how he wanted to increase taxes on the wealthiest Americans to achieve a mix of $2.50 in cuts for every $1 in new revenue generated, and it was definitely his most well-made point of the evening.
Ultimately, I did not see why the pundits seemed so universally in agreement that Romney had won the debate. If I had to pick a winner between the two of them, I would go Romney, if for no other reason than the domestic side of things is where he has to make his hay, and he performed in a way that delivered on that necessity. In foreign policy, he is going to try to be the blustering strong guy, and Obama is likely going to wipe the floor with him by bringing up Osama bin Laden and the fact that he has helped extricate us from both of our current foreign engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. In this debate, however, Romney scored some points on how bad the economy is, and really did draw some significant distinctions between himself and the president.
As for the notion of conceding that this was somehow a turning point moment in the way that Kennedy’s victory over Nixon in the first 1960 debate is a ludicrous concept. This debate isn’t going to do a lot in terms of getting undecided voters off the fence, but instead will likely fire up the supporters on both sides. Romney may have been given the victory on the scorecards of America’s political media, but that certainly does not mean that this will catapult him to greater things. He is going to have to be the beneficiary of some seriously bad political calculating by the president, as well as a serious gaffe or two by Joe Biden, and although one of those things could happen, the odds that both will are slim to none.
We’ll see whether Obama fights with more passion in the second debate, or if he will allow Romney to continue throwing punches like he’s Ivan Drago to the president’s Rocky.