Oct 2012 16

by ChrisSick

In which we further discuss the (many) tactical failings of the President during the first debate, potential paths for improvement of performance, and I repeatedly tell everyone to shut up.

[Name Redacted]: “He’s really got no excuse to underperform in a foreign policy debate. The topic bores Romney to tears. Hell, Ryan backed up Romney’s two Afghanistan positions (we support a 2014 withdrawal while being opposed to having a date for withdrawal) during the debate.”

Sick: “To be fair, he’s never had a reason to underperform in any debate.”

— Message board comments, from “Romney Rising” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic, 10/13/12

Well, hopefully, we can put all this sordid business of demoralization and decrying media narratives and poor, poor Jim Leher, firmly behind us. While liberals are again energized heading into the next Presidential Debate, it will surely be instructive to reexamine some of the failures that led to Obama’s defeat and how those dynamics will most likely play out in this next debate.

The first and possibly biggest problem for Obama were the EXPECTATIONS heading into the debate. In my own pre-debate prognostication, I predicted that Obama would play it safe, we wouldn’t see many fireworks, and that Romney didn’t have the skill to execute any game-changing kind of attack. Boy, was I wrong.

Though, in retrospect, I find my own analysis unsurprisingly defensible. Romney had a bit of a history of doing dumb things in debates, not to mention that fact that he doesn’t always handle the whole extemporaneous speaking thing terribly well. Obama, on the other hand, was cited as being “one of the most talented political communicators in modern history” by Romney’s campaign. Sure, it was just a bit of pre-debate expectation-management, but there’s two valuable points there: First, the right were successful in managing expectations down so that Romney’s performance appeared to be a massive upset, contrasted to Team Obama’s failure to do so. Second, such high praise from an enemy didn’t set eyes a’rolling, since so many people — and not just voters, but journalists — want to believe in the greatness of Obama.

In this upcoming debate, the expectations have been significantly changed, and while the conventional wisdom would suggest that Obama must perform significantly better than last debate, thus putting the burden on him, I’d suggest the burden’s actually on Mitt Romney. In the last debate — for the above reasons and others I’ll elucidate on further — the bar was painfully low for him and artificially high for Obama. As far as I’ve seen, the only journalist who actually called it correctly, pre-debate, was James Fallows at The Atlantic. While numerous conservatives argued the debates would change everything, they did it with the same conviction they argued that polls were meaningless and were, rightly, ignored.

This time, Romney will be facing a much more engaged and prepared Obama, and has set a high bar for himself to clear in that first debate. The President, on the other hand, only has to show the fuck up this time, and that may be enough in and of itself to wash away some of the stink of his last performance. If he prepares.

Which brings us to our next point, PREPERATION. Heading into the first debate, Obama seemed to not be very concerned with debate prep. The President, as Fallows notes in his pre-debate analysis, has a million things working against being prepared for a debate that his opponent does not:

“’Just the act of being on the stage with a president is an elevating thing.’ [David Axelrod said] This sounds like a small matter, but through the years, analysis of debate reactions has shown that the public takes a candidate more seriously after seeing him, for the first time, on equal footing with an incumbent president.

He [The President] faces the temptation not to prepare. A president has every reason to postpone or avoid mock-debate sessions. The schedule is full; the necessity to play-act is demeaning; emergencies crop up. And thus a president avoids practicing skills that are indeed different from what he does day by day.”

Obviously, a full-time Presidential candidate — as Mitt Romney has been for most of the last decade — doesn’t have such a challenge, benefits from sharing a stage with the President, and can devote intense focus to debate prep in a way an incumbent president simply cannot. However, having been beaten soundly in his first debate, the President has every reason and no excuse to not prepare seriously for his next two debates with Romney.

The final challenge Obama faces is SUBSTANCE. During the last debate, Mitt Romney finally committed to his post-primary pivot toward the center. He had put it off for so long, that I honestly assumed he wasn’t going to even attempt to shed his Severely Conservative image heading into the general election, much to his detriment. When he picked Ryan, it felt to me — and others — as if he had gone whole hog on the idea that this would be a base election, and all that mattered was enthusiasm and GTOV efforts.

But Romney picked his time ideally, after endless bad press through the end of summer, and having his campaign written off by any number of people (including myself), Romney used the debate to present the new-and-improved Romney version 0.4. A sensible, and sensitive, moderate man, gently — but firmly — correcting the President’s mistaken impressions of him as some far-right-tax-slashing-social-safety-net-destroying-warmongering-fancy-suit.

The performance was fantastic on Romney’s part — even the Obama campaign said so — and totally unmoored from any objective reality. But as I said recently, debate victories aren’t decided by Poltifact after the fact. They’re decided in realtime by the people on the stage. It really doesn’t matter that —according to Poltifact — only 30% of Romney’s statements in this election have been true or mostly true, while over his first term 50% of Obama’s statements have been rated the same.

What matters is what happens on that stage, and Obama has only himself to blame for his loss. Substance should matter, we could most likely all agree, but we can’t seem to agree on something even resembling objective truth, and even as the Tax Policy Center said that Romney’s tax plan will either explode the deficit or raise taxes on the middle class, Romney goes on citing Wall Street Journal editorials by his hired advisors as studies that rebut that claim.

As infuriating as this may be for liberals — and I know it is because many of you continue to insist that Romney didn’t win the debate despite all evidence to the contrary — the fact is that it isn’t the reality that wins debates. Hell, it’s hardly the reality that wins elections. Until he finally appeared to be a viable candidate, Romney was written off. By being on stage with the president he appeared, for the first time, viable. By defeating the President in the debate, he appeared to be serious.

Liberals — and I know a few specific ones right here on SG — who insist that Romney should have his win somehow stripped from him by the Presidential Debate Commission (in, what I imagine, would have to be an elaborate and shaming ceremony) are missing the point. It isn’t anyone’s job to call Romney out on the substance but Obama’s. If he’s lying, Obama is the only one on stage who can meaningfully refute and attack those lies.

In the next debate, Obama’s shown signs (most significantly in his speeches following the debate) that he’s going to be more aggressive in calling him out. Liberals, at least the ones most apt to be claiming Obama didn’t lose last time, are probably hoping for a Joe-Biden-style performance of exasperation and condescension, but I’m relatively sure — like, put-money-but-not-a-lot-of-it-sure — that the President’s team is far too smart to go that route.

For Obama, the path to victory is primarily in relying on his less professorial speaking abilities, and finding a simple and understandable way to point out that the things that Romney says about his own plans simply aren’t true, and — worse — that he hasn’t provided enough specifics to even analyze whether his proposed policies could be true.

This debate will be interesting, and my prediction — for whatever it’s worth given my last one — is that Obama will be able to successfully fight Mitt Romney to a draw at the very least. He understands the stakes, and has had ten days to analyze his weaknesses, as well as his opponent’s. Failure to achieve at least a draw could potentially be fatal for his election prospects. The polls have dramatically shifted to Romney’s favor, and even though his leads aren’t as strong as the President’s were at their most recent peaks, and there’s even some evidence in outliers that his bounce could be fading, a lot hinges on this debate.

As for me, there’s only 20 days left in this election. If I predict exactly one more debate wrong, I’m giving up the game and switching my major to philosophy, or some other specialization where things actually make sense.

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