Wednesday, October 3, 2012 – that must have been a bummer of an evening in Boston. The Red Sox, having an awful season, were down in the Bronx playing the last game of the year against the damned Yankees – and the Yankees blew them away, winning by twelve runs, and also winning the division for the twelfth time in the last fifteen years. Damn. It was even worse that the Yankees pulled this off on the very last day of the season, saving their butts. Yes, the Red Sox season was going to end badly – everyone knew that – but it didn’t have to end this badly. Except for one stolen base, which didn’t matter in the least, all the Boston guys were just frozen in place. They hardly put up a fight – they didn’t go down swinging, as the say. They just stood there, and their season was over. Boston fans, watching on television up north, probably changed channels early on. It was just too painful to watch.
All the other channels were showing the first presidential debate, which for many a Massachusetts liberal – there really are such people – must have been equally painful. After all the hype and all the predictions it became painfully clear that Obama had his clock cleaned by Mitt Romney. Maybe Obama was being cool and careful, which is his way of dealing with life, but he seemed frozen in place. Mitt Romney wasn’t – it was if he drank a gallon of Red Bull before he bounced on stage and then bounced all over the stage, saying all sorts of things no one expected. Most of it made no sense, but at least he was saying things. Obama presented concepts and data – calmly and dispassionately and with detail and accuracy. In short, he was boring. Mitt wasn’t, even if he was deceptive and vague. In debates, boring loses.
The quick write-up of this from NBC News doesn’t exactly show that:
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s tax cut proposals consumed the opening moments in his first debate versus President Barack Obama, as the two candidates sparred over whether the math behind the Republican presidential nominee’s plans matched his rhetoric.
The president said Romney would cut taxes by $5 trillion, but hadn’t accounted for how he would pay for them. For his part, Romney argued that Obama would not live up to his promise to balance the budget, and argued tax hikes would devastate an anemic economy.
That sounds like a wonk-versus-wonk snooze-fest, and maybe it was:
“My number one principle is there will be no tax cut that adds to the deficit,” Romney said here on the campus of the University of Denver.
Romney asserted his tax plan would spur job creation and help balance the budget, but the president insisted that these proposals simply do not add up.
“The fact is that if you are lowering the rates the way you described, governor, then it is not possible to come up with enough deductions and loopholes that only affect high-income individuals to avoid either raising the deficit or burdening the middle class,” Obama said. “It’s math. It’s arithmetic.”
Middle-aged Americans who glanced at Facebook (young folks abandoned Facebook for the much cooler Twitter and texting long ago) saw their page light up with comments from other middle-aged Americans, saying that all the numbers made their head hurt. That would mean this was a draw, but it wasn’t, because Romney surprised everyone:
At the first presidential debate in Colorado Wednesday night, former Gov. Mitt Romney disputed a central criticism of his tax reform plan – and appeared to disavow one of its central features.
Responding to President Obama’s description of Romney’s proposal, Romney claimed: “I don’t have a $5 trillion tax cut. I don’t have a tax cut of the scale you’re talking about. I think we ought to provide tax relief to people in the middle class. But I won’t reduce the share of tax paid by high-income people. … I’m not looking to cut massive taxes and to reduce revenues going to the government. My number one principal is, there will be no tax cut that adds to the deficit. I want to underline that no tax cut that will add to the deficit.”
So he ran for months on a plan to lower everyone’s tax rates by twenty percent – but he was just kidding. Independent analysts said that would reduce revenues by five trillion over ten years – so he’d never do such a thing. That caught Obama flatfooted. That man said he’d never do what he had said he would certainly do. There’s not much to say about that, and all Obama could manage was this:
“Well, for 18 months he’s been running on this tax plan, and now five weeks before the election, he says his big bold idea is ‘never mind,’” Obama said. “And the fact is that if you are lowering the rates the way you describe, governor, then it is not possible to come up with enough deductions and loopholes that only effect high-income individuals to avoid raising the deficit or burdening the middle class. It’s math – arithmetic.”
Romney just smiled. He’d won the point.
Andrew Sullivan live-blogged the debate, inning-by-inning in baseball terms, and had these observations:
9.16 pm. Man, Obama is boring and abstract. He’s putting us to sleep. I get his points but he is entirely wonky tonight. And he is on the defensive. Romney’s crazy math is somehow made legitimate. Romney is kicking the president’s ass.
9.18 pm. Obama’s looking down as Romney speaks. Horrible TV. Why doesn’t Obama just say: “How do we afford this? Where will you get the money to pay for the big tax cuts?” I hate to say this but Romney is connecting more than Obama, it seems to me. Obama is professorial and wonkish. He’s on defense.
9.22 pm. Notice how Romney is talking about actual individuals, while Obama is talking abstract ideas. And Obama has not made a clear simple argument for getting more jobs. How did he not prepare an answer for that?
9.25 pm. Romney is running on Bowles-Simpson! And he’s relating it to alleviating human suffering. A devastating round for the president. Romney has taken charge, even as Obama has spoken more. And Romney has now managed to make this into a status-quo versus change dynamic. Just terrible for Obama so far, in my opinion. And again, he keeps looking down to write. He should look him in the eye.
9.42 pm. This is a rolling calamity for Obama. He’s boring, abstract, and less human-seeming than Romney! I can’t even follow him half the time. Either exhausted, over-briefed … or just flailing. He is throwing this debate away.
9.51 pm. Romney is dominating Lehrer. And the debate. Just in pure alpha male terms.
That’s just a taste of it, like Highlight Express on ESPN, but then one of Sullivan’s readers tells him not to be such a damned drama queen:
I’m sitting in a room with six other people. These aren’t all ravenous Democrats. No one is having the reaction you are. Not. One. Obama HAS flat-out asked Romney how he plans to pay for his budget. Over and over and over again. Seriously, man, what debate are you watching?
They’re both tight and trying to cram a ton of details into their answers. Yes, Romney is ravenously attacking. What else did you expect him to do? That’s not Obama’s style, and you’ve known it now for four years. He was never going to rip at Romney’s throat. This is who Obama is. You know that. Keep calm, debate on.
Sullivan does not keep calm:
10.06 pm. I find myself bored silly by Obama. If I am bored silly by this wonkish lecture, and his refusal to rebut specific points, i.e. lies, Obama’s in trouble.
10.19 pm. In live-blogging a debate, I am not judging the intellectual cogency alone. I am judging it as a debate, which is a complex thing, with many factors in play. But I know debating, am good at it, and I can see a wipe-out when it’s, well, in front of one’s nose.
10.22 pm. The liar has managed to make Obama seem dishonest. In an act of will, Romney’s lies are made effective.
10.29 pm. How is Obama’s closing statement so fucking sad, confused and lame? He choked. He lost. He may even have lost the election tonight.
Let that sink in. That’s possible. And Sullivan concludes with this:
Look: you know how much I love the guy, and you know how much of a high information viewer I am, and I can see the logic of some of Obama’s meandering, weak, professorial arguments. But this was a disaster for the president for the key people he needs to reach, and his effete, wonkish lectures may have jolted a lot of independents into giving Romney a second look.
Obama looked tired, even bored; he kept looking down; he had no crisp statements of passion or argument; he wasn’t there. He was entirely defensive, which may have been the strategy. But it was the wrong strategy – at the wrong moment.
There was a winner here:
The person with authority on that stage was Romney- offered it by one of the lamest moderators ever, and seized with relish. This was Romney the salesman. And my gut tells me he sold a few voters on a change tonight. It’s beyond depressing. But it’s true.
There are two more debates left. I have experienced many times the feeling that Obama just isn’t in it, that he’s on the ropes and not fighting back, and then he pulls it out. He got a little better over time tonight. But he pulled every punch. Maybe the next two will undo some of the damage. But I have to say I think it was extensive.
Andrew Sullivan is perhaps the most widely-read political blogger out there, but Josh Marshall is perhaps the most respected, for his dispassionate but stinging insight, and he seems to agree that this was a disaster for Obama:
Again and again through this debate, Romney has left himself open to wounding hits from the president. Each time President Obama did not go there. He didn’t want the harsh hit. I’m curious whether that will turn out to have been a good decision.
But maybe this isn’t the end, as this might be like losing the first game of the World Series:
Energy and focus all in Romney’s hands on this. Obama simply hasn’t pressed any points where Romney said things that were demonstrably false. A bit on his tax cut plan, but not much. But how does it play over the next week? Romney’s been holding back all the details on his plans, basically refusing to talk about them. He’s put a lot on the table here, made a lot of claims which simply don’t add up. Obama hasn’t pressed the falsehoods or math that doesn’t make sense.
Does the press do it tomorrow? How well do these claims wear? That’s how we’ll know how each did.
Spin does matter and the spin is yet to come. Earlier, Brendan Nyhan had addressed that:
For the next three presidential debates, send one of your reporters to a room with a TV and no Internet access and have him or her file a story on the debate before seeing anyone else’s take. I bet these accounts would frequently reach different conclusions from media hive mind. (I’m going to try this myself by staying off Twitter for the duration.)
Of course, I’m not optimistic that anyone will actually take me up on this idea. Even as political media becomes fractured along partisan lines, the impulse toward pack journalism remains deeply rooted. There’s a degree of professional safety for journalists whose reporting remains in step with the prevailing take on the news. At a broader level, news outlets little incentive to produce conflicting interpretations of an event; the authority of news coverage is implicitly premised on the idea that there is one objective set of facts to report.
There’s really only one objective set of facts to report? If so, pack journalism has spoken, as at the Economist there’s Will Wilkinson’s initial assessment:
Romney won decisively. Obama clearly approached the debate with a mainly defensive strategy, hoping to come away without having done anything to rock his very comfortable boat. But the boat did rock. Obama was flummoxed by Romney’s superior preparation, intensity, and execution, and tonight’s truly dismal performance from the president has put the sustainability of his lead in question, if not actually in peril.
James Joyner is on the same page:
I say this as someone who thought Al Gore and John Kerry easily won all the debates in 2000 and 2004 – and certainly thought Obama beat McCain in 2008. I don’t think it’s likely to radically change the dynamics of the race in the key battleground states. But Romney was cogent and prepared while Obama seemed as if he had been up all night and then told he had a surprise debate.
James Fallows did the body-language thing:
If you had the sound turned off, Romney looked calm and affable through more of the debate than Obama did, and the incumbent president more often looked peeved. Romney’s default expression, whether genuine or forced, was a kind of smile; Obama’s, a kind of scowl. I can understand why Obama would feel exasperated by these claims and arguments. Every president is exasperated by what he considers facile claims about what he knows to be impossibly knotty problems. But he let it show.
As seen from the other side of the pond, in the Spectator, Alex Massie argues here that Romney gave Obama “an old-fashioned ass-kicking” this time:
If you play not to lose you often end up losing. That was Obama’s problem this evening. Now it may not matter in grand electoral terms but Democrats have cause to be appalled by Obama’s performance while Republicans will leave Denver believing, at least for a day or two but perhaps for longer than that, they’re right back in this and that Mitt has a little bit more than just a puncher’s chance.
Time’s Joe Klein says he was “mystified” by Obama’s performance:
Did the President send out his body double tonight? Because if that was the actual Barack Obama out there, I’m not sure he can communicate well enough to be an effective President in a time of trouble, to say nothing of winning a second term.
Marc Ambinder has some thoughts on that:
Why didn’t Obama do better? Here’s some speculation: He is not as good at these formats like Romney is. He was too cautious … even about appearing too flip and arrogant, which might have itself come off as arrogant; he didn’t clip his answers; he didn’t remember to say what he intended to say; he spent the day dealing with Turkey and Syria; he let his disdain for Romney show. I think all of those contributed to some degree. But fundamentally, when it comes to domestic policy, Obama just doesn’t have a very good affirmative argument to make. That’s a consequence of being a crisis president of a country where, as some are now saying, the old dismal is the new normal.
Of course those on the right were happy, like Lisa Schiffren at the National Review with this:
Romney sounds way more plausible and committed to the middle class than he sometimes has. And he is exuding confidence as he explains policies and programs to meet the stated goal. Mitt is doing the important thing: he is making substantive arguments, and destroying his opponent’s arguments, without going down into the weeds. Furthermore, his inflections are perfect, and it is easy to listen to both the content and the feeling.
And the Weekly Standard’s William Kristol was in seventh heaven:
Mitt Romney stood and delivered the best debate performance by a Republican presidential candidate in more than two decades.
Kevin Drum, however, just doesn’t like pack journalism:
All the talk on CNN seems to be about how Obama “looked like he didn’t want to be there.” I didn’t really see that myself. Obama certainly wasn’t crisp, which I find a little inexplicable, but that’s about the worst I saw.
Did Romney come armed with “loads of details”? Not even close. He certainly made an endless number of points, but there weren’t really many facts and figures there. Just a flurry of words. And that old Romney weirdness made a few appearances too. For example, this bit about what he’d cut from the budget: “I’m sorry, Jim, I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I’m going to stop other things. I like PBS. I love Big Bird. Actually I like you, too.”
My sister emailed during the debate to ask, “Can Romney look any more insulting when he’s listening to Obama? It’s like he’s looking at an idiot child.” Romney’s normal debate face strikes me the same way, but I don’t know if it strikes everyone that way.
That’s unkind, but Romney’s comment was goofy, and Drum didn’t think much of Sullivan’s hysterics:
I’ll chalk that up to Sullivan’s mercurial temperament, but now that I’m listening to the talking heads, it seems that there’s a pretty fair consensus that Obama lost by a bunch. I’ll stick to my guns on this: I think Obama lost by a little, but not by much.
And he’s amused that there are all those conservatives who said they didn’t want Romney to pivot to the center and are now clearly delighted that he did just that, and it actually worked:
Romney repeatedly noted that he agreed with Obama on various issues and repeatedly took rhetorically moderate positions. For example: “Regulation is essential. You can’t have a free market work if you don’t have regulation.” You sure wouldn’t have heard him say that during one of the primary debates.
That was odd, but Drum’s real issue is with the pack:
I think my disagreement with the media consensus is more over Romney’s performance than Obama’s. I agree that Obama didn’t bring his A-Game. But I didn’t think Romney was all that good either. Yes, he attacked, but he did it in a curiously hyperactive way, constantly insisting on getting in one more rebuttal and then using it to go over every single point that Obama had just made. I thought that was both confusing and exhausting. Romney also made frequent references to things that Beltway junkies understand but ordinary viewers probably didn’t. The “accounting treatment” for oil companies, for example, or jumping into a point about Dodd-Frank without explaining what Dodd-Frank is.
Romney won something, but no one really knew what he was talking about and he may face embarrassment later, or not.
This will take some time to sort out – but it was a win for Romney, for now. From Princeton, Sam Wang offers this:
I suspect the race will stay where it is now, maybe narrow by a point. Stalemate. Which is not what Romney’s party needed.
Yep, there weren’t that many votes to change anyway – who is voting for whom was locked in long ago, so everyone will be disappointed. Obama whiffed. Romney hit one out of the park. But no one is changing their mind about anything at this late date.
And it was just a debate, not really the end of the anything in particular. The full season’s not over. The Yankees won the division but they haven’t won the league yet, much less the World Series. There are more games to play, for higher stakes.
Still, Democrats now know what it was like to be a Red Sox fan this year. Damn it, sometimes the guys don’t even seem to try. They’re supposed to at least try. It drives you crazy.