Okay, fine – Obama lost the first presidential debate to an oddly energized and aggressive Mitt Romney, saying unexpected things, most of which he never said before and most of which weren’t remotely true. He was dazzling, in the manner of what used to be called Dazzle Camouflage – where the bold-crazy paint scheme makes it impossible to determine position and range, because there’s just too much going on visually. It’s the opposite stealth technology and it flummoxed Obama. But that might not have been it. Obama was cool and reserved and dignified, and dull, and he stuck to specific facts and actual data. That came off as passive and distant, probably not what Obama intended – and he got his ass kicked. All this was covered in the previous column here – which also noted that this will take some time to sort out. It was a win for Romney, but only for now, and there never were that many votes to change anyway. Who is voting for whom was locked in long ago and no one is changing their mind at this late date. The polls may not shift all that much and it was just one debate, not really the end of Obama’s hopes, unless it is.
Regarding that, in Slate, Kerry Howley argues that all political debates are now just exercises in “empty promises made well” just like this one:
What Romney and Obama brought last night was a glorious rhetoric of specificity, though specific to a world not ours. To paraphrase Ross Douthat, it was the most wonkish debate in recent memory, and it was all nonsense. … This is a certain kind of mastery over non-facts, and I find it genuinely impressive. When forced into a misleading statement lesser intelligences will gravitate toward the general, but Obama and Romney have command of the fake particulars, and bat them around with considerable facility. Fake fact-giving is harder than truth-telling, and rather more fun to watch. I like the two worlds we learned about last night; I would prefer to live in one of them.
There was a lot of nonsense batted about so we had to attend only to what we could understand, the passive wimp and the bold and assertive alpha-male dominating him, and dominating the moderator too. As for the facts, here’s the Associated Press’ fact-check list – Romney was just making things up. He kind of doubled the number of unemployed and his tax plan really would cost five trillion dollars and he misstated what Obama spent on green energy stuff, by a factor of nine hundred percent or something, and so on and so forth. Jonathan Chait has much more but ends with this:
Romney won the debate in no small part because he adopted a policy of simply lying about his policies. Probably the best way to understand Obama’s listless performance is that he was prepared to debate the claims Romney has been making for the entire campaign, and Romney switched up and started making different and utterly bogus ones. Obama, perhaps, was not prepared for that, and he certainly didn’t think quickly enough on his feet to adjust to it.
Yes, Obama didn’t call him on any of it, so it all stood. No civilians – those of us out here in the real world – know the facts or even how to get them. That’s how you win debates and the appropriate spin began on Fox News with Romney’s campaign co-chair, John Sununu, saying that Obama’s performance was “babbling” and “lazy” and “disengaged.” Sununu kind of sneered and added there was no way Obama could ever fix any of that – “When you’re not that bright you can’t get better prepared.”
Sununu said the same thing on MSNBC and Andrea Mitchell asked him if he wanted to take that back. Maybe you don’t want to call the sitting president lazy, as of course it smacks of saying we all know about black folks, those lazy niggers and such. She gave him an out. She was being helpful, but Sununu declined her offer. He doubled down – Obama really is lazy and everyone can see he’s just not very bright. Sununu didn’t have to mention Obama is black. That was implied. Policy positions or the underlying facts that support those positions were not on the table in these post-debate interviews. Sununu was dealing with the meta-data. Now everyone can see Obama is just shiftless and dumb as a rock.
Talking Point Memo reports on the planned counteroffensive to that:
President Obama’s top aides didn’t deny on Thursday that Mitt Romney had a strong first debate. But by taunting fact checkers with a vague set of newly centrist claims, they believe the governor has left himself open for a major counteroffensive this week.
Obama senior strategist David Axelrod characterized Romney’s debate strategy as “effective in the short term, vulnerable in the long term.”
“Governor Romney came to give a performance and he gave a good performance and we give him credit for that,” he told reporters in a conference call. “The problem with it was that none of it was rooted in fact.”
That may work to some extent:
Romney told the debate crowd, for example, that despite his promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act, “pre-existing conditions are covered under my plan.” But his campaign immediately walked the statement back afterwards, with Romney strategist Eric Fehrnstrom clarifying to TPM that it would be up to states to pass laws guaranteeing insurance coverage.
Obama’s main-man pounced:
Axelrod called the pre-existing conditions pledge “an assertion that was so audacious the Romney campaign had to send someone into the spin room after the debate to say ‘Well, he really can’t do that.”
Yes he can. He can say anything he wants, and then there is the matter of taxes:
Obama appeared to be caught off guard by Romney’s repeated insistence that he would not cut taxes for the wealthy – a statement that contradicts independent studies showing even the most progressive version of his proposals would slash taxes for the wealthy while raising taxes on the middle class. Either that, or explode the deficit.
“Much of [Romney's performance] was rooted in deception, from his very first answer when he tried to disown his $5 trillion dollar tax program which would skew to the wealthy and for which he has no way to pay,” Axelrod said.
Finally, he dinged the “serial evader” Romney being unable to “name one regulation that he would keep” after repealing Wall Street reform despite the governor’s professed support at the debate for regulating the finance industry.
Now it’s name-calling, although Obama himself was a bit more subtle:
“We had our first debate last night, and when I got onto the stage I met this very spirited fellow who claimed to be Mitt Romney,” Obama told the crowd of roughly 12,300. “But it couldn’t have been the real Mitt Romney.”
The “real” Romney, he said, has traveled the country promoting tax cuts for the wealthy, education plans that would hurt teachers and was a pioneer of outsourcing jobs overseas. However, Wednesday night, Obama said Romney reversed those views because he “doesn’t want to be held accountable for the real Mitt Romney” and “what he’s been saying for the last year.”
He wants the real Romney to come out and play – humor works better than name-calling – and at BuzzFeed, Zeke Miller sees a major change in strategy here:
President Barack Obama and his aides rapidly reversed their strategic course Thursday morning, shifting the center of their attacks on Mitt Romney back toward the oldest criticisms of the Republican: That he’s a flip-flopper.
Democrats had long been torn over whether to portray Romney as too conservative, or too inconsistent, for the electorate - realizing that the attacks are inconsistent with one another. And since this spring, they seemed to have settled on the former, casting Romney as a conservative whose policies of cutting taxes and spending, and on abortion and other social issues, are too far right for most voters.
Thursday they returned abruptly to the earlier line.
They moved from saying listen to what that guy is saying and be very afraid to listen to what that guy is saying and realize he isn’t saying anything at all, that he’s an empty suit. Few may not follow that shift – advantage Romney. Everyone secretly believes that all politicians are saying absolutely nothing at all, or believes that quite openly and says so. One politician saying the other guy is just blowing smoke is dangerous. Who is to say you’re not doing the same?
One of Andrew Sullivan’s readers has an answer to that:
One idea I haven’t seen yet is rope-a-dope. The boxing idea is that you “let your opponent punch himself out.” That may be what Obama was actually doing. Let Romney talk. Let him talk and talk and talk. But in the end, while he looked good talking, most of what the guy said was bullshit. (I never yell at the TV screen except during sports, and there were at least five times where I shouted “stop lying” when Romney was talking.)
As to why Obama didn’t call him out on his lies: one thing I’ve noticed is that Obama doesn’t like calling people liars. He’ll let his surrogates do that. He likes to take the high road. He likes to not point out his opponent’s weaknesses but highlight his own strengths. Obama has rarely used the phrase “47 percent.” Instead, he speaks of how he “represents 100% of the country.” I don’t think this dignified position helped him in the debate. But let’s see how the next couple of days play out. Maybe he can get Bill Clinton to fact-check Romney for another hour and a half.
Another adds this:
Maybe debate prep with John Kerry was the problem. What a wonk-fest snoozer that would be. For the next debate, he should prep with Stephen Colbert (the character). This would prepare him to deal with all the sudden shifts in facts and reasoning.
Another thought: debating someone who changes positions mid-debate, but never acknowledges having done so, is like arguing with a drunk person. You can’t win, unless there’s an external third party that helps deal with the drunk person. The press needs to be that third party.
That would never happen. People would say the press is taking sides. If Romney says the sky is green, not blue, and says he has always said this, in every stump speech for the last eight or ten years, you report what he said – no more, no less. Let the bloggers do the fact-checking. You report the news – what happened, what was said. Romney said the sky is green. It’s the news, not the truth.
Andrew Sullivan is more subtle than his readers:
If you are a salesman and you see life and politics as about the sell, you adjust the sell every time to a different customer-base. Most people find this perfectly natural in a business setting, and it makes a lot of sense. It’s called marketing. You can and should sell the product to different audiences emphasizing which elements will appeal to each.
But we often find the same strategy a little ethically dubious in politics and religion. Why? Because the product you are selling, in these contexts, is something in the future, not something we can see now, touch and examine and test. When you change both the pitch and the product for different audiences, and refuse to tell people what the final product may be, you need a lot of chutzpah and salesmanship to do the job. You need to have a facility for lying, while seeming utterly sincere. You need to have a face that can be re-set constantly to assess and sell to every door you knock on, especially if what you are selling does not, in normal reality, add up. Especially if the people you are selling to are in desperate straits, seemingly out of their control, in confusing times, where they are losing, and looking for hope and order and authority that will never crack or reveal weakness or lose its smile.
Ah, we were dealing with a master salesman, and Obama was stuck:
Obama was left with two options: say this pleasant-seeming guy next to him is a shameless weather-vane and liar (wouldn’t work in a debate, is just against Obama’s character) or to try and remind the country of Romney’s actual policies as he has laid them out, and rebut the facts relentlessly. Obama tried the latter really, really badly, but the obvious retort to Romney’s smiling total pivot was: what on earth are you talking about? Who are you? Who will you be tomorrow?
That’s a good question:
In the last few days, Romney has said he will keep the DREAM executive order, keep all the good things in Obamacare, while getting rid of “Obamacare” (impossible); he will protect Medicare from Obama’s $700 billion “raid” and keep it as an option for seniors forever, if they choose; and he will enact his version of Simpson-Bowles, because he is more moderate and bipartisan than Obama. Lehrer, who made Romney’s case for getting rid of PBS funding all by himself, did not see himself as a fact-checker – or even a moderator who could press a candidate to explain himself. He was simply a facilitator for the Romney sales job, which flummoxed Obama, in the worst public performance bar none of his campaign…
But Romney’s sales pitch worked just fine, in this case for reasons Sullivan sees as structural:
If one party simply refuses to support anything a president of another party proposes and is primarily devoted to obstructionism on everything, then they can, if they are reckless enough both to create a credit crisis and prevent any further stimulus, succeed in essentially blackmailing the country by destroying its political system and then blaming it on the president. It’s cynical and corrupt and contemptible and unpatriotic – but lethal.
So in reality, we recall that Obama actually set up a Simpson-Bowles Grand Bargain, but Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, vetoed it (as was his prerogative on the commission, unlike a real fiscal conservative, Tom Coburn) and made sure it never got to a Congressional vote. Obama, in the worst mistake of his presidency, decided then to bob and weave on this, rather than risk embracing it alone.
That’s what gave Romney his opening last night. He simply lied and said Obama killed Simpson-Bowles and Romney will resurrect it, but in line with his plan. So the obvious policy mix for now – a short-term stimulus, a long-term bipartisan debt-reduction deal on Simpson-Bowles lines – can only be passed in this scenario by a Republican president so long as he has a Republican House. A Democratic president cannot even hope that in the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, a single person from the GOP will compromise on anything. The Senate Democrats, however, are not like the House Republicans. They compromise. And the fiscal crisis keeps worsening. So Romney last night stole the key centrist argument of the economic debate from Obama’s weak hand – the hand he refused to seize Simpson-Bowles with when he could have.
So in terms of debate prowess, it was a knock-out. But from the strategic political argument, it was a very canny and dramatic move to the center, if, of course, utterly without consistency or principle.
That may be a bit complex, but it comes down to a marketing trick well-executed, and Sullivan sees only one way out for Obama:
The obvious response to this new Romney is to say: now you’ve gone into a debate and denied you are lowering taxes on the wealthy: prove it. Show us where the new revenues come from or at least which are on your chopping block (sorry, PBS won’t solve the problem). The end of all corporate welfare? The end of the mortgage deduction? The charity deduction? Where is the money coming from? More to the point, you have to provide much more savings in the tax code than Simpson-Bowles, if you are also going to take us to higher-than-Cold-War “defense” spending, as you have also promised. How will that not mean a net shift from the already struggling middle class to the super-rich?
If I were Obama, I’d focus now entirely on Romney’s new plan. What is it? How is it paid for? What is he hiding from us? And why?
That also may not resonate with voters. They expect liars who hide things. That’s how they define politics, and at the American Conservative, Rod Dreher adds another thought:
The overall impression I took away from this debate is that Obama is too worn out to do this job for four more years, but Romney is ready to hit the ground running. Mind you, it would be imprudent, to say the very least, to make a decision based on a single debate, and besides, there are policy differences between the two men. Still, I bet there are some voters who had reluctantly decided for Obama who will now rethink that based on the performance last night – simply because Obama’s logy performance gave the impression that he’s a spent force.
The man may be too tired to slap Romney around for some actual answers, and maybe Obama just doesn’t like being president all that much now. See Kevin Baker at Harper’s:
Obama signaled that he wants out. His diehard supporters are already trying to wave away this weirdly awful, unengaged performance as just his latest turn of Zen mastery, but that dog won’t hunt. They should steel themselves for more shocking displays of indifference over the next month on the part of this strangely diffident individual. It’s quite possible that he means what he says, and he really can’t wait to become an ex-president.
And there’s Garance Franke-Ruta at the Atlantic:
I said it after the convention speech and I’ll say it again: If there’s something that seems shut down in our once ebulliently optimistic president, it most likely has to do with the wars. Obama is a naturally empathic individual whose diverse, mobile, international background made him unusually able when it came to assessing new social situations and reading more than people say. Some observers have speculated that Obama needs a crowd, energy he can draw from. But he had that aplenty in Charlotte, and it barely helped.
I suspect a more prosaic explanation: A person of his temperament cannot maintain the same open demeanor when he’s dealing with war and death all the time. As, we must recall, Obama has been for years now. If Obama seems shut down, perhaps it is because he has to be to be who he is and do the job he needs to do day in and day out. If his heart didn’t seem in it last night, I wonder if it’s not in part because the last thing he needs to consider in his work on a day-to-day basis is his heart. It’s a long way from being a community organizer, civil-rights lawyer and anti-war state senator to running a drone war that kills innocent civilians, ordering the death of militants, overseeing a policy that’s led to an increase in American casualties in Afghanistan, and delivering funereal remarks at a ceremony honoring the returning remains of a slain American diplomat.
There may be something to that. Why would anyone with a heart and soul and at least a smidgen of conscience want the job? Obama seemed to want the job to do some good and change the politics of Washington into something a little more sensible – but there’s all that other stuff. You become death, and unlike in the old movie, death doesn’t ever take a holiday. On the other hand, Mitt Romney seems to want to become president because being president would be kind of neat – goodies for his rich buddies and a lot of swaggering prestige. The younger Bush was the same way. It was never about power – that was Dick Cheney’s thing. Maybe Obama should simply ask Mitt just why he wants to be president, really. That would clear up a lot, but of course Romney would turn his answer into a sales pitch.
It may not matter. Obama may be stuck, as Jamelle Bouie notes here:
Romney gave a great performance, but there was nothing in his rhetoric that would convince an Obama voter to switch sides. By next week, polling will catch up with events and we’ll have a sense of how voters reacted to the first presidential debate. My guess? The polls will show little or no change. To borrow from political scientists Robert Erikson and Christopher Weizen, “the best prediction from the debates is the initial verdict before the debates.” At the end of the month, odds are good that Obama will be where he was at the beginning of the month – ahead.
Obama may not recover from this disastrous first debate, no matter what he and his surrogates try in order to show that Romney’s a slick nothing, and Obama may now hate his job, but he may have to soldier on. Just enough people prefer someone like him doing the nearly impossible. Someone’s got to do it. It might as well be a real person.