I think there was a winner in the sense that Barack Obama not only gained ground he lost but he cauterized some wounds that he inflicted on himself by seeming too diffident and disengaged. Both candidates tonight I think tip-toed right up to the point of rudeness, but stepped back. It was a very good fight. I have seen every presidential debate in American history since the four of Nixon and Kennedy in 1960. This was immeasurably the best.
There’s some disagreement about that. The line from many Republicans the day after the debate was that the moderator, CNN’s Candy Crowley, had it in for Mitt Romney. See Candy Crowley’s Debate Moderation Exemplifies Why Americans Do Not Trust Their Media and Facts: Candy Crowley Aided Obama: 2-to-1 Liberal Agenda and Candy Crowley: Worst Moderator Ever and Candy Crowley Shills for Obama at Hofstra Debate!
There was a lot of that – claiming it was all a set-up and Mitt didn’t have a chance. The questions just weren’t fair, and of the ninety available minutes to speak, Obama got almost three more than Mitt, damn it. Curiously, there wasn’t that much talk of what Romney actually said with his minutes, or didn’t say – but that can be explained. The problem wasn’t Romney’s performance, it was the officiating, and that sounds familiar. It’s a post-game thing. When you hear that from a losing coach in sports everyone considers it pathetic – your quarterback was the one who threw those interceptions, and it was your fullback who fumbled the damned ball and turned it over in the final minute of play. Deal with it. It seems things are different in politics.
On the other hand, the quite conservative Marc Ambinder makes no excuses:
Obama killed it. He outdebated Romney, he never once seemed churlish, he had a better command of the facts, and he conveyed the aura of a man who is confident about his choices. Romney kept hitting bumps. He didn’t let go of small points. He seemed irritated and peevish. He was uncharacteristically tongue-tied. As I reviewed my notes after the debate, though, Romney probably did better than my gut told me. But Obama still won the evening, and did so convincingly. I think if this debate had been first, Republicans would have a conniption.
They’re having their conniption now, and Jonah Goldberg repeats that this just wasn’t fair:
I thought the questions, prescreened by Candy Crowley, were for the most part indistinguishable from questions the Obama campaign might as well have drafted for her. Nearly every question was asked from a fundamentally liberal premise. Why on earth this debate was handed to undecided voters in a state where Obama is leading by nearly thirty points is beyond me. These weren’t undecided voters; they were at best dyspeptic Democrats.
Jonathan Bernstein carefully reviews all the audience questions and concludes that’s nonsense:
I thought the questions favored Obama during the debate, but a second look convinced me that it’s wrong: the questions were about as fair as it gets. From the “Town Hall” audience questions, I count three that were solidly pro-Obama and one that was somewhat pro-Obama; three solidly pro-Romney and one somewhat pro-Romney; and three neutral ones.
Most of the discussion went on and on like that, and soon everyone forgot what was actually said – which was probably the plan all along. When you cannot defend positions you discuss process. Romney as martyr is something you can market effectively. Romney as a bumbling man who will say anything that seems useful, even if it’s the opposite of what he said before, so that no one knows quite where he stands on anything, is harder to sell to the twenty-three remaining undecided voters, who will apparently determine the election.
That’s just as well. There was much that wasn’t discussed at all. There was no discussion of Romney’s long-held position that he would immediately reinstate the Don’t-Ask Don’t-Tell policy and have all gays in the military go into hiding again, or get the hell out of the Army – if he still believes that. No one can tell. He’s not saying. There were too many people he might offend, for all those he might please by going there. Obama wasn’t going to bring it up either, for much the same reason – and for the same reason neither of them was going to bring up gay marriage either.
Luckily no one asked about such things, nor did anyone ask about the Euro crisis. That was another issue missing in action, even if there may be no more immediate threat to our economy than the continued mess in Spain, Italy, Greece and so on. But what can you say? Romney has mentioned Spain and Greece in passing quite often, to point at all their spending on big government – but he never talks about how he would deal with Europe going forward, and specifically how he would insulate us from any collapse over there. Obama won’t touch that either – too scary and too complex, and the options we have are too limited, which is to say we’re at the mercy of forces beyond our control. That’s not something Americans like to hear, and thus something no politician would say.
Neither of them wants to discuss voter rights either. Efforts to restrict voting are everywhere – supporters say these laws are essential to prevent voter fraud, even if they admit they can produce no evidence that fraud is an issue at all, and opponents argue that such laws are clearly an effort to suppress minority votes. In Ohio, the Obama campaign has battled the state secretary of state Jon Husted, a Republican, in court over early voting, and won. Husted himself said early voting benefits “urban – read African-American” communities, and said it with a grin. He got shot down over that and finally the Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal. What can Romney say about this? What should Obama say? Who will be offended more? These laws and resulting court cases haven’t been mentioned once. It’s all too hot.
The world is hot too. Yes, it’s climate change, and in his nomination-acceptance speech, Romney went out of his way to sneer at those worried about global warming – “President Obama promised to slow the rise of the oceans and to heal the planet. My promise is to help you and your family.” Obama rose to the challenge and went the other way – “My plan will continue to reduce the carbon pollution that is heating our planet because climate change is not a hoax. More droughts and floods and wildfires are not a joke. They are a threat to our children’s future. And in this election you can do something about it.”
That made it look as if they’d hash this out, actually discussing the issue, but it never came up again. Romney was once a staunch climate-change warrior and now can’t even say whether he believes there’s man-made warming occurring or not. His base says it isn’t and science says it is. Does he say all of science is always bullshit and come off as a knuckle-dragging Neanderthal? Does he say his base is full of idiots who deny reality? He’d rather not make that decision. It’s best to remain silent. And Obama said no more. There are too many dollars coming in from the big polluters. Corporations do fund our political system, and Obama has a bad rap with the business community as is. Obama let the whole thing slide. He’s no dummy.
It’s not as if no one has noticed. One of Andrew Sullivan’s readers puts it this way:
The single most important issue to arise since the threat of cataclysmic nuclear war subsided with the collapse of the USSR is climate change. If left unaddressed, it threatens all humanity. Perhaps Obama or Biden have given it a brief platitudinous mention, but NO one on the national stage is giving it the attention it demands. Never mind that we’re talking about preserving life as we know it versus massive calamity and suffering, climate change may well be a winning political issue!
“The door is closing. I am very worried – if we don’t change direction now on how we use energy, we will end up beyond what scientists tell us is the minimum [for climate safety]. The door will be closed forever.”
No, that was not President Barack Obama or his Republican Challenger Mitt Romney speaking in the presidential debate. It was Fatih Birol, the renowned chief economist of the International Energy Agency, speaking about the pressing need to transition away from fossil fuels.
You’d be hard pressed to hear either of the presidential candidates make a statement like that – or any statement on climate at all.
There was nothing, by mutual agreement:
“I had that question for all of you climate change people,” said Crowley in the post-debate coverage. “We just, you know, again, we knew that the economy was still the main thing so you knew you kind of wanted to go with the economy.”
So there was talk of how to burn more oil and coal, as we grow and grow and grow, or at least recover from economic disaster:
Obama started off the debate with a strong nod to renewable energy, explaining that we need to invest in “solar and wind and biofuels, energy efficient cars.” But after a voter asked about gas prices, both Obama and Romney proceeded to battle over who could drill more fossil fuels. (At one point, the two men closed in on each other, pointed fingers, and raised their voices over how much oil production had increased).
Obama separated himself by focusing on the need to develop more renewables and lower consumption of petroleum through better efficiency measures. But when talking about why he believes those investments are important he never mentioned the reasons that alternatives to fossil fuels are so important.
Why would he? But MSNBC’s Chris Hayes was appalled:
Having an energy conversation without talking about climate is like talking about smoking and not talking about cancer. You can’t talk about it unless you talk about what the stakes are for the climate. It’s unlikely we’ll see it in the third.
Who is the more pro-coal candidate? Who is the more pro-coal-candidate is who is going to most hastily speed our headlong flight of disaster towards a climate future in which we have not higher gas prices, but higher temperatures.
And the thing that’s so frustrating is the future farmers of America who will see livelihoods destroyed are not voting in the election. The people who live in inland coasts who will see their habitats destroyed are not voting in the election. The people working in coal companies now are voting in the election. I understand what their livelihood means to them. There’s an asymmetry between the people voting and the future people who aren’t. We talk about it all the time in terms of deficit but we don’t talk about it in terms of climate.
Salon’s Andrew Leonard is just as dismayed:
I am sure I am not alone in being baffled at Obama’s reluctance to bring up one of the worst oil spills in American history in the context of a discussion of oil production on federal land, but that’s a minor quibble when compared to the invisibility of climate change. It’s hard to think of a better illustration of how screwed up the debate over energy policy is in this country than the sight of two candidates for president fighting with each other over who supports the coal industry with more gusto. For environmentalists, the worst moment of the debate had to be when President Obama took obvious pleasure in pointing out that Romney had once stood in front of a coal-fired power plant and said “this plant kills.” Ouch.
And Lisa Hymas adds this:
Obama did talk during the debate about building a clean energy economy: “we’ve got to make sure we’re building the energy source of the future, not just thinking about next year, but 10 years from now, 20 years from now. That’s why we’ve invested in solar and wind and biofuels, energy-efficient cars.”
But in today’s political climate, Obama just doesn’t believe he can turn his back on fossil fuels and still win the election. It’s not even clear that he wants to turn his back on fossil fuels.
In Foreign Policy, David Roberts tries to figure out these two candidates’ real intentions regarding coal:
For political reasons, Obama will never say a cross word about coal. It is too popular in too many blue and swing states. He will continue to sing the praises of “clean coal” and maintain the pretense that there is a future for coal in a climate-constrained power system. But he will not do anything to halt coal’s inevitable economic decline. He’ll enforce existing EPA regulations and give the agency space to issue new ones. He’ll back the natural gas industry and the clean-energy industry. And he’ll let history take its course.
Romney, taking a page from the playbook of conservative icon William F. Buckley, will stand athwart history, yelling “Stop!” But despite his bluster, he can’t just suspend EPA rules. But he can make sure that new rules are lax and existing rules poorly enforced. With a friendly legislature, he can insure that all future EPA rules pass through the congressional meat grinder, effectively crippling the agency’s independent rulemaking ability. But he can’t put the natural gas genie back in the bottle. He can’t stop the falling costs of solar and wind power. And he can’t change the fact that an overwhelming majority of Americans, across regions and demographics, support a transition to modern, cleaner power system.
Yes, it seems they do – there’s actual data that most folks would rather not choke to death, then burn up in one summer after the next hotter than the one before, as massive drought turns most of America into something like Barstow. They’d be with the Democrats on doing something about this, except the Democratic leadership walks away from it all come election time.
Salon’s Andrew Leonard offers more detail:
By and large, environmentalists already know who they are going to vote for (hint: it’s not the guy crisscrossing the country attacking the EPA), but they can be excused for spending the energy portion of the debate looking for a coal slurry pond to drown themselves in. On energy policy, the debate demonstrated only one thing clearly: The U.S. is headed in the wrong direction.
The fact-checkers have already reduced Mitt Romney’s attack on Obama for supposedly reducing the amount of oil produced from “public lands” into rubble. For the first three years of Obama’s term, oil production on public lands grew, overall. (Over the last four years of George W. Bush’s term in office, in contrast, production on public lands fell by 16.8 percent.) Yes, offshore oil production did drop sharply in 2011, but there’s an obvious reason for that: the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster – which included a six-month moratorium on new exploration and drilling.
We’re still at it, burning anything we can, and Leonard see an explanation for that:
The question that prompted the discussion of energy issues had to do with whether government could or should do anything about high gas prices. The political reality is unavoidable: Americans care more about high gas prices than they do about the threat of climate-change-related disasters or giant oil slicks in the Gulf. So in any discussion of energy policy, both Romney and Obama will do their best to avoid any hint of support for policies that could result in higher gas prices.
Meaningful legislation that would address climate change – a carbon tax, a cap-and-trade system – would, in fact, penalize the production of fossil fuels in the long run. That’s the whole point. If we want to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions, we have to make tradeoffs.
But when running for president, tradeoffs are a big no-no. For both Obama and Romney, the expressed goal is to have more of everything, without paying any real price.
Kevin Drum says Obama and Romney practically fell all over each other to declare their love for coal and fracking and drilling for oil on federal land in this debate and transcribes their discussion this way:
OBAMA: Natural gas production is the highest it’s been in decades. We have seen increases in coal production and coal employment.
ROMNEY: Oil production is down 14 percent this year on federal land, and gas production was down 9 percent… What we don’t need is to have the president keeping us from taking advantage of oil, coal and gas… We’re going to bring that pipeline in from Canada.
OBAMA: We’re actually drilling more on public lands than in the previous administration… And natural gas isn’t just appearing magically. We’re encouraging it and working with the industry… Oil production is up, natural gas production is up.
ROMNEY: I was just at a coal facility, where some 1,200 people lost their jobs… I will fight for oil, coal and natural gas… I will fight to create more energy in this country taking advantage of the oil and coal we have here, drilling offshore in Alaska, drilling offshore in Virginia where the people want it.
OBAMA: We’ve built enough pipelines to wrap around the entire earth once. So, I’m all for pipelines. I’m all for oil production.
ROMNEY: I appreciate the jobs in coal and oil and gas. I’m going to make sure we’re taking advantage of our energy resources. We’ll bring back manufacturing to America.
Drum just throws up his hands:
There were plenty of nods toward renewable energy in the conversation, but they were mostly pro forma. And they certainly weren’t made in the context of climate change. They were mostly made in the context of “energy independence.” The closest Obama came to saying anything climate chainge-ish was a vague reference to being “environmentally sound.” Romney never came close at all.
And there you have it:
Rightly or wrongly, both campaigns have apparently decided that climate change is a loser. Romney doesn’t want to admit that it even exists, since this would enrage a tea party base that believes it’s all a liberal conspiracy theory, and Obama apparently recognizes that it’s a political loser and will gain him nothing. After the Copenhagen talks failed and cap-and-trade became cap-and-tax, he pretty much gave up on it.
Politically, he might be making the right decision. No broad climate change policy has a ghost of a chance of passing right now, and a public already battered by recession doesn’t want to hear about carbon taxes or rising energy prices. Things like higher CAFE standards might be less efficient, but at least they’re doable. And investments in clean energy, though risky in their own right (Republicans have certainly done their best to make Solyndra a dirty word), may be the best we can hope for right now.
It’s just that that’s not much. Leonard may be right – the expressed goal here is to have more of everything, without paying any real price. That’s why some issues go missing in politics, like climate change, or like everything else that’s too tricky to talk about – but of course everything has a price. You can pay me now or you can pay me later. We always pay later.
What? You expected the debate to be about important issues?