I felt like I was watching the Seinfeld Show. The debate reminded me of the famous episode, in which Jerry and George decide to pitch a situation comedy show to NBC, a show about nothing, about the interactive foibles of daily life, i.e. in the episode George and Jerry share with the audience the premise of the humor of the show they were watching (then America’s most popular). “Debate about nothing” seemed to be the Romney performance strategy last night. Again, as in the first two debates, the Governor moved to the center, but this time he pretended to oppose Obama as he adopted all of Obama’s policies, for better and for worse: on Libya, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and drones. Romney pretended to bury Obama, as he in fact, praised his policies.
Romney expressed his opposition in his body language, in his characterization of Obama’s policies, in name calling, “apology tour” and all, as he supported substantively just about all the policies. Obama’s foreign policies can be and should be criticized by doves and hawks alike, by those who support torture as enhanced interrogation, including Romney until yesterday, and those, including me, who worry about the self-defeating sacrifice of human rights in the name of security, but Romney would have none of this. There is a pressing need for a serious foreign policy debate but Romney had a pitch planned and he professionally delivered it: a potential commander-in-chief, who is not too scary. I am impressed by his acting abilities, which did give reasons for some of his supporters and spinners to be pleased last night and leads me to despair about American democracy.
I can’t emphasize enough how strange Romney was, much stranger than George and Jerry. Of the three debates, last night’s was the most peculiar. As with the other two, it was viewed by the audience and by the performers mostly as a means to an end, deciding the election: less about competing policies and commitments, more getting votes. As with the other two debates, the performance of the candidates was more important than the substance of their positions. But what was striking to me in this debate was the raw cynicism of one of the debaters.
I have long been impressed by the dangers of cynicism in American politics. The first line of my book, The Cynical Society written in 1990: “I believe that the single most pressing challenge facing American democracy today is widespread public cynicism.” Last night, we observed a new high in cynical performance. Romney gave the audience what he thought it wanted to hear, unconstrained by principle, completely defined by interest.
We know from last night how the President conducts and will continue to conduct foreign policy. There was no hint from Romney what he would do. Cynicism is widespread in America, in the past and now, but it has limits. I believe that Romney went too far. Though he was “presidential” in his demeanor, the emptiness of his pitch made it unpersuasive. For this reason, I think, the polls suggest that the majority of viewers think he lost the debate, the overwhelming majority of independents and undecided voters think so, and as Nate Silver suggests, it may move the election just enough to significantly increase the chances of the President’s re-election. If the debate yielded a two percent movement in Obama direction, it would yield an increase from today’s seventy percent chance of an Obama victory, according to Silver’s model, to a eighty-five percent chance, one percent movement would yield an eighty percent chance and even a one half percent movement would yield a seventy-five percent chance. Obama’s debate victory last night does yield such movements, so: Obama wins!
There is a sense that the momentum since the debates has turned from Obama to Romney, while the structure of the Electoral College vote favors Obama. I think that it is now quite possible, given Obama’s command and steadiness, and the flashes of Romney as an empty suit, who will do and say anything to win, that the momentum will change.
Coming up, the last round: intensive campaign events mobilizing supporters. I think Obama can seal the deal if in his upcoming speeches and barnstorming he expresses his hopes and plans for his second term. This is the change in the campaign that I am looking for. It could have much more substance than last night’s debate. It could and should be about something.