Immediately after watching the second Obama – Romney debate, I, along with the majority of the viewers and commentators, concluded that Obama won. But as I collected my thoughts and wrote my initial response, I found that I had actually written a piece that was less about why Obama won, more about why Romney lost. I knew I had to write a follow up.
In the meanwhile, Roy Ben-Shai sent in a very different interpretation, which I thought was important to share. He thought that as the President won the battle of the moment, Barack Obama, the principled political leader who can make a difference, lost. While Romney didn’t win, the empty game of “politics as usual” did. I am not sure that I agree with his judgment, but I do see his point.
The quality of Obama’s rhetoric and argument is one of the four main reasons why I think that Obama has the potential to be a transformational president, which I analyzed fully in Reinventing Political Culture. Obama has actually battled against sound bite and cable news culture, and prevailed. But not last Thursday: Ben-Shai is right. Obama beat Romney not by playing the game of a strikingly different political leader, capable of making serious arguments in eloquent ways, establishing the fact that there is an alternative to the politics of slogans and empty rhetoric, but by beating Romney at his own game, dominating the stage, provoking with quick clipped attacks and defenses. The idealist in me is disappointed, but I must admit only a little.
Tough practical political struggle is necessary and not so evil. Democratic political persuasion can’t replicate the argument in a seminar room or a scientific journal. The rule of the people is not the rule of the professoriate and advanced graduate students, and it’s a good thing, keeping in mind the extreme foolishness of distinguished intellectuals cut off from the daily concerns of most people. Popular common sense helps avoid intellectual betrayals, untied to everyday concerns. The challenge is to somehow be tough in the day-to-day political struggle, including the world of televised debates, responding to immediate concerns, and still contribute to serious public deliberation about fundamental principles. I believe this happened in both debates, with Romney winning the first popularity contest and Obama the second, and in my judgment, Obama actually winning the implicit serious debate that is embedded within the political spectacle.
In both debates, two starkly different visions of America and two strikingly different programs for America were presented. In both debates, Romney was fundamentally dishonest, proposing a five-point program that has no substance, promising a great deal that is quite contradictory and unworkable: cutting taxes, increasing defense spending, balancing the budget, through closing unspecified loopholes and reducing deductions of the rich, and growing the economy (purportedly by cutting taxes on the job creators, i.e. the rich). It just doesn’t add up and makes little sense as a way to actually addressing the economic challenges. And as we will hear tonight, I suspect, he also promises to make America great again by “never apologizing,” demonizing China and pretending that the problems associated with the world historic civilizational transformation occurring in the Muslim and Arab worlds are all the fault of Barack Obama.
I should add, as I declare Obama wins the serious debate, I am also aware that Romney is now mounting a serious challenge. I am not as sure as I have been about my prognostications.
The commentators agree that Romney, despite the contradictions and thinness of his program, has the momentum, and the President has to tell people how the next four years are going to be different. I was struck by an exchange on The Chris Mathews Show on Sunday morning. The panel, Andrea Mitchel, Chris Mathews, Michael Duffy, Jonathan Martin and Kathleen Parker, a moderate to liberal bunch, agreed that there is a problem. Obama has to make a case for four more years. They wondered together “why has he not laid out what he is going to do?” They viewed it as “the central mystery of the last part of this campaign”: why hasn’t he laid out what he is going to do? Is entitlement reform? Is it military reform? Is it tax reform? Is it all three?” Or is it more industrial policy, auto industry? Why wait until after he is elected? Martin told the cynical purported truth: it wouldn’t be popular: cutting a deal to avoid the fiscal cliff, including cutting entitlements. The auto industry bailout is popular in some key states, but not in the rest of the country. They also agreed closure on Libya is pressing. This is the mindset of the mainstream pundits. It is also the campaign line of the Romney campaign: Obama has run out of steam.
Yet, I don’t understand this slogan and this analysis. Obama promises to stay true to his principles and implement them, moving “FORWARD” (his campaign slogan). A budget deal that includes tax increases and spending cuts. This makes sense and is popular, and it is projected to reduce the deficit by 3.8 trillion dollars in a decade. He will also work to sustain a robust recovery, by investing in infrastructure and pushing education reforms. From elementary schools to universities to green industry, he sees an active role of government as a key to economic recovery. In this regard, he will work to consolidate the advances of his first term, by implementing health care reform and regulations of the financial abuses that caused the financial crisis, i.e. the Affordable Health Care for America Act and Dodd-Frank. Obama is steady. He will follow through. And of all of Obama’s announced plans comprehensive immigration reform is a new initiative that is likely to be implemented. His victory would be thanks to the Latino vote and my guess is that enough Republicans will take notice to support significant reform.
While it is quite unclear who Romney is, whether he will be the servant of the Tea Party or the Massachusetts moderate, and how his proposals add up, Obama promises a steadfast political persona, a centrist moving the center to the left, a second term that enacts this position. This choice was apparent in the two debates. If the choice is clarified, Obama wins. More tomorrow, after tonight’s debate.