As a strong supporter of Barack Obama, I found the debate last night painful. Romney performed well. Obama didn’t.
I take solace in a dial group session by a respected Geoff Garin, which found that sixty percent of the study group of undecided voters and weakly committed Democrats viewed Obama favorably for his performance, and that eighty percent of this crucial group after the debate saw the President as more likable and down to earth. And on key issues, Obama decisively prevailed on improving the economy and on Medicare, though the group did marginally shift to Romney on taxes. A small study suggested that a key target audience of the debate didn’t go along with the talking heads.
I also am somewhat relieved by Nate Silver, the statistics guru now publishing at The New York Times, who first made his name in sports, then in politics. He judged, using a football analogy, that Romney in his strong debate scored a field goal not a touchdown or the two touchdowns that Silver earlier declared Romney would have to score to win in November. He gained only a slight advantage.
Yet, as I watched the debate and then listened and read a great deal of commentary, not sleeping through most of the night, I worried that an Obama defeat seemed again to be a possibility, if not a probability. Just about all the commentators and instant polls judged that Romney won the debate, though the meaning of the victory was contested: from nothing has changed, to a reset, to the beginning of the end for Obama.
I want to believe, as also has been discussed, that the debate presents an opportunity for Obama (with the support of his powerful campaign staff), known for his impeccable timing and strategic prowess, to counterpunch in ads and speeches and in the coming debates. I certainly would like to believe that Barack Obama, as Muhammad Ali would put it, was playing “rope – a – dope,” and still “floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee.”
But beyond the winning and losing, and the sports analogies, I think that the debate itself was a success and a failure to the degree to which it actually provided an opportunity for the public to consider the pressing issues of the day and the alternative approaches Romney and Obama are proposing.
They mostly debated the question of the role of government in supporting economic growth and the creation of jobs, along with taxes and Medicare and Obamacare, but they didn’t debate many other key domestic issues: race, immigration, abortion, the courts, LGBT rights, the power of corporations and as I suspected yesterday, the profound problem of poverty in the United States, in a society that has been defined by not only freedom but also equality, as Tocqueville explored, but has become ever more and profoundly in-egalitarian. The moderator, Jim Lehrer, ignored all this and more. This is deeply troubling.
Nonetheless, the competing political philosophies of the two candidates and the two parties were in clear view, as a solid piece in this morning’s New York Times reports. In this regard, despite Romney’s much better performance, I am not sure that he was convincing. Indeed, the study of independents’ response suggests that he may not have been.
Romney and Obama both underscored last night, as they have been highlighting throughout the campaign, that this election posed a clear choice. Yet, note that Romney tried to fudge this when it came to his hyper–individualist, pro-corporate approach on Obamacare and Medicare, on tax justice and the means of promoting job growth, and on regulations. The fudging was a key to the success of his performance, but I am not at all sure that it was convincing.
While he made it clear that he opposed Obamacare for pragmatic and principled reasons, he pretended that he supported all that is good with Obamacare, without explaining how this would be possible. He promised he would lower tax rates, avoid any tax increases and cut deficits (also increase the military budget as Obama highlighted) simultaneously by closing unspecified loopholes and limiting unnamed tax deductions of the rich, but not the middle class. This fantasy which defies both common sense and expert opinion, he claimed, will unlock the power of the market and the job creators (aka the rich) to do their work to produce jobs (not just to enrich themselves). And most remarkably, he suggested that he would control the abuses of Wall Street, without supporting the major legislation that moves to do this, Dodd-Frank. Eliminating unnecessary, job destroying regulations is central to his economic plan, but last night he amazingly presented himself as a rational regulator. And he would do all this and be bi-partisan too.
Although he was slick in his presentation, I doubt that this was convincing to a public that has grown to be skeptical about his constancy and uncertain about who Romney really is, what he believes and what he will do. For Republican moderates, such as David Brooks and Mike Murphy, a former Republican campaign operative, , the polished technocrat on the stage last night was the real Romney. They were ecstatic on the Charlie Rose Show on PBS (support of which Romney promised to cut out, despite his professed love for Big Bird). Yet, given the performances Romney has been giving for the last two years, Romney, the severe conservative, I am not at all sure that the public will understand. No wonder un-decideds and weakly committed Democrats were apparently not as convinced as the initial commentaries were. And the instant polls were about who won, not who was convinced. A real argument did happen, but the judgment of the public is very much still out.
Maybe the night didn’t go as badly as I had first thought.