After Denver: Can Obama Bounce Back?
October 4, 2012 – The challenger came in well-prepared and displayed an impressive command of the issues. He was sharp, energetic, and direct. Time and again, he corrected the President, politely but firmly pointing out that his proposals were being misrepresented. He gave a strong closing statement, and after it all ended, the pundits were in agreement that he had breathed new life into his campaign. The President, for his part, seemed a bit listless and distracted. He lacked zip and looked down at his notes a lot. All in all, he gave the impression that he’d rather be at the dentist. Even some members of his own party admitted he had lost the debate.
The year was 1984. The President was Ronald Reagan and the challenger was Walter Mondale. Before reading too much into last night’s debate in Denver, which the talking heads and Twitterers almost unanimously proclaimed a big victory on points for Mitt Romney (some pronounced it a T.K.O.), it is as well to recall a bit of history. This is but one debate of three, and the polls in the battleground states still heavily favor Obama. He didn’t lose the election last night; far from it. But he certainly made it more interesting, which was the opposite of his intention going in. That, nobody can deny.
Now, the big questions are these: How much of a lift will Romney receive in the polls? And can Obama bounce back? He’s now given two lacklustre public performances in a row—his speech at the convention being the previous one. For Democratic supporters, it’s too early to panic, but the President and his campaign need to step it up. The assumption that they can coast to victory as long as they don’t make any big mistakes, an assumption that appears to have been governing their actions since the start of August, at least, has been challenged in dramatic fashion. In the next two debates, we will surely see a much more aggressive and focussed Obama. But what happened in Denver has given his opponent a big boost in confidence and credibility.
Having defied the conventional wisdom by suggesting a couple of days ago that Romney might have a big night, I’d love to defy it again and argue that Obama did a lot better than most of the pundits said he did. But just as I was thinking about how to sustain such an argument, I flipped on CNN for a bit of post-debate commentary, and saw James Carville looking as if somebody had forced him to eat his tie. “It looked like Mitt Romney wanted to be there and President Obama didn’t want to be there,“ Carville finally spluttered, his face contorted into a horrible grimace. And he went on: “Romney had a good night.” Shortly after that shocker, Stephanie Cutter, one of Obama’s campaign managers, came on direct from the post-debate spin room. “We feel pretty good about the President’s performance in there tonight,” she said. Uh-oh, I thought, Did she just say “pretty good”? And there was worse to come: “He wasn’t speaking to the people here,” Cutter went on. “He wasn’t speaking to the pundits. He was speaking to the people at home.”
I shelved my plan to do a revisionist piece and switched to Fox News, where Sean Hannity was looking as if Sarah Palin had agreed to divorce her husband, Todd, and marry him. “We saw a President Obama we’ve never seen before,” Hannity declared. “Never before has he been hammered on such a sustained basis.” As it happens, the pollster Frank Luntz had rounded up a couple dozen of the “people at home” whom Cutter had been talking about to watch the debate. They were from the Denver area. Thirteen voted for Obama in 2008, Luntz said, and ten voted for John McCain. When he asked how many of them thought the President had won the debate, two or three hands went up. When he asked how many thought Romney had won, almost all the rest of the people raised their hands.
Now, you may say the whole thing was rigged: Luntz is a veteran Republican operative, and some of those folks could have been stooges. Perhaps they were, perhaps they weren’t. I have no idea. But for once, it was almost possible to believe that Fox hadn’t loaded the dice against Obama. Respondents to an instant poll of uncommitted voters from CBS News said by a sizable margin that they thought Romney had emerged victorious. In reply to the question of who won the debate, these were the actual numbers: Romney, forty-six per cent; Obama, twenty-two per cent; tie, thirty-two per cent. Clearly this wasn’t as lopsided as Fox’s focus group, and the large number of people voting for a tie suggests that some of the commentators went over-the-top on how badly Obama had fared. Three-quarters of an hour into the debate, Andrew Sullivan, who a few days ago suggested that Obama was about to become the Democrats’ new Reagan, tweeted, “This is a rolling calamity for Obama. He’s boring, abstract, and less human-seeming than Romney.” Even some guys from the Times—yes, the Times—chimed in. “Who is more absent from the stage? Jim Lehrer or President Obama,” tweeted Adam Nagourney, an old Washington hand who now heads the bureau in L.A.
I thought that Obama had a decent first half an hour, much of which was centered on a discussion of Romney’s tax plan, and whether it adds up. If you are running for reëlection with unemployment at 8.1 per cent, and the focus is on the possible weaknesses in your opponent’s plan rather than your own record, you are doing O.K. Romney repeatedly said that he wouldn’t raise taxes on the middle class or cut taxes on the rich. The President pointed to independent studies showing that cutting back tax breaks enjoyed by the well-to-do, such as the mortgage-interest deduction, won’t be nearly enough to pay for the tax cuts. With Lehrer largely AWOL—Nagourney was right about that—the conversation veered off into a detailed discussion of taxes on small businesses that will have gone above the heads of most viewers. At nine-thirty, I wrote down, “no zingers or errors.”
As the debate went on, that largely remained true, but Romney, by dint of his greater forcefulness, the specificity of his answers, and his impressive ability to turn Obama’s arguments back against him, gradually gained the upper hand. Whatever the President said, it seemed, Romney came back at him—often speaking over Lehrer’s gentle objections. When Obama said that domestic oil and gas production was at a record, Romney pointed out that all of the increase had taken place on private lands, while regulations and environmental objections had largely prevented a boost in production on public lands. When Obama outlined his plan to reduce the budget deficit by four trillion dollars over ten years, Romney mocked him, pointing out that, when running for office in 2008, he had promised to halve the deficit. “You’ve been President for four years,” he said. “You have said before you’d reduce the deficit.” When Obama criticized his plan to turn Medicare into a voucher system, known technically as a “premium support” system, Romney pointed out that Bill Clinton’s chief of staff was an early supporter of that idea. And when Obama said he would eliminate tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas, Romney insisted that there was no such giveaway, admonishing the President like an errant schoolboy: “Look, I have been in business for twenty-five years. I’ve never heard of it.”
To be sure, the Mittster wasn’t word perfect: he never is. He stepped on his line about non-existent tax breaks by adding “I maybe need to get a new accountant,” which could be taken to suggest that he wished he could make more money from shipping jobs abroad. At times, his aggressive tone was grating, and he told some outright whoppers, such as when he suggested that his health-care plan would explicitly bar insurance companies from dropping people with preëxisting conditions. Over-all, though, he came across as much more knowledgeable than most viewers will have been expecting, and, in some instances, more knowledgeable than the President, which very few people were expecting. Time after time, he arranged his answers in brief numbered points: here are three ways I’ll cut federal spending; here are four reasons why Obamacare should be repealed; here are three reasons why Obama’s Medicare plan is a bad one. For once, he sounded like the well-informed, can-do businessman that he was supposed to be running as—Ross Perot without the charts. All his prep work with Portman had paid off.
Obama, on the other hand, gradually ran out of steam. He delivery was less fluid than usual: at times, he almost seemed to be stuttering. Perhaps this was lack of preparation—he certainly put in less time than Romney did. On several occasions, he seemed unsure what to say and meandered around. But Obama’s lack of fire also seemed to reflect a couple of strategic decisions (or pieces of indecision) on his part. With their man holding a comfortable lead, Team Obama appears to have decided not to go after Romney aggressively in this debate. At no point did the President bring up Bain Capital, Romney’s fourteen per cent tax rate, or his infamous “forty-seven per cent” video.
In the second and third debates, Obama can remedy this failure. (If he doesn’t utter the words “forty seven per cent” in Hempstead, Long Island on October 16th, I will eat my tie.) But his other problem is more elemental, and more difficult to fix. Beyond criticizing Republican policies and vowing to fight for the interests of the middle class, which every Presidential candidate does, Romney included, Obama has so far failed to present a distinctive and snappy message of his own. When Lehrer asked him to talk about the role of government, he waffled badly. His closing statement wasn’t much better. After stealing some bits from his speech at the convention in Charlotte, such as recounting a couple of personal encounters with people who have benefitted from his policies, he once again portrayed himself as a dogged defender of the middle class and a believer in the hard work and ingenuity of the American people. If he had done this in direct English with a bit of elevated imagery to end the evening that would have been fine. But this is what he said, in part:
And so the question now is, how do we build on those strengths? And everything that I’ve tried to do and everything that I’m now proposing for the next four years in terms of improving our education system, or developing American energy, or making sure that we’re closing loopholes for companies that are shipping jobs overseas and focussing on small businesses and companies that are creating jobs here in the United States, or—or closing our deficit in a responsible, balanced way that allows us to invest in our future—all those things are designed to make sure that the American people, their genius, their grit, their determination is—is channeled, and—and—and they have an opportunity to succeed. And everybody’s getting a fair shot and everybody’s getting a fair share. Everybody’s doing a fair share and everybody’s playing by the same rules.
I took the punctuation from an NPR transcript of the debate. I strongly suspect the middle part of the passage wasn’t written as one elongated sentence with so many clauses it’s hard to keep count, but that’s how Obama delivered it. Romney, in his closing statement, also focussed on the middle class. Here is what he said, in part:
There’s no question in my mind that if the President were to be reëlected, you’ll continue to see a middle-class squeeze with incomes going down and prices going up. I’ll get incomes up again. You’ve chronic unemployment. We’ve had forty-three straight months with unemployment above eight per cent. If I’m President, I will create—help create twelve million new jobs in this country with rising incomes.If the President’s reelected, “Obamacare” will be fully installed… You’re going to see health premiums go up by some twenty-five hundred dollars per—per family. If I’m elected, we won’t have Obamacare… If the President were to be reëlected, you’re going to see a $716 billion cut to Medicare. You’ll have four million people who will lose Medicare advantage. You’ll have hospitals and providers that’ll no longer accept Medicare patients. I’ll restore that $716 billion to Medicare.
It wasn’t exactly poetic, but, like the rest of Romney’s performance, it was direct, straightforward. and effective. By the time Lehrer wrapped things up, the image of Romney as a hopeless candidate, an inveterate loser, had taken a substantial hit. “It was a terrific night for Mitt Romney,” said Ohio Senator Rob Portman, who played the role of President Obama in the Mittster’s debate prep. “He did exactly what he had to do for undecided voters.” Virtually none of the talking heads challenged this synopsis of the evening: the media narrative of the campaign had already been reset. Now we will have to wait and see how far the actual campaign itself—the one involving voters rather than pundits—undergoes a similar makeover.