04 October 2012

Presidential debate commentary roundup

Boy, James Fallows of The Atlantic called it.

Robert Kuttner of the progressive magazine The American Prospect expressed dismay at Romney's clear victory in the first Presidential debate last night.

This is the Obama we saw in 2009 and 2010 — an Obama reluctant to be too partisan or too aggressive, a diffident Obama, above the fray. Romney went for Obama’s throat, and he managed to do so without seeming mean. Obama not only took the assaults, but failed to maximize the several openings that Romney gave him.

Chris Matthews said much the same in a rant on MSNBC right after the debate. I have no love for him, since most of the time he embodies the worst news media conventional wisdom, but that makes his reaction to the debate that much more striking. Like Kuttner, he read Romney winning the debate with nonsense, and Obama letting it slide.

Time will tell if the general news media does anything with how much deceitful BS Romney employed during the debate. Progressive website ThinkProgress has a good rundown of Romney's numerous use of “myths” and FactCheck.org has a more detailed review in which Romney and Obama both get called out — but it makes clear that Romney's bogus statements are both more numerous and more egregious. And they have a whole article about Romney's favorite canard of the evening: that Obamacare “cuts $716 billion from Medicare” to pay for itself.

Republicans claim the president’s $716 billion “cuts” to Medicare hurt the program’s finances. But the opposite is true.
To some voters, it may sound counter-intuitive at first to think that cutting money from Medicare would improve, not weaken, its finances. But, again, this is a reduction in the future growth of Medicare spending over 10 years.
claims that imply that Obama has taken money out of Medicare, and Medicare won’t ever get it back, are simply not true

As Greg Sargent at the Washington Post points out, Romney does this because he has to.

The bottom line is that, for all his success last night, Romney remains burdened by a deeply unpopular agenda. That’s why he relentlessly distorted and obfuscated the true nature of that agenda last night. And let’s face it: He pulled it off brilliantly. The question is whether the Obama campaign can, in upcoming debates and through TV ads, cut through the haze produced by the Romney campaign’s fog machine of dishonesty and reveal Romney’s true agenda to voters. And who knows — maybe the news media will have a crack at doing this, too.

Another seeming missed opportunity for Obama was Romney's “47%” comments, which Obama didn't bring up at all. Many commentators asked why not; David Corn at Mother Jones has a quote from an unnamed Obama campaign strategist explaining why.

Not that we won't talk about it again. We will. But most compelling: hearing it from Romney himself. We've got that on the air at a heavy dollar amount in key states. And it's sunk in.

Interesting. I've seen one of those ads, composed entirely of clips of Romney, and it is devastating.

Jonathan Chiat at New York Magazine sums up Romney's successful strategy.

Tonight’s debate saw the return of the Mitt Romney who ran for office in Massachusetts in 1994 and 2002. He was obsessive about portraying himself as a moderate, using every possible opening or ambiguity — and, when necessary, making them up — to shove his way to the center .... he dodged almost every point in the right wing canon in a way that seemed to catch Obama off guard.
Romney added little to his longstanding indictment of Obama, but defined himself far more effectively than he has before.

But Chiat also notes that Obama did land a some important punches.

Romney made a huge error selling his Medicare plan, promising, “if you’re around 60, you don’t need to listen any further.” It was a moment in which he went from smooth to oily — when you urge voters to stop paying attention, and especially on an issue where they start off distrusting you, it heightens the distrust. Obama replied, “if you’re 54 or 55, you might want to listen, because this will affect you.”

Obama also effectively summed up a trope that he had failed to highlight — Romney’s lack of details. On issue after issue, Romney promised an unseen plan would reform taxes, reform health care, and regulate Wall Street. Obama spent the first two thirds of the debate engaging with this on an intellectual level before finally switching to a gut-level attack: “Is the reason Gov. Romney is keeping all these plans secret because they’re too good?”

And Romney did make one big unforced error, not only pledging to cut PBS but directly taking on one of its most popular stars.

The internet was not amused.

In another post Greg Sargent at the Washington Post offered a good overview of the consequences for the Presidential race.

Romney had the far better night.
The question is whether Romney accomplished enough. He needed to change this race in a very fundamental way. Romney won, but in so doing, he confirmed yet again that his campaign thinks he can win the election without presenting any credible policy agenda of his own.
That’s what he really needed to do to alter the basic trajectory of a contest that Obama is currently winning. It was unquestionably a good night for Romney, but it’s unclear whether it will produce the big change he needed.

Charles P. Pierce at Esquire sums things up similarly, in the best comment I've seen so far. If you only follow one of my links, follow that one, and read the whole thing. Not only does he review Obama's tactical errors, Romney's trickery, and the consequences for the race, he takes a step back and looks at the implications for American politics in general. The narrow range of debate at that debate bodes ill.

Willard Romney was able to portray himself as a firm, principled national figure of what passes for the rational center. I didn't think that was possible.

What happened on Wednesday night — what the president allowed to happen on Wednesday night — has changed this entire election. What you saw, I think, anyway, was the end product of the president's consuming naivete as regards the American political process, as well as the end product of thirty years of a Democratic Party that has slid so far to the center-right that a Democratic president found himself arguing with a “severely conservative” Republican candidate over the issues of how much the Democratic president had cut out of the budget, how many regulations he'd trimmed, how much more devoted to the middle-class-kick-in-the-balls Simpson-Bowles “plan” he is, and how he would “reform” Social Security and Medicare — and, frankly, a Democratic president losing some of those arguments to his left. A Democratic president got through an entire debate and didn't mention unions at all, even though the fact that our teachers are unionized here in Massachusetts is a big part of the reason why Romney got to brag on how good our education system is.

And that was why it took me a strong dose of whiskey to get through the debate. It demonstrated that Obama has no stomach for standing up as a champion of progressivism ... which puts the left completely offstage in mainstream discussion of American policy.

Update: David Atkins at Hullabaloo suggests a debate thought experiment relevant to the question of “media bias”.


Anonymous said...

Hi Jonathan,

I noticed an annoying problem with Obama's delivery, one that I've not heard anyone else talk about, perhaps because its effects are on a subliminal level:

His speech was chock-full of "uh"s! Very off-putting, and it really affects how he's perceived. Apparently Romney joined Toastmasters some time ago, and Obama needs a good speech coach. C'mon, Obama campaign staff, get a handle on this!

Anonymous said...

-- Aaron E.

Jonathan Korman said...

Yeah, he has always been prone to ums. He doesn't do it in speeches, but speaking off the cuff he does it a lot.