One of the first things that struck me about the debate follow-up this morning, both on the major news outlets and amid the chatter on Facebook and Twitter was the repeating of the old story about how well President Obama does when reading off a teleprompter and how poorly he does when forced into actual public speaking. Contrary to that line of thought, it has nothing to do with a teleprompter. Much like George W. Bush before him, President Obama is not a particularly gifted public speaker without practice. Where Bush differed was in the expectations, and in that Bush spoke the same whether giving a televised address off a teleprompter or speaking off the cuff. That is not true with Obama, and the difference stands out glaringly. In other words, when Obama reads and memorizes a speech, he knows the points to hit with emphasis, and when to go low and slow to exemplify sympathy or empathy. When he is answering off the cuff, he speaks more slowly and in a more measured beat, almost staccato, trying to find just the right words and to put them in the right order. Given the dramatic difference between the two speaking styles, he often grades way lower on debates and interviews than he does on scripted speeches.
There is also the matter that anything spontaneous a candidate says that is not worded perfectly, like Romney’s “I like firing people” or Obama’s “You did not build that” or more recently, Joe Biden’s “The middle class got crushed the last four years” becomes a sound bite that haunts the campaign for weeks.
What made last night’s debate so difficult for Obama (and it would hold true for any incumbent) is that he has a record he must try to defend, and in every incumbent’s record there are failures which an opponent can capitalize on. This is especially true for Obama on the domestic front, specifically jobs and the economy, which was a prime focus of last night’s debate. The opponent, Romney in this case, can practice his attacks and his talking points and get very polished at the delivery. Last night, almost every policy or strategy Romney laid out was a 90 or 180 degree flip from his positions of the primaries and the last 10 months of campaigning. So Obama was caught off guard, which in addition to his natural weakness as a public speaker, clearly frustrated him as he was unprepared to attack these new positions Romney was taking. It looked as though Obama was making stuff up or lying about the future direction under a President Romney when in actuality Romney was lying about or misrepresenting almost every policy he previously espoused.
I will take a point by point breakdown at the end of this, but for now, let me say last night was a huge win for Romney, no doubt. He was desperate to change the course of recent events, trailing badly in every poll, and his message was not resonating. So he came out with a new personality, a new set of ideas and policies, basically hitting the reset button on his campaign again and hoping no one will notice or compare the new Romney to the old Romney. It worked last night, but wait for the spin and the fallout, which began in earnest last night and will continue in the weeks between debates.
And wait for the fact checking, which began in earnest last night as well and which will only gain speed. Almost every statement or claim Romney made was either patently false or true but twisted in such a way that it can be deemed intentionally misleading. That said, it worked, and that is what people will remember. It is the equivalent of a newspaper printing a huge story on the front page, full of accusations and insinuations, and when they find out they were wrong and greatly misrepresented the facts of the story, they print a retraction or correction on the bottom of page six where no one will see it nor read it. People who watched last night got to see and hear a very different Mitt Romney. Many fewer will get the truth or the corrections. That is a win for him, and a big one.
Romney will get a bump in the polls out of last night’s debate. How much is still up for debate, but if history holds true, it will not be more than 3 or 4 points. That is enough to narrow the gap, and put several swing states back in play, but not yet enough to turn the election in Romney’s favor. He needs to continue his attacks of last night, and keep the topics focused on his strengths. Other than in the debate last night, and even then he faltered a few times despite his victory; Romney has not shown the ability to do that for more than a few days at a time. Romney got back in the game, but if he makes the same mistakes he has for the last 10 months, he will quickly give back any ground he made up.
It is also important to note that last night’s debate was one which played into Romney’s greatest perceived strength and Obama’s greatest weakness, jobs and the economy. The next debate (after the Vice Presidential one of course) will be a town hall format. As much as Obama struggles in public speaking, these sort of meet-and-connect public forums have always been Romney’s weakness. He does not relate. He looks uncomfortable. He is a good man with a decent track record, who has had modest success (he only ever won one election) but he is a terrible politician. More than his policies, more than his habit of playing to the base, he is trailing because he is not as adept at campaigning and being a candidate as Obama is. After that comes a debate on foreign policy, which to date has been Romney’s Achilles Heel. From the debacles at the Olympics to Israel, to Libya, he does best on foreign policy when he keeps his mouth shut. So if the scorecard come election time reads that Romney won the first debate, the second was a tie, and Obama won the third, we will have a second term for President Obama. That is often how the winner/loser in the Presidential debates progresses. One exception was the Bush/Kerry debates in 2004, where Kerry likely won all three debates, handily actually, yet fell further behind Bush in the polls after each victory on the road to losing terribly on Election Day.
Now, let’s move on to the actual breakdown.
The debate began, as many expected it would (and as it absolutely should have) on jobs. Neither guy really answered the ‘jobs question’ although both laid out similar plans in broad strokes with little detail. They spoke of energy, and taxes (specifically Romney’s alleged $5 trillion tax cut) and really differed on only one thing: Romney would grow jobs by cutting taxes on the wealthy and on corporations, expecting those people who would then have extra money to enact plans for expansion and hiring to stimulate job growth and increase the tax rolls, basically growing more revenue than the taxes being cut. Somehow Romney bristled at the way Obama used the term ‘trickle down economics’ but that is exactly what it is and it was clear Romney was trying to play Reagan without actually mentioning the name. For his part, Obama would increase taxes on the wealthy, make smaller cuts (or even some increases) in the corporate tax rate, and try to grow the economy through education and investment in infrastructure, and by continuing the expansion of gas and oil exploration. It basically came down to Romney promising to be Reagan, and Obama promising to be Clinton, but I gave the first segment solidly to Romney.
The second segment began with a question on the deficit. Romney scored huge by asking Obama how he suddenly found $4 trillion in cuts he could make when the deficit has been, and is projected to be, more than $1 trillion dollars a year and he has not succeeded at cutting very much at all in his four years. For me, where Romney loses points is in his China remarks that basically he would look at every program in the budget and ask if it is so necessary it is worth borrowing money from China to keep? Very convincing rhetoric, and certainly red meat for the base, but there are three problems with it:
First, we borrow more money from ourselves than from any nation in the world, and China represents only a small portion of our foreign debt obligations. So to say we finance our programs by borrowing from China is not only inaccurate, it represents either a misunderstanding of the process or a lie.
Second, it is interesting how big a role Bill Clinton has played in the election while Bush has become ‘he whose name will not be spoken.’ For Romney, China should fall into that category as well. Obama and the Democrats have done a decent job of hammering Romney on his outsourcing of jobs to China, mitigating any advantage he would have otherwise gained from his successes at Bain Capital. Obama was careful not to mention Bain, and he did not have to. Every time Romney mentions China, it does not make people think of Obama and our national debt; it makes people think of Bain and outsourcing. For all the points he gained on the deficit, he lost more by playing into an Obama trap on China.
Third, when Romney speaks of a litmus test for programs that will determine viability and continued implementation, he has made it clear all programs are not equal. There will be absolutely no cutting of defense spending. He made that clear many times last night. Not only will there never be a penny of defense cuts in a Romney administration, there will be an expansion so we will be in a better position to assert ourselves as the world’s last remaining military superpower. Social Security and Medicare also will be hands-off, with any changes happening only for those 55 and under, so no savings in those areas for at least a decade. Taxes will be cut, but even with a deficit hypothetically of zero, we still have our $16 trillion debt to pay for. When you add up all the things that absolutely cannot be cut, and the things Romney has promised he will not cut, and then you subtract the reduced revenues, we are left with a very limited pool of programs which could actually face the knife. And if they do, they will need to be cut to the bone.
So I think Romney scored big with Republicans in this segment, but not as well with Independents. He especially scored with his remark about ‘green energy’ and oil industry subsidies. Obama came out with the standard Democratic rhetoric about corporate welfare for big oil, and Romney nailed him with the fact that the subsidies to big oil totaled just under $2 billion per year, yet Obama spent $90 billion on green energy companies like Solyndra which went bankrupt leaving us nothing to show for our investment. Romney made the point that the President basically spent the equivalent of 50 years of the subsidies to oil companies Obama wants to eliminate in 4 years, and that almost all of it was wasted. Much like Romney falling into a trap on China, Obama led with his chin on this issue and got hit hard.
In the next segment, the topic was Social Security. In my opinion, this is where the momentum began to turn. The candidates have similar positions, neither would change anything for current retirees and those approaching retirement, and neither really laid out any bold plans. There was no substantive discussion of how to fix things long-term. Worse, neither brought up the current social security payroll tax cut in place and whether they would extend it, nor did the moderator ever ask. Bottom line is Social Security is fine for another 15 years. Both candidates need the senior vote, and there is no simple way to fix the problem without significant benefit cuts or significant tax increases. So rather than lead (and likely take a hit for your honesty) both guys punted the ball down the field and played defense. Though the primary focus was on Social Security, both candidates found a way to bring Medicare back into the discussion. Though the Ryan plan and Obamacare basically contain the same cuts, Romney scored higher on this issue because Obamacare is already implemented but the Ryan budget is not. This allowed Romney to deny things in his plan, or say they were still open for discussion with Congress once he gets elected, while Obama has to admit things in his and try to defend them on their face value. So this segment also goes to Romney, but by a nose. Pinocchio reference not intended.
Obama had a strong segment on regulation. The Republicans like to think of Obama as the ‘red tape’ President, but Obama did a good job of laying out areas where he cut regulations to spur business. Romney scored with a repeat of the energy issue, especially the lack of increased exploration on federal land, but many people are in favor of the increased regulation on banks and Wall Street, or increased regulations on oil exploration to prevent another Gulf disaster or Exxon Valdez. This is especially true as the exploration has moved onshore to drilling and hydrofracking in the shale regions of New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. When a well is in your back yard, people care way more about regulation and spill prevention than when it is a rig 200 miles offshore. So this was a segment where Obama won, mostly because Romney chose discretion over attack, but it was the first segment Obama won and opened the door for the incumbent to finish strong.
The last substantive segment was on health care. Obama tried very hard to stress the similarities between Romneycare and Obamacare. I think one of the biggest positives for Obama was taking ownership of it, stating he is proud the law actually named the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act became known as Obamacare. He turned something Republicans want to make him run and hide from into an achievement and a topic he seemed all too willing to discuss and defend. I felt Romney had difficulty clarifying differences, difficulty giving better options, and many times allowed Obama to attack him. Romney’s responses seemed more like rhetoric than solutions. But this was the fear all along. Republicans knew there was a strong dislike among the electorate for Obamacare. They knew it would cost big money we do not have and that paying for it through cuts elsewhere would require not just a leap of faith but a likely suspension of reality. They knew it took away some private decision making, although not to the level Romney made it out to be last night. They knew it ran contrary to the ‘free market’ principles the Republican Party stands for. Basically, they knew that other than the economy, Obamacare could be the greatest weapon the Republican nominee could use against President Obama. And they knew that by nominating Mitt Romney, they were not only forfeiting that issue, they were turning it into an issue on which they would have to play defense. And in this segment, their worst fears were realized. Obama won and won handily.
So how do I see the overall debate scorecard now that I have had a night to sleep on it? Romney started strong. A good analogy would be a boxing match. The champ was perhaps overconfident, figuring he would toy with his opponent for a while to give the paying customers a good show, and then wrap it up and go home unscathed. But the challenger came out punching, punching hard, and landed some huge blows that rocked the champion and took him off his game. As the round progressed, the champ played more defense, knowing the title seldom changes hands on a decision, but rather that a knockout is almost always necessary to take the belt. The champion also knows that the time to be most impressive is right before the judges go to the scorecards, so finishing with a flurry of activity in the last few rounds leaves a stronger impression in their minds than winning the first few rounds.
I feel Romney won the debate, maybe even won it handily. But he weakened as the night went on and Obama strengthened. So instead of a knockout, or even a unanimous decision, we have a split decision. That said, it meant more to Romney. He absolutely had to win, and he did. He succeeded in pivoting some of his positions towards the center, without likely infuriating the base. Romney turned a race that was getting away from him into a duel coming down the home stretch. He missed some chances to make bigger gains though. The debate was largely a referendum on how the candidates differ on their plans for the next four years. Despite the punches Romney landed, a challenger seldom wins when he lets the champion dictate the style and tempo. For Romney, this fight cannot be about the next four years, or he will lose badly. This fight needs to be a referendum on the last four years, on Obama’s record, and like a jab that keeps finding its mark, that is the punch Romney should have thrown over and over last night. He jabbed effectively early, scored some points that way, and used the jab to set up a few haymakers. But he did not score a knockout, so the champ lives to fight the rematch in two weeks knowing what strategy the challenger will employ and being more prepared to counterattack.
If I were grading, it goes like this:
Obama: The President gets a ‘D’ which he is fine with despite hoping for better. He knew all he needed to do was pass, not get an ‘A’ and he accomplished that. He lives to fight another day, with his lead in the polls likely smaller but still intact, and he can take solace that there are only 5 weeks until the election and no matter how much success Romney has, there is still a greater chance of Obama running out the clock than there is of a Romney comeback. Could Obama have done better? Not only could he, he absolutely should have. But this was the midterm exam, and the next two debates will be a final exam in two parts, so there is still plenty of time to get his grade up.
Romney: The challenger gets a ‘B+’ which is lower than the ‘A+’ he was aiming for but way better than the ‘C’ it would have taken to beat Obama last night. He accomplished what he needed to as far as drawing a stark comparison between himself and the President. He succeeded in turning his fortunes around and offering himself one last reset button in this campaign. He frequently put Obama on the defensive, making the President look down or shake his head in annoyance, while Romney got forceful and maybe even aggressive without sounding condescending or seeming rattled. He hit Obama hard, sometimes almost on the verge of losing his cool, but he never crossed the line and his words and presentation resonated with undecided voters, especially males. That said, much like someone who is suspected of cheating on a test, the final grade is subject to review. As pundits and spin doctors look closely, they will see that while both candidates were guilty of hyperbole, or in some cases outright lying, there were more issues requiring closer examination put forth by Romney than by Obama. If Obama can capitalize on those issues, and paint Romney as wrong on the facts, or worse, a flip-flopper for all his position changes in the debate which ran contrary to his campaign positions, the President can narrow the margin of victory for Romney considerably. If he cannot, or if Romney and the fact checkers can back up Romney’s assertions, Romney succeeded in turning the election around in one night and we have a new fight on our hands with no clear front-runner.
Format: The format gets a ‘C-‘and that is being generous. Neither candidate adhered to the format or the time restrictions. The debate was designed to be regimented and allow for equal time for all 6 fields to be discussed. There were too many run-on statements which were unnecessary as the candidate speaking was not actually providing a rebuttal but simply restating an opinion they had offered already several times. I also feel leading with three segments on the economy was the wrong choice. When the debate ran out of time and sections had to be omitted (as always happens) there were important issues left uncovered with nearly 60 minutes of the 90 minute debate were taken up with the three segments on the economy. If three segments were to be on the economy, they should have been segments one, three, and five instead of one, two, and three to allow time for everything to be considered if some segments were omitted for time reasons.
Moderator: The moderator was clear upfront that while the format was installed by the Commission on Presidential Debates, and had been agreed to by the candidates, he alone picked the topics and the order of questioning. And as moderator, he was responsible for maintain order. For those reasons, and those mentioned above, the moderator gets an ‘F’ for the night.
In closing, I would like to again ask a question I initially posed on Tuesday prior to the debates, and which was posed to the candidates during the debate but largely left unanswered.
How as President will you overcome the current state of politics in Washington?
President Obama, how will you succeed in overcoming political gridlock and Republican obstructionism in your second term? You passed your signature legislation, Obamacare, without Republican support. More than that, you passed it over there vehement objection. This lead to an end to any hope of bipartisanship and a goal stated by Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell that the primary objective of the Republicans would be to make you a one-term President. With polling showing the House and Senate are likely to remain unchanged and Republicans still able to block your agenda either though their control of Congress or with filibusters in the Senate, how will you propose to get anything of substance done in your second term?
Mr. Romney, you speak of bipartisanship much as President Obama did when he campaigned in 2008. You promise to employ the model you used in Massachusetts when you faced an 84% Democratic majority in the state legislature yet were able to accomplish big things. You promise to work with the opposition, instead of against them, to get things done. You are basically promising the same change to Washington President Obama promised yet failed to deliver. Yet you have stated many time s that the first objective of a Romney Presidency would be a repeal of Obamacare, President Obama’s signature legislation and the Democrat’s greatest legislative triumph in more than 50 years. If Republicans accomplish their goal of getting President Obama fired, and you begin your Presidency by repealing Obamacare, do you seriously believe any Democrat will ever work with you on any issue in a bipartisan manner? If they will not, how will you overcome the challenge that Republicans will likely not control the Senate, and even if they do, it will not be by a large enough margin to overcome a filibuster, leaving you in the same position as President Obama has been for the past four years?