Well, that was interesting.
The debates are one of the few opportunities the candidates have to bypass the media filter and address voters directly. They are an even better opportunity than the conventions—at least from the voters' perspective—because the conventions let the two parties address voters with their own carefully prepackaged sales pitch, while the debates give us the candidates unscripted and facing opposition. So we get a real sense for how they operate.
In this regard, let me offer a note in defense of Jim Lehrer, the moderater (such as he was) of tonight's debate. In terms of style, Lehrer did not impress. He was hapless and ineffectual in enforcing time limits or much of any structure to the debate. His vague questions mostly consisted of stating a general subject matter and asking candidates to state their "differences."
And the debate was a triumph. It was a triumph precisely because of Lehrer's weak style. A lot of debates feel more like a kind of dueling press conference, with the two candidates jointly taking questions from the press. But because Lehrer basically removed himself from the equation, this debate felt more like a direct discussion between the candidates.
Thus, the media filter was totally removed, and we got to see the candidates directly, side by side, and judge them with our own eyes and ears.
So how did they do? In this Twitter age of more-than-instant commentary, I can't keep anyone in suspense. Besides, if you watched it you already know. Romney obviously dominated the debate, winning by a wide margin. But in exactly what way, and what does that mean for what kind of president he would be?
I'll look at style first, then at the ideological substance of the debate.
The rap against Romney is that he is "stiff" and can't connect with his audience. There was no trace of that tonight. He was poised, confident, fluent, amiable, and exceptionally prepared, a good extemporaneous speaker with all of the facts at his fingertips. Tom Brokaw summed it up: "he knew his brief."
Obama not so much. This is not news to anyone who has been paying attention, but the World's Greatest Orator is no great shakes without his teleprompter. (I think he's vastly overrated with his teleprompter, too.) Many people have already pointed out that while Romney looked directly at the voter when speaking, Obama usually looked down, making him seem disengaged. (There is already an animated "gif" circulating on the Internet that shows this difference.) Obama frequently paused when speaking as if he was struggling to gather his thoughts. In a delightful meltdown, Chris Matthews says Obama "had his head down." He meant it both literally and figuratively: "He was enduring the debate instead of fighting it." And all of this might not have been so noticeable if Romney hadn't been doing so much better.
It got worse as the debate went on, with more pauses and a little bit of stuttering. Romney managed to have a confident, bemused slight smile on his face at all moments, and even more impressive, he managed to make this look natural and unforced. Obama generally had a sour look on his face, as if he didn't want to be there.
But the main thing I noticed about Obama is that he kept saying the same things everyone has heard before and in some cases the same thing he had said just a few minutes earlier. He clearly came in with a few pre-set talking points: that Romney wants to cut taxes for the rich, and that Romney's proposal are vague and avoid details. Yet he kept harping on them after they proved ineffective.
After four years, Obama seems tapped out. He's reached the stage where he's just repeating himself and there is nothing fresh or inspirational about any of it.
Mitt Romney had a good line in response to this about how he raised five boys and is used to having someone repeat something over and over again in the hope that this will make you believe it's true. That really struck home, and not just because I've got two boys of my own at home. It struck home because it captured how a lot of us feel by now about President Obama.
There was another, similar moment. Obama repeated his argument that the differing approaches of the two candidates had already been tried and his approach had succeeded, for evidence of which, he cited the presidency of—you guessed it—Bill Clinton. Romney came back by asking: what about the last four years? He noted, for example, that Obama had promised to cut the deficit in half and instead doubled it. That captures this same sense that Obama is just repeating all the same promises and all the same arguments in the hope that it will be more convincing the 50th time we hear it. It isn't.
But let's return to Romney and the substance of the debate. From the perspective of someone who writes and speaks about politics for a living, the torture of this sort of event is that you're sitting at home coming up with great arguments or comebacks that your guy could use but doesn't. So I'm going to try to refrain from Monday morning quarterbacking, especially since the quarterback won. That said, there was one consistent omission that really bothered me, both because it indicates a problem with how Romney will govern and because it could hurt him in the election: his tendency to shrink from a vigorous defense of free markets.
For example, he kept denying that he was going to cut taxes for the rich. Well, why the hell not? Implicitly, Romney conceded that taxing the rich is self-evidently the good and righteous thing to do.
Note also that when Obama cited Bill Clinton's administration as an example of the success of his approach, he also cited the Bush years as an example of the failure of Romney's approach. The obvious rejoinder is: but what about Reagan? It would be the perfect contrast. Reagan came into office at a moment of economic crisis, with high inflation and high unemployment and the nation heading into its second recession in two years. Yet two years later, the economy was recovering sharply and unemployment was plummeting. The boom eventually produced almost three straight years of 7% growth. What a perfect contrast to Obama! And what an opportunity to contrast the success of a pro-free-market philosophy over a government-centered philosophy. Yet Romney tended to shy away from taking on that kind of big-picture philosophical debate.
My overall impression is that if we're looking for someone in the White House who will be a strong, eloquent spokesman for capitalism, it won't be Mitt Romney. He'll be a heck of a lot better than Barack Obama, who is an outright enemy of capitalism, but if we're looking for an eloquent champion of the small-government cause, I expect we're going to have to go to the vice-president's office. (That, by the way, is something to look for in next week's vice-presidential debate.)
Substantively, the biggest issue in this regard was entitlement reform. On that issue, Barack Obama repeated his total evasion of the issue by declaring that "Social Security is structurally sound." Other than the fact that it's about to bankrupt the federal government.
Romney did not offer a full-throated defense of entitlement reform, but he did announce—not in so many words, but clearly in substance—that he wants to have means-testing for Medicare, i.e., that those who are able to pay for their own care would get little or no government assistance.
His best moment was an implicitly Hayekian argument against the Independent Payment Advisory Board, the so-called "death panel" in charge of rationing health care under Obamacare. Romney cited an idea implemented at one particular hospital that improved the quality of care while reducing costs, and said that we needed that kind of initiative going on all across the country. Then he pointed out that Obama wants to replace all of that with decisions made by 15 people on a panel in Washington.
And Romney's broadest pro-free-market statement was when he asked whether government had ever managed to reduce the cost of anything, and said: "The private market and individual responsibility always work best."
At one point, the candidates were both asked explicitly about their views on the role of government. Romney talked about the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, which was all going very well until he used "the pursuit of happiness" to justify welfare-statism, the idea being that government ensures our ability to pursue our happiness by provided a "safety net." So Romney is clearly a mixture of pro-freedom ideas and pro-welfare-state ideas. Which I guess is no surprise.
So on the substance, Romney's debate was not particularly satisfying for defenders of free markets and limited government. But for those who want Obama out of office and have been worried about whether Romney can win—well, from that perspective, it was enormously satisfying.
I can think of a few points in the debate when Obama made a valid point, such as the fact that Obamacare isn't all that different from the "Romneycare" health-care program in Massachusetts. But I can't think of a single point where I thought that Obama really nailed an issue and scored a big point. Yet there were at least a half dozen of those moments for Romney.
I mentioned that Obama had a pre-packaged talking point about how Romney's plans are vague and lack specifics. That flopped from the beginning because Romney was already coming across as highly prepared, with a lot of facts and details at his fingertips. And about the third time Obama pulled out that talking point, Romney buried him by coming back with a whole bullet-pointed list of specific ideas he has proposed.
One of the best early moments was when Romney quoted Obama from 2010 explaining that he was extending the Bush tax rates because it was a bad idea to raise taxes in a weak economy. Romney then pointed out that the economy has only gotten weaker in 2011 and 2012, so why should we raise taxes now? I believe the appropriate phrase these days is that Romney owned Obama on this issue.
My favorite line was when Obama repeated his claim that businesses can get a tax deduction for shipping jobs overseas, and Romney replied, "I've been in business for 25 years, and I have no idea what you're talking about."
The debate was capped off by the final summation offered by the candidates. Obama rambled for a bit about how he can't promise to be perfect, but he promised four years ago that he would fight for the little guy, and if he's re-elected, he'll keep on fighting. In content and especially in style, it boiled down to: "well, I tried." Romney's summation mostly consisted of hanging the weak economy and high unemployment around Obama's neck. It was definitely much more on target and on message.
Romney's debate performance was extremely well received. A lot of us were concerned that the media would spin the debate in Obama's favor no matter what happened, but the actual result was so lopsided that they icons of the left, from Chris Matthews to Michael Moore, were forced to concede that Romney had won. A CNN poll taken just after the debate found 67% of viewers thought Romney won. CNN has been asking that question for 28 years, since 1984, and no previous candidate has gotten above 60%. Similarly, a CBS poll showed Romney winning by a big margin with uncommitted voters, which is kind of the whole point.
I remember about this time eight years ago that I had foolishly agreed to give a talk at a conference in London in October of an election year. Well, maybe not so foolishly. London is a great city, it was a good conference, and I enjoyed the trip immensely. But when I left, George W. Bush had a commanding lead in the polls. Then while I was gone, he flubbed a foreign-policy debate with John Kerry and blew his lead. You can see it rather dramatically in the graph of the RealClearPolitics poll average from that year.
Bush lost that debate for many of the same reasons Obama lost tonight. He seemed irritated at having to defend his policies and just repeated a lot of things voters had already heard him say a hundred times. And from what I remember, Bush did not lose that debate as badly as Obama lost this one.
But Obama does not have a lead to lose this year. A five-to-ten-point swing in the polls would bury him under a Romney landslide. Nor will he get a good chance to recover. Next week is the vice-presidential debate, and does anyone expect Crazy Uncle Joe to do well against Paul Ryan? I didn't think so. After that is a debate on foreign policy. As Conn Carroll points out, "Next week, Joe Biden will face Paul Ryan in the vice presidential debate. The following week, Obama will have to answer for the death of four Americans in Libya in the foreign policy debate. October is shaping up to be a devastating month for Obama."
That's what happens when we get to see Mitt Romney—and Barack Obama—without the media filter.—RWT
[fbshare type="button"] [twitter style="horizontal" float="left"]