I mean, seriously: ugh. There’s just no other word for what happened last night in the first presidential debate.
Let’s start this post with a little review of history. While I was at GW, I actually took an entire class on presidential debate, and in the course of that class, I watched nearly every presidential debate that has ever occurred. President Obama was not doomed by any one zinger from Romney as was Carter in 1980, nor did he doom himself with any one gaffe or poor moment as did the elder Bush in 1992. Actually, either of those famous debates could correctly be characterized as more even in both style and substance than this one.
In Wiesman’s recap, he analogized Obama’s strategy a “prevent defense,” which was certainly a popular characterization last night, and I imagine remains so today (Note: I haven’t seen any of today’s mediation of the debate yet). However, I don’t think that’s the idea the Obama campaign had going into last night. Based on what we’ve seen from Obama – over the course of both of his campaigns as well as his presidency in general – I think the strategy going into last night was to have Obama remain on the mantle of the Presidency, to try to avoid elevating Romney to equal footing with the President by refusing to directly engage with him. I believe this explains why we saw Obama spending the majority of his speaking time discussing himself rather than drawing attention to the numerous lies, exaggerations, and hypocrisies spewing forth from Romney’s mouth; why the contrasts Obama did draw tended to either come briefly at the end of his remarks or be subtle, indirect digs. The strategy was to make Romney look like the desperate challenger that he was: an enraged tsetse fly fecklessly buzzing about the head of a larger animal too large and too focused on where it’s going to notice. This has been a successful strategy for Obama up to this point in his presidency: his refusal to engage on the level of Congressional Republicans is one of the primary reasons his personal popularity has always remained high, independent of his approval rating.
Because there is so much out there about how Romney won already, I feel compelled to point out that this strategy nearly worked. There were several occasions last night in which Romney looked like he was on the verge of completely losing his cool, and still more occasions where Obama looked poised to deliver the one, killer putdown that would just end things. But when those opportunities came, either Obama failed to deliver the line convincingly or Romney, sensing danger, jumped in to get another speaking segment and moot the impact of what the president had said.
The total result was that instead of appearing above engagement with Romney, Obama simply seemed disengaged. Standing in contrast with Romney’s clear passion, Obama didn’t seem calm, in command, and presidential; he seemed like he wanted to be somewhere else. Nowhere was this more evident than in the split screen shots the networks showed during much of the debate. While Obama spoke, Romney stood straight, with his chin high, looking directly at Obama with something of a defiant glare. While Romney spoke, the president looked down to take notes, which had the unfortunate effect of making it look like Obama was either shamefacedly trying to hide from Romney’s attacks, or else that he was asleep.
Wiesman disdains body language analysis, but this stuff matters. To the undecided voter, probably more than half of the things each candidate said were total gibberish, making very little impact other than “this sounds good,” or “this sounds bad.” Thus, they are making their evaluations about what’s going on based on cues from the candidates: When Romney is confidently telling the President that his policies are failing and having disastrous unintended consequences, and the President is looking at the floor, Romney’s attacks gain greater impact. When Obama is stumbling through a vague explanation of why Romney’s budget plan must call for higher taxes, and Romney is standing strong, looking at Obama in defiance, and immediately jumps in with “that’s not the facts,” as soon as he finishes speaking, Obama’s attacks lose their power.
Similarly, watch the tape again. For much of the time that Obama spoke, he was directing his speech toward the moderator or the in-person audience. Romney, on the other hand, engaged the camera, recognizing that the true audience was in living rooms across America, not in the room. This is the sort of stupid thing that a hack on TV would say, but I’ll say it anyway: Obama looked like a lawyer making a case to a judge – in this case, Lehrer – while Romney looked like a salesman pitching the people.
The other huge factors working in Romney’s favor were the looseness of the format and the moderator’s utter failure to exercise any control over the debate. As bad as Obama was, his failure was nowhere near as complete or as shocking as that of Jim Lehrer, who has literally been moderating presidential debates since before I was born. Both candidates ran roughshod over his feeble attempts to curtail their answers, but Romney was particularly effective. As soon as he successfully bullied Lehrer into giving him the last word at the end of the first segment, Romney seemed to realize that he could not be stopped, and successfully claimed the last word on nearly every topic. In many cases, this meant that he got a gigantic block of virtually uninterrupted speaking time, as he claimed the last response to one question and then was favored with the first response to the next question.
It was clear that Obama was completely unprepared for this format. In the split screen, you could often see him gesturing multiple times at Lehrer in a clear attempt to try and make the moderator cut off an over-the-time-limit Romney, unaware until the end that Lehrer was unwilling or unable to curtail either of them. Of course, it’s unclear what would have happened if Obama had reacted appropriately to this development and verbally fought for his share of time the way Romney did; if this had happened, Lehrer might have been totally obviated from the proceedings and something like the totally unstructured Santos-Vinick debate from Season 7 of The West Wing might have broken out. Instead, Obama graciously allowed Lehrer to move on to other topics, perhaps hoping that Romney would look bad for running over his time limits so brazenly. Instead, this only served to underscore the confident, impassioned impression that Romney cultivated the whole night, as well Obama’s disengaged, passive affect.
It should be noted that the night was not an unqualified success for Romney, however. In particular, his “zingers” mostly fell flat, particularly the line about Obama’s plan being “trickle-down government,” which was delivered without conviction and really only served to reinforce Obama’s message that trickle-down economics are a bad thing. Further, Romney is surely being thoroughly excoriated by the fact-checkers today, and his repeated insistence that he doesn’t want a $5 trillion tax cut was a truly bizarre departure from his record, even for Mr. Etch-a-Sketch himself. There was much in this debate that Obama will be able to use in attack ads against Romney, and some of the president’s lines – once they’re cleaned up in an editing booth – will work well in positive ads too. But for the purposes of last night alone, Romney was the clear winner, and he at last has the game-changing moment he so desperately needed if he is to come back in this race.
So, where do we go from here? Obama should come out ahead in both of the next two debates, as either the format (the next debate is in a town-hall setting) or the topic (the final debate is on foreign policy, Obama’s strongest issue area in this election) should favor him. And I have not wavered from my conviction that this election remains Obama’s to lose, particularly given the low number of “persuadable” voters found by polls thus far. But the President missed a big opportunity to put the nails in Romney’s coffin last night. Hopefully he won’t do so again.