About Last Night


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.

Well, that sucked

I’m not going to spin this: Mitt Romney had a much better debate than the president last night. I’m not sure it was a huge game-changing event like some people claim but Dennis Miller probably had the best analysis of the night when he said, “Obama had better hope that a kicked ass is covered under Obamacare.” That’s a pretty funny line, folks, no matter who you end up voting for.

Look, I’m just a blogger and the president’s campaign staff are all highly paid professionals, so when I say I’m not sure what their strategy was going into last night’s debate, I’m not trying to be critical. I really don’t know, and if I had to choose who should run the campaign, I wouldn’t choose anyone else than Plouffe, Cutter, Axelrod, and Messina. Those people are pretty good at their jobs.

The analogy that I immediately thought of when watching the debate was a “prevent defense” in football, which as any football fan knows, drives the fans of the winning team crazy as the losing team racks up yards and first downs at will. The strategy is basically to give up plays over the middle of the field and keep the clock running, maybe allowing the losing side to score, but not take the lead, as time runs out.

I don’t know if that was the president’s plan but it fits what we saw. It might be that is completely wrong, and the president just really performed poorly. I know a lot of conservatives really want to believe that, but that doesn’t really fit with what we know about his victory in 2008. The president can perform well in debates, as he showed when he beat John McCain in all three of their debates, but in the latter stages of the 2008 primary campaign when the race was pretty much settled, I remember thinking that Hillary Clinton performed much better than Obama did.

My biggest problem with a prevent defense by the Obama campaign is that I am not interested in a narrow victory for the president. I want the president to win decisively, beyond any reasonable doubt or specious claims of voter fraud, and I want him to have coattails. I want to hold the Senate. I’d like to have a chance at retaking the House. That probably will not happen with a prevent defense, although Chicago might be correct that it increases the president’s chance of victory. (And again, neither I nor any of the talking heads on TV have any idea if that is really what the strategy was.)

Before yesterday there were stories running about the Romney campaign being in disarray and that big donors were reluctant to keep giving money to a lost cause. The big SuperPACs were considering dropping their support for Romney and focusing on congressional campaigns instead. After last night, the story will be that the game has changed, donors will be giving money to Romney again, and Karl Rove will go back to attacking the president.

I will say that I was watching the debate while my wife was in the other room listening to it while she worked on a project. About halfway through the debate she walked in and said, “Obama is killing him. Romney is terrible.” I was surprised because as I was watching it, I was getting more and more agitated as I thought Obama was letting Romney off the hook too often.

Richard Nixon famously lost the first-ever televised debate supposedly because he had been sick and refused to wear makeup and he looked tired and angry compared to John Kennedy. The apocryphal(?) story is that voters who listened to the debate on the radio thought that Nixon had won the debate, while TV viewers of course thought Kennedy had won. I’m not convinced that’s what happened last night, because my wife is a pretty small sample size, and she’s also a liberal Democrat like me, so perhaps a little biased. I think Unskewedpolls.com would question the veracity of the “Wiesman Wife Poll” and probably be right, for once.

Conservatives who are giddy this morning (and they have a reason to be happy, for sure) should also remember that in 2004, John Kerry beat George W. Bush handily in the first debate, closing a gap in the polls, and still lost. One debate does not make or break a campaign, especially if there are more to follow.

Still: it was not the debate I was hoping for.

Two ads

In the last two days both campaigns have released “candidate-to-camera” ads designed to make sort of a final argument to voters. It may seem a little odd to be making final arguments now, before the first of four (three presidential, one vice presidential) debates have even taken place, but for many states, early voting has already begun.

This is one of the reasons that Republicans are even more worried about the latest polls. Even if something dramatic happens to shift public opinion, many votes will already be locked in. The Obama campaign is just running out the clock at this point, protecting the lead.

Mitt Romney’s ad seeks to address the damage done by the 47% comments that have dominated the news for the last week.

It’s not a terrible ad, a little pessimistic, but that’s standard for the challenger who needs to convince people that a change in leadership is necessary. But my first impression when seeing this ad on YouTube was that the way the title and key frame were chosen… well, here:

Seriously, Romney campaign?

Maybe this was some sort of hidden appeal to his xenophobic, anti-immigration base? No, that would imply actual planning. This is just another example of basic incompetence from the campaign. It’s possible to select which frame gets chosen for the preview; maybe, I don’t know, choose one where the Mittster is smiling? And choosing “Too Many Americans” (yes I understand it’s the first three words of the spoken text, but still) as the title of your ad… Yikes.

The Obama campaign has also created an ad where the president speaks directly to the camera. Here it is:

That’s a two-minute ad and will be running in 7 battleground states for a week. It’a huge buy, and money well spent if you ask me which you didn’t which is why I have a blog so I can tell you things without you asking.

Competence. It matters.

More video from Romney fundraisers

Mother Jones just released several videos of Romney talking to donors at a private fundraiser and the general consensus is that they are devastating to Romney.

In the video, Romney says:

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…These are people who pay no income tax.

The sad thing is that I’m not sure that saying that hurts Romney that much. I mean, that’s pretty much what Republicans have been saying all year. I’m not surprised in the least by anything he says in any of these videos.

Obviously, as a liberal, I find it offensive that Romney would characterize the 47% of people who disagree with him as complete moochers who believe they are entitled to what the producers like him earn. But I’m pretty sure that Republicans are nodding along and the election will still be close. I’d love to be wrong.

UPDATE 2:57 PM: Nate Silver’s take seems similar to mine:

Holy crap. I’m at a loss…

The United States Consulate in Libya was attacked last night and 4 Americans were killed, including our ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens. This is a horrifying tragedy. It used to be that we came together as a country at times like this, and for the most part I think we still do.

But RNC chairman Reince Preibus and Mitt Romney wasted no time in seeing this as an opportunity for attacking the president, over comments made by our embassy in Cairo as the events were unfolding.

“We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others,” the U.S. embassy said in its statement.

The comments were intended to diffuse what was obviously a very dangerous situation. That’s kind of what ambassadors and diplomats do. It’s sort of the reason we have ambassadors and diplomats.

Reince Preibus tweeted this:

Yes, the chairman of the RNC chose the anniversary of 9/11 to attack the president in the middle of a crisis that left 4 Americans dead over comments made by a diplomat in the middle of that crisis. Let it sink in.

Mitt Romney, in a press conference this morning that I watched but still really can’t believe, said this:

I also believe the administration was wrong to stand by a statement sympathizing with those who had breached our embassy in Egypt, instead of condemning their actions. It’s never too early for the United States government to condemn attacks on Americans and to defend our values.

Yes, Mitt. Sometimes it is too early. For example, while the situation is still unfolding and lives are in the balance, that would be too early. It’s also a complete lie to suggest that the administration was sympathizing with the attackers. It’s irresponsible and disgusting.

Romney seems to be arguing that if the president or the administration expresses any criticism of hateful speech towards Islam, then he is apologizing for our freedom of speech and religion. Conservatives who want to argue that Mitt is right about that need to be reminded of this little incident back in 2006:

As our politics are overtaken by embassy-riot finger-pointing, it’s worth remembering how the Bush administration attempted to finesse the 2006 protests of Danish cartoons that mocked Muhammed. (I think everybody knows this by now, but Muslims don’t illustrate Muhammad in any form. Hence the outrage.) From February 2006:

The Muslim world erupted in anger on Friday over caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad published in Europe while the Bush administration offered the protesters support, saying of the cartoons, ”We find them offensive, and we certainly understand why Muslims would find these images offensive.”
… The State Department spokesman, Sean McCormack, reading the government’s statement on the controversy, said, ”Anti-Muslim images are as unacceptable as anti-Semitic images,” which are routinely published in the Arab press, ”as anti-Christian images, or any other religious belief.”
Still, the United States defended the right of the Danish and French newspapers to publish the cartoons. ”We vigorously defend the right of individuals to express points of view,” Mr. McCormack added.

I know, I know. The rule for conservatives is always: “It’s OK if you are Republican.”

Anyway, as the title suggested, I’m really at a loss for words on this one (he said, 550 words later). It goes far beyond the level of craven opportunism that I thought Romney was capable of, and that is saying a whole lot. I mean, I’m not a fan of the guy, so any new low is pretty remarkable.

Romney took questions after making his statement this morning, and this is how he looked. I almost threw something at the TV when I saw this look on his face after answering a question about how the president has failed to show leadership in a crisis where 4 Americans have lost their lives.

Smirking douchebag. Photo courtesy DailyKos

Well, I didn’t really need more motivation to beat this guy, but I guess more won’t hurt.

If I could just weigh in quickly…

As Wiesman mentioned in his 9/11 post, the anniversaries of great national tragedies these days do nothing so much as give professional writers occasion to hand-wring about whether or not those tragedies should be used to make political points.  If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to throw in my two cents on that question.

It is a reflection of just how broken our political culture is that discussing politics on days of national mourning seems so unsavory.  Politics in 21st Century America are petty and cynical, a game of empty soundbites and oneupmanship rather than any sort of noble calling to public service, and to introduce that smallness into the discussion on a such a day rightly strikes many as cheap.  I think the primary lesson we should take away from this discussion is that it is incumbent on all of us to do our part to detoxify and make sane political discourse.

But, with that said, no right-thinking person can “separate” national tragedies from politics, because tragedies are inherently political.  You cannot think intelligently about the attacks of 9/11 without also thinking about all of the political choices and realities that led to it: America’s dependence on Middle Eastern oil and the decades of U.S. military and covert intervention in the Middle East to protect our oil interests; the arming and financing of the mujahideen; post-Cold War national security priorities; airport and airplane security regulations; and on and on and on.   Similarly, you cannot think intelligently about 9/11 without also thinking about the political response to the disaster: the decision to reclassify counter-terrorism as a military, rather than law enforcement, task; the decision to frame the War on Terror as a war against “Islamists” or “radical Islam” rather than isolated sociopaths; bills like the Patriot Act and their impact on civil liberties; the broad assertion of executive power in fighting the War on Terror and the persnickety question of how to define the wartime powers of a President in the course of a war with no apparent end; and of course, the two wars and subsequent nation-building operations that 9/11 spawned.  You don’t have to come to the same conclusions about the political environment surrounding 9/11 that I have, but you do have to think about it, because it is all connected.

There are more issues that the memory of 9/11 forces us to consider as well.  Do you think that FDNY, NYPD, and a host of other first-response emergency services acted heroically on 9/11?  Maybe you should keep that in mind when a presidential candidate says “we don’t need more fireman (or) more policemen” and proposes budgets that would invariably result in thousands of cops and firefighters nationwide losing their jobs.  Did 9/11 make you think that non-state actors like al-Qaeda pose a more immediate threat than nation-states against which we have a strong military deterrent?  Maybe you should keep that in mind when a presidential candidate calls Russia our greatest “geopolitical foe.”  Did you support the war in Afghanistan initially, but then turn sour on it as it stretched into the longest military conflict in American history?  Maybe you should keep that in mind when a presidential candidate constantly rattles sabers with Iran.

I encourage you to consider these issues because the number one lesson from the tragedy of 9/11 is that elections have consequences.  Elections lead to the policies that either prevent or promote tragedies.  Elections can change not only what the response to a tragedy is, but also the general consensus of what a given tragedy even means.  I cannot say for sure  how 9/11 would have been handled by a President Gore, but I can say with supreme confidence that the response would have been different, and that by itself is worthy of consideration.

Elections have consequences.  Never forget.

September jobs report: bad time for bad news

As the title suggests, the jobs report released by the BLS today wasn’t very good. I’m sure conservatives are very sad about this because they would never ever root for America to fail for their own gain.

Total nonfarm payroll employment rose by 96,000 in August, and the unemployment rate edged down to 8.1%, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today.

While not the worst report of the year, 96,000 jobs per month is far below what the economy needs to fully recover from the recession of 2008-2009. Unfortunately, things were even slightly worse because of the adjustments to the previous two months. It’s pretty common to see slight adjustments that are either very small or cancel each other out, but this month the adjustments subtracted 19,000 jobs from July and 22,000 jobs from June.

Still, it is important to remember that in January of 2009, the economy lost 750,000 jobs in a single month, so a 96,000 job gain, while too small, is a lot better than where we were. Yes, we are better off than we were 4 years ago.

Here is the graph of what these jobs numbers might mean for the president’s re-election.


As you can see, the cumulative jobs reports line is hugging the “super optimistic” projection that Nate Silver proposed earlier this year. Frankly, if Mitt Romney were not such a horrible candidate, the president would probably be in real danger of losing. As it is, he’s not in great shape, but he’s got a good chance.

Previous jobs report here. First in the series here. “Super Optimistic” line explained here.