Saturday, August 25, 2012

Fallows builds up Romney the debater

Positing that in an election this close, debates are likely to be decisive, James Fallows has done the Obama team the service of seeking to spark in them a salutary fear of Romney's debate prowess -- while also highlighting the structural hurdles that any sitting president faces in debate, especially when defending a poor economy.

Going to the tape from 1994, 2002, and 2011-12, Fallows builds a well-supported portrait of Romney's strengths and weaknesses: he is intensely prepared, on message, willing to attack, and generally comfortable on stage -- but also weak on policy substance and often vulnerable when caught by surprise and forced to go off-script, at which moments he can be either weasely or tonally off-key (I"ll bet you ten thousand dollars"...).

I think Fallows missed an aspect of Romney's debating, however, in which I (as an Obama partisan) place great trust: his untrustworthiness, which I think is apparent to viewers of all political persuasions.  I therefore disagree somewhat with the overall assessment of Romney's 2011-12 primary debate performance that Fallows presents as both his own and that of experts:

As his rivals were felled, or destroyed themselves, Romney kept moving ahead. His mistakes were few, and his focus was steady, on whichever of the sequential challengers was most threatening week by week. “Romney is a seriously under­rated debater,” Obama’s campaign manager, Jim Messina, told The Atlantic’s Molly Ball in June. “The truth is, he under­stood what his job in all those debates was. When it was to go out and finish Rick Perry, he did it. When it was to hold the lead in New Hampshire, he did it.”
I think that this assessment either ignores, or does not fully account for several aspects of the Republican primary debates:

1) Romney had no viable competition for the nomination except for Perry, who self-destructed. Fallows does  acknowledge this, but does not really account, I think, for how low it made the threshold for 'winning' or how limited the scope of the win was.

2) Romney came out of the debate season with very high polling negatives, averaging 36% favorable/ 46% unfavorable from the first of the year through April 18.

3) By the end of the debates, no one in America of whatever political persuasion who was paying any attention believed a word that Romney said -- hence those negatives. My evidence? Pollsters Larry Bartels and Lynn Vartek worked for months to build a composite portrait of the elusive undecided vote, and came up with this stunning data point:
64 percent [of undecided Republicans] think Romney “says what he thinks people want to hear,” while only 8 percent think he “says what he believes.” (The corresponding percentages among other Republicans are 45 percent and 39 percent.)
As I noted once before, A higher percentage of decided Republicans believe that Obama was born outside the U.S. than believe that Romney "says what he believes."  Imagine the numbers among Democrats.

That perception is due in large part, I suspect, to months of tortured and transparently sophistic verbal gymnastics executed by Romney to reconcile his past positions and actions with his current 100% GOP-base-compliant policy positions. He was against any future bank bailouts but in favor of rescuing the financial system in a crisis; against "government controlled" Obamacare but in favor of the "free-market" but structurally all but identical Romneycare; against Obama's bailout of Detroit but in favor of an indistinguishable "managed bankruptcy," etc. etc.  

And that leads me to my final point of disagreement: from January through March, I think Santorum beat Romney on substance (Santorum lost because he had no organization and a tiny fraction of Romney's money -- probably because even GOP voters knew he was too extreme to win a general election). I may be biased, because Romney's faux contrasts between Romneycare and Obamacare drove me insane through the 2011 debates and I found it cathartic when Santorum finally started to spell out point by point, in debate after debate, exactly how the ACA cloned Romneycare.  But there were other points of damaging exposure too -- when Santorum called Romney out on the enormous volume of his negative advertising, for one.  Then of course there were the Bain attacks, which Romney never effectively countered.  He came out of the debates damaged goods indeed.

A central debate task for Obama will be to expose, without unseemly anger, how full of shit Romney is -- how his numbers don't add up, how he's hiding the spending cuts and middle class tax hikes that his marginal rate cuts would necessitate, how nothing he's said about Obama over the past year (or 3 years) is true. [UPDATE: see next post: Obama has announced his intention to do exactly this]

I do hope the Obama team absorbs Fallows' article and errs on the side of overestimating rather than underestimating Romney.

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