Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Done in by friendly fire? Dead-blogging the Obama-Romney debate

Kevin Drum has been hammering home two crucial insights about the Oct. 3 debate between Obama and Romney. First, that the spectacular flip-out of liberal commentators -- their fevered panning of Obama's performance -- in the debate's immediate aftermath drove the news coverage, which in turn drove the public's response. Second, that an obsession with the non-verbal aspects of debating has radically skewed the pundits' and hence the public's perceptions. I want to take up this challenge of Drum's:
what do I think liberal commenters should have done on Wednesday night? I'll tell you, but first let me lay some groundwork. Have you ever heard the old saw that the best way to judge a presidential debate is to watch it with the sound off? Well, I think that's just about the stupidest piece of folk wisdom I've ever heard. It's not just that this reduces debates to theater criticism. It's worse than that. It's not even good theater criticism. After all, would you watch a play or a movie with the sound removed and then write a review for your local newspaper? Of course not. You can't possibly judge a play without hearing the actual dialog.

The same is true for presidential debates. Sure, demeanor matters. If Obama hesitated too much, seemed unsure of what he wanted to say, and inserted too many ums and ers into his sentences, then by all means ding him for it. But what I'd really like liberals to focus on is the actual content of the answers Romney and Obama delivered. And on that score it's hard for me to believe that Obama deserved the shellacking he got. Maybe you think he should have attacked Romney harder. Maybe you think he should have called out Romney's evasions more crisply. But those are fairly modest criticisms. On a substantive basis, Romney consistently evaded, distorted, and in some cases outright lied. And Obama called him on it. It's right there in the transcript in case too much steam was blowing out of your ears in real time to hear it. That's what I wish liberal talking heads had focused on: the actual content of the debate. On that score, yes, Obama could have done better. But it wasn't an epic disaster.

Content, content, content. That's what I want my fellow lefties to obsess about.
A caveat, first: after my initial excitement,  I must say that I think Drum overstates the case against the "folk wisdom" a bit. Non-verbal dynamics do matter; Shakespeare on stage is quite different from Shakespeare on the page. For evidence that Obama underperformed we have the assessment of James Fallows, who sealed himself off from all debate commentary before delivering his own judgment, based in large part of non-verbal factors, that Obama lost the debate.

But having reviewed the transcript -- with the audio, it seemed at times, replaying in my head -- I am in more or less the same place as Drum: taking the whole gestalt of the debate (including nonverbal aspects), and discounting the morally and substantively material fact that the strength of Romney's performance was driven by shameless lying -- it was perhaps a 55-45 Romney win, propelled by pundit freakout into a blowout. (That was pretty much my own real-time assessment, tainted somewhat by some peaks at Twitter and, later, at the Dish, where Sullivan was going insane.)

On the first three master topics, taxes, deficit and entitlements, Obama may have lacked sufficient aggression but he was focused, cogent, and on point in rebuttal -- in short, he won on substance.  Later in the debate, he let Lehrer shift topics abruptly enough to miss some important rebuttal opportunities, letting several Romney lies and deceptions go unchallenged. On healthcare, unwilling to defend the individual mandate by name, he didn't quite nail down the fact that Romney too, in crafting the Massachusetts healthcare law, relied on the individual mandate to enable the goodies that he now lyingly claims he can deliver without it.  Finally, his closing statement was not forward-looking enough.  But again, on the master topics, he more than held his own.

Regarding the first topic, taxes, I see that Drum has preempted me this morning. Romney won points for asserting forcefully that he would not cut taxes for the rich, which is only true if he does some other thing he claims he won't, like not cut the top marginal rate as far (20%) as he proposes to cut all rates, or raise taxes on investment income.  But as Drum notes, Obama pinned down with about as much precision as you could reasonably ask the the mutually exclusive nature of Romney's tax promises:
But Obama did call out Romney on taxes on three different occasions. Here they are:
#1: Now, Governor Romney’s proposal that he has been promoting for 18 months calls for a $5 trillion tax cut, on top of $2 trillion of additional spending for our military. And he is saying that he is going to pay for it by closing loopholes and deductions. The problem is that he’s been asked over 100 times how you would close those deductions and loopholes, and he hasn’t been able to identify them.  [Etc.]
#2: And the fact is that if you are lowering the rates the way you described, Governor, then it is not possible to come up with enough deductions and loopholes that only affect high-income individuals to avoid either raising the deficit or burdening the middle class. It’s — it’s math. It’s arithmetic.
#3: It just reminds me of, you know, he says that he’s going to close deductions and loopholes for his tax plan. That’s how it’s going to be paid for, but we don’t know the details....And at some point, I think the American people have to ask themselves, is the reason that Governor Romney is keeping all these plans to replace secret because they’re too good? Is it because that somehow middle-class families are going to benefit too much from them?
 Next, deficits.  Romney swore that he didn't need to raise taxes to balance the budget -- that he'd cut government waste. Exhibit A: Big Bird. He charged Obama with presiding over yearly trillion dollar deficits. Obama's response was cogent:
OBAMA: When I walked into the Oval Office, I had more than a trillion-dollar deficit greeting me. And we know where it came from: two wars that were paid for on a credit card; two tax cuts that were not paid for; and a whole bunch of programs that were not paid for; and then a massive economic crisis.

And despite that, what we’ve said is, yes, we had to take some initial emergency measures to make sure we didn’t slip into a Great Depression, but what we’ve also said is, let’s make sure that we are cutting out those things that are not helping us grow.

So 77 government programs, everything from aircrafts that the Air Force had ordered but weren’t working very well, 18 government -- 18 government programs for education that were well-intentioned, not weren’t helping kids learn, we went after medical fraud in Medicare and Medicaid very aggressively, more aggressively than ever before, and have saved tens of billions of dollars, $50 billion of waste taken out of the system.

And I worked with Democrats and Republicans to cut a trillion dollars out of our discretionary domestic budget. That’s the largest cut in the discretionary domestic budget since Dwight Eisenhower.

Now, we all know that we’ve got to do more. And so I’ve put forward a specific $4 trillion deficit reduction plan. It’s on a website. You can look at all the numbers, what cuts we make and what revenue we raise.

And the way we do it is $2.50 for every cut, we ask for $1 of additional revenue, paid for, as I indicated earlier, by asking those of us who have done very well in this country to contribute a little bit more to reduce the deficit. Governor Romney earlier mentioned the Bowles-Simpson commission. Well, that’s how the commission -- bipartisan commission that talked about how we should move forward suggested we have to do it, in a balanced way with some revenue and some spending cuts. And this is a major difference that Governor Romney and I have.

Let -- let me just finish their point, because you’re looking for contrast. You know, when Governor Romney stood on a stage with other Republican candidates for the nomination and he was asked, would you take $10 of spending cuts for just $1 of revenue? And he said no.

Now, if you take such an unbalanced approach, then that means you are going to be gutting our investments in schools and education. It means that Governor Romney...


OBAMA: ... talked about Medicaid and how we could send it back to the states, but effectively this means a 30 percent cut in the primary program we help for seniors who are in nursing homes, for kids who are with disabilities.
From there, things fractured a bit and devolved to what I'd call a draw on this topic. Obama diverted the talk of specific tax hikes to corporate taxes -- unwisely, I think -- and Romney drew a rhetorically effective contrast between Obama's proposed elimination of the longstanding oil industry subsidy to $90 billion in aid to green energy companies. That went unanswered -- again, Lehrer pushed a topic shift and Obama didn't push back. Romney spoke three times in the sequence, Obama two, so Romney's last charges and claims were left dangling. But arguably, Obama's core point about a balanced approach to deficit reduction, which has strong popular support, was made effectively.

Topic three was entitlements, which focused, rightly, on Medicare. This was a genuine exchange, with Romney singing the benefits of private plans, and Obama asserting that Medicare has been more efficient than private insurance, and that people like it (neither candidate made the point that private Medicare Advantage plans already exist as an alternative).  To me, the key point was that Romney emphasized three times that his voucher plan would not affect current seniors, strongly suggesting that it would be a change for the worse, and Obama seized on this effectively:
OBAMA: First of all, I think it’s important for Governor Romney to present this plan that he says will only affect folks in the future.

And the essence of the plan is that you would turn Medicare into a voucher program. It’s called premium support, but it’s understood to be a voucher program. His running mate...

LEHRER: And you don’t support that?

OBAMA: I don’t. And let me explain why.

ROMNEY: Again, that’s for future...
OBAMA: I understand.

ROMNEY: ... people, right, not for current retirees.

OBAMA: For -- so if you’re -- if you’re 54 or 55, you might want to listen ‘cause this -- this will affect you.
 He was also good in arguing that putting private plans side-by-side with Medicare would cause Medicare to die on the vine. And he brought the AARP to bear effectively to argue that seniors are safer with traditional Medicare than with a primarily private insurance menu:
OBAMA: Jim, if I -- if I can just respond very quickly, first of all, every study has shown that Medicare has lower administrative costs than private insurance does, which is why seniors are generally pretty happy with it. And private insurers have to make a profit. Nothing wrong with that. That’s what they do. And so you’ve got higher administrative costs, plus profit on top of that. And if you are going to save any money through what Governor Romney’s proposing, what has to happen is, is that the money has to come from somewhere.

And when you move to a voucher system, you are putting seniors at the mercy of those insurance companies. And over time, if traditional Medicare has decayed or fallen apart, then they’re stuck.

And this is the reason why AARP has said that your plan would weaken Medicare substantially. And that’s why they were supportive of the approach that we took.
In the final two topics, as I suggested above, Romney got more unanswered assertions -- usually lies -- across.  And Romney was more effective in closing statement, ticking off the ways he would improve the economy, while Obama offered a mishmash of past accomplishments and values (reflecting a structural challenge: that most of what he's likely to accomplish in a second term will stem from implementing the landmark legislation from his first term, which Republicans would destroy).

Obama missed opportunities. He had no clear thematic line of attack against Romney that carried throughout.  He did better in the first half than in the second. 

But I concur with Drum that the train wreck, such as it was, was a media creation, driven primarily by a mass hysteria among Obama's ostensible allies.

Perhaps that hysteria harked back to the central trauma of the Obama years (for supporters): the debt ceiling debacle, where the near-universal feeling on the left was that Obama got rolled, agreeing to deep spending cuts without winning any new revenue.  Obama's new combativeness from September 2011 forward, his small but pronounced legislative victories against a recalcitrant GOP, and his aggressive campaign had allayed much of the angst. Meanwhile, Romney's post-truth campaign has had Democrats salivating for some apotheosis of exposure of his lies, chronicled weekly by Steve Benen. Obama-in-remission triggered all kinds of flashbacks, I suspect. He's been wounded by friendly fire.


  1. First, congratulations on 5 years.

    In real time with no outside influence, I thought Romney won a split decision. I was shocked that Krugman, Klein, and you thought that Obama clearly lost.

    An important point that you mention is the tendency of Romney to have gotten in the last word. It seemed like Romney ended every segment, including the debate itself. He even got a little feisty about it there at the beginning.

    To my mind, wrangling for the last word made Romney look petty. And I can understand the President's desire to remain cool and above the fray. But Romney's pleading for the last word appears to have been ultimately effective in allowing him to frame the discussion that preceded.

    It's similar to the experience I had watching a bit of the 2000 Bush-Gore debate. Gore's persistent need to chime in and make one last point (usually about a Bush proposal) was a bit off putting. That said, it was perfectly understandable given how baldly dishonest Bush was in that debate. Gore's codicils to each segment of the debate served as a kind of "there he goes again" theme. Perhaps, like Romney's pleading for the last word, it's stylistically ugly but ultimately effective.

  2. I disagree about the assessment of the real-time performances. It really is so much more than content and policy, and it was painfully clear Obama was ill-prepared.

    Let’s go to the scorecard (the one I just dreamed up and filled out for this post):

    Energy 10-5
    Offense 9-5
    Counteroffense 8-5
    Clarity 8-5
    Crispness 8-5
    Pith 7-4
    Confidence 9-7
    Personable 8-6
    Eye Contact 10-5
    Appearance 8-6
    Expression 8-5
    Achieved Goals 10-6
    Avoided Blunders 9-9

    Final Score:
    Romney 8.57
    Obama 5.71

    Romney beat Obama in nearly every category, and schooled him in some.

    Maybe you score it differently. But I don’t think it gets close to the equivalent of 55-45.

    Given that the President of the United States was on that stage, much of that should not have played out that way. But it did.

    You are both right, it was not a “disaster,” nor a “debacle,” nor a “train wreck.”

    But it was so lopsided that it was, in fact, a “shellacking.” Or very nearly.

    That was clear to me in real time--certainly in my head, but most unpleasantly in my gut--it was clear to most folks on twitter in real time, and it was crystal clear to most of the attendees of the 3,200 Obama debate watch parties in real time.

    Now, I agree with you both that the media reaction drove the news coverage, and drove the public’s response.

    But the liberal media figures in question were reacting honestly to that shellacking. And their reaction was a mix of four things: Shock. Disappointment. Anger. Fear. When that’s all you have to go on, it’s hard to keep in check, even for media professionals.

    And of course the equal and opposite reaction, in real time, to the deflation on the left was elation on the right. That itself also factors into the left’s response.

    In that aftermath of disappointment and fear, the possibility that this was a “game changer,” so late in the cycle, was so palpable, that most on the left simply gave into it, and so gave birth to the disasterdebacletrainwreck meme.

    MSNBCers in particular should not have been as hysterical as they were (and Lawrence O’Donnell, in the debate hall, was not). But I feel certain that even if they had not been, their honest reactions, added to those on CNN, the blogs, and elsewhere, still would have pointed to the same result: a big body blow for Obama.

  3. I completely agree with you and Drum. My impression after watching the debate was that it was a narrow win for Romney, mainly based on smoother (slicker) presentation. But when I saw the MSNBC folks and Andrew Sullivan completely losing their minds, I had a feeling that the narrative was going to be swiftly set as a disaster for Obama. Liberals (and Sullivan) need to realize that Obama was never going to blast Romney's lies in the way that they wanted to see.