I am starting to think that presidential debates are second only to the state of the union address when it comes to pointless political theatre. To quote my brother in law, the president could fulfil that particular constitutional mandate by buying Congress a recurring subscription to the Washington Post and be done with it. Similarly, with these debates, it’s become all about the theatre. While it’s good to have the candidates face each other directly like this, it seems more people today are interested in where each candidate was looking when the other was speaking. Fifty-two years after Kennedy/Nixon, it seems we’ve learnt nothing.
The thing I hate most about these debates is the fact that everyone wants to declare a winner. The primary purpose of a debate should be to explore ideas, not to beat the other guy. Mitt Romney certainly went into it with nothing to lose. If he could get through the night without insulting half the population or accidentally bragging about how fabulously wealthy he is, then it was always going to be chalked up as a win for him. Did Obama look tired? Of course he looked tired. He’s had a country to run for the last four years. Show me any president who didn’t age a decade in his first term. That’s the kind of job it is. What has Romney done in that time other than run for president? Having said that, Obama clearly let multiple opportunities for rebuttal go begging and it’s hard to imagine why.
The conventional wisdom certainly has it right on the standard of moderation. I’ve never seen Jim Lehrer so weak and ineffectual. The questions were high school stuff. “What would you say the difference is between the two of you on _____?” That means each candidate has to characterise his opponent’s policies, which is just asking for derp. I had to chuckle when Romney said Obama was misrepresenting his tax policy. Aside from whether he was or wasn’t, that’s a bit rich coming from someone whose own campaign has said they won’t be dictated to by fact checkers. Without making any comment on Obama’s description of the policy, if you’re going to go post-factual, you have to go all the way.
If you knew nothing else about Mitt Romney you would say he presented well in the debate. The problem is, we do know other things about Mitt Romney. We know he changes his story according to who he’s speaking to. He goes to Michigan and says he likes cars. He goes to Mississippi and says he likes “cheesy grits.” I’m not saying the two are mutually exclusive but I’ll lay odds that even I’ve had cheese grits more often than Mitt Romney has. So the question is not so much what Mitt Romney said last night, but how it squares with what he has said previously, what he may say tomorrow and which one we ought to believe.
I think the most telling moment in the debate came from one of the segments they replayed on the news a lot, but not for the same reason they replayed it.
Mitt Romney said:
I just don't know how the president could have come into office, facing 23 million people out of work, rising unemployment, an economic crisis at the -- at the kitchen table, and spend his energy and passion for two years fighting for Obamacare instead of fighting for jobs for the American people.A couple of things first: I think we all know how he came to office facing 23 million people out of work, rising unemployment and an economic crisis. They all came from the policies of the administration that Republicans dare not name, yet whose economic policies they want to return to. Secondly, since millions of Americans are dependent on their employers to provide their health insurance, high unemployment is actually a pretty important reason to prioritise health care. But neither of those things really highlights how disturbing this comment from Romney really was.
For those with short memories, a major plank of Obama’s platform in the 2008 campaign was to reform the health system and bring coverage to millions who didn’t have it. The policy may have been watered down, no thanks to obstructionist Republicans and gutless Democrats (by the way, can someone please explain to Republicans that “bipartisan” does not mean Democrats shut up and do whatever Republicans want?), but regardless of whether you agree with the policy or not, Obama spent his energy and passion fighting for health policy reform because he said he would! Perhaps Obama is old fashioned enough to think that when you take a policy to an election, win that election and receive a mandate, then you should enact the policy.
By his own words, Mitt Romney doesn’t seem to understand that. He doesn’t seem to make the connection between election promises and what you do in office. This should ring alarm bells for anyone considering voting for Romney.
And yes, Obama should have said that too.