A Clarifying Debate

The two shake hands before their second debate, moderated by Candy Crowley of CNN

It was a spirited debate, it was a pointed debate.   By all accounts President Obama won, but it was neither a game changer nor a an overwhelming victory.    Moreover, the debate clarified the core issues at stake in the race, which is precisely what these debates are supposed to do.

In the first debate, I claimed Romney won not so much because Obama was listless and uninspired, but because Romney shifted dramatically to the center, jettisoning positions and rhetoric from the primary campaign.    Surprisingly, he did little of that last night.   In retrospect, that’s probably good — he has already shed the image of being an uncaring plutocrat, too much shape shifting would make him less credible to all sides.

Both men made strong arguments but left work undone.

Governor Romney powerfully argued that Obama’s job performance doesn’t deserve having him re-election.   He went through a litany of promises Obama made four years ago to show that the President hasn’t done what he set out to do.  Yet Romney hasn’t sold people on thinking he would do better.   The “I know how to make an economy work” line is vague and hollow.     He remains vulnerable on his lack of specifics and the ease in which the President can claim he’ll return to the “policies that brought us here.”

President Obama made a strong case for his plan moving forward, and in raising questions about whether we can trust Romney to do what he claims he will.  However, he needs to convince people that given the depth of the global economic crisis what he’s achieved reflects success rather than failure.   He also needs to clarify why and how his plans will work moving forward.

There was plenty of finger pointing last night as the two went after each other!

The “gotcha” issues are actually hurting the one who makes the gotcha argument.   Obama’s bit about Romney’s 47% seemed hollow.   That’s old news, and any damage done has been registered.   Ironically it gives Romney a chance to reaffirm his commitment to all Americans in a manner good enough for most voters.   The Democrats should drop the 47% as an explicit campaign theme and make it more subtle.

Similarly Republican efforts to create a scandal around unclear story lines in the 9-11 Libya attacks gave Obama his best moment in the debate.   He could look Presidential, scold Romney for trying to score cheap partisan points and in the process, well, score partisan points!   The President took responsibility, talked about the emotion behind losing a diplomat in such an attack, and came off very well.

As with the 47%, the Republicans should drop Libya — it makes them look petty.   And if you don’t believe me, watch the CNN grid that measured audience reaction to the two.   Obama got his highest level of positive reaction when discussing Libya while Romney tanked.   Romney got high levels of positive reactions when he talked of how he cares for all Americans, Obama’s level went down when he brought up the 47%.

CNN’s bottom grid reporting reactions of a select group of undecided voters (green = men, yellow = women) is intriguing.

Simply, this is not a race about gotcha games any more.   The voters are turning to fundamental questions about what direction the country should take in the future.

Despite the noise and theatrics that have dominated discussion over the last few weeks, the debate brought the core issues into focus.   Despite the scripting of messages, the two men responded to each other and weren’t afraid to mix it up.   They spared on Obamacare.   Romney was weakest when talking about women’s issues — giving a woman flexibility so she can “go home and make dinner” sounds like the old insensitive Romney (and ‘women in binders’ is going viral).

Not a gaffe, but it could feed into his reputation as being out of touch

There was a lot that went unsaid.   The climate change folk are furious that an issue they think the most important to human kind isn’t getting mentioned.   Many other issues will dominate the airwaves over the next few weeks.  But the debate set up a clear choice for the voters.     That made it a good debate.

  1. #1 by lbwoodgate on October 17, 2012 - 16:41

    ” The “I know how to make an economy work” line is vague and hollow.”

    Trying to tell people that we can “trust” him because he has run a business is not the positive message to many moderates as Romney’s team may think. Wasn’t it the financial businesses that tanked after toxic mortgage assets were being bundled and traded to unsuspecting investors who wound up losing billions in pension funds for retirees. Not all businesses succeed or behave ethically.

  2. #2 by dirtnrocksnomo on October 17, 2012 - 17:20

    Good analysis. I agree it was a good debate. I thought Romney gave up some of the ground had gained in likeability with his boorish behaviour and Obama came accross as Presidential and was especially strong in the Lybia moment as you discuss. He should have made a statement at the end of that topic like “lest anyone doubt my seriousness look to the enemies of America and they know that I am deadly serious” or something like that. Romney missed some fat pitches too but his fixation on the Benghazi attack make him look amateurish.

    I am constantly amazed at how each candidate just misses on things that are teed up for them. Romney rightfully hammers Obama’s record and then points to his time as Governor and a businessman to pump himself. Obama should pick up this baton and say yes, let’s talk about your record Mr Governor. Then point to all of the job losses and failings of Romney as Governor. Same thing with his business record of decimating pensions and shipping jobs overseas. Obama did hit on these a bit but not emphatic and clearly enough. Some of these openings are so huge you can drive a semi through them and I don’t get it why it is missed. It’s as if there is some sort of agreement on what to say and not to say. hmmmm…..

  3. #3 by classicliberal2 on October 17, 2012 - 23:44

    I don’t really give a damn about the candidates. My central concern is with a much larger matter. Public discourse is the heart of any functional democratic society. In the U.S., the political right has, to serve its own temporary political ends, essentially destroyed any real discourse. Far too many fo them have replaced their end of it with a well-financed fantasy. It’s impossible to have any real discussion with them, because they live in an alternate world that is absolutely impervious to reality.

    Much of what Mitt Romney said last night was a lie. That isn’t hyperbole–nearly every major claim he made was demonstrably factually inaccurate, or so grossly misleading as to amount to a lie (which is also true of the first debate).

    The most important, defining moment of the debate last night was when he got in Obama’s face over Obama calling the Libyan consulate attack a terrorist act. The narrative he was pimping–Obama waited 2 weeks to label it a terrorist act–was one that has been echoed in place of reality for months within the nut-right bubble. Romney brought it up, dug in his heels, puffed out his chest, called Obama a liar on the point, poured forth this garbage narrative, and was smacked down by the moderator herself. Tape of Obama’s post-attack press conference in which he does, in fact, call the event a terrorist attack have circulated all day. And even in the face of that–nowhere-to-run-nowhere-to-hide video–the right-wing bubble, today, STILL called Obama and the moderator liars on this point. The righty blogosphere did it. The Media Research Center did it. Rush Limbaugh did it. John Sununu, who is Romney’s paid mouth, was absolutely vehement on the point.

    This is characteristic of how things work within the Bubble. Inconvenient reality simply is NOT allowed to intrude. When it does, a new lie is spun to explain it way.

    It’s impossible to run a democratic society based on fantasy.

  4. #4 by Norbrook on October 18, 2012 - 05:54

    In looking around the various blogs, the “binders” comment hit a nerve with a lot of women. Partly because he avoided the actual question, which was about paying women the same when they are doing exactly the same job (the Lily Ledbetter act), but also because the “go home and make dinner” comment came across as patronizing. One woman I know said that reminded her of every bad boss she’d ever had.

    What made it a “day two” or “sticky” story is that the claims he made during that were demonstrably false. He didn’t ask for qualified women for administration positions, and his administration was not “in the top” when it came to the percentage of women in senior positions. If he had said “I didn’t realize how few women were being considered despite being qualified until I got a list, and I took steps to change that in my administration,” it would have come off better. Instead, he had to make himself “the hero” of the story, did it in a patronizing way, and got caught out lying about it anyway.

  5. #5 by SShiell on October 18, 2012 - 17:33

    According to CNN, Candy Crowley purposely allowed Obama more time to speak in the debate:
    Source: http://www.tmz.com/2012/10/17/cnn-candy-crowley-mitt-romney-president-obama-presidential-debate/?adid=hero3

    Excerpt: “On why Obama got more time to speak, it should be noted that Candy and her commission producers tried to keep it even but that Obama went on longer largely because he speaks more slowly.”

    I gotta get me a set of the rules that determines debatery (new word?) by the word count!!!

  6. #6 by brucetheeconomist on October 19, 2012 - 20:38

    Paris Hilton in the binder!

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