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.
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%.
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).
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.