I had three immediate reactions to last night’s Presidential debate.
First, when one side is ecstatic and the other side is talking about how “debates don’t matter,” that’s a pretty good indication of who “won.”
Second, #bizarro2004 continues, with Mitt Romney playing the role of “John Kerry” and Barack Obama of “George W. Bush.”
In fairness, though, Romney was less stilted than Kerry and Obama wasn’t as bad as Bush was during the first debate of 2004.
Third, as a former policy debater and debate coach, I felt a bit like I was watching a decent national-circuit debater take on a decent regional debater in a round at a National Forensic League tournament. The regional debater simply couldn’t cover “the spread,” and so he didn’t try.
In the muggy air of a DC morning I stand by each of these snap judgments, but I do have some things to add.
Romney’s muse is unfettered by the shackles of truth and consistency. Perhaps Romney himself views these restrictions as little more than the hobgoblins of smaller minds. This state of affairs renders his presentation extremely effective. This is a lesson that Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum learned during the interminable GOP nomination debates: Romney will, without hesitation, deny his own positions, policy proposals, past statements, and writings. Brad Delong does not jest when he writes that “Romney Lies. All the time. About Everything. Why do you ask?“
I do not say this lightly. I don’t tend to view those I disagree with as fundamentally dishonest. My sense remains that Romney would make a decent President–albeit an an alternate universe in which he changed his foreign policy team and faced a Democratic congress. Regardless, this makes him an extremely difficult debate opponent. It is not an easy task to call your opponent a “liar” during a debate, let alone to highlight each and every deception. Despite the many failures in Obama’s execution, his preparation team was right (in principle) to steer him away from trying to engage on each and every falsehood.
I disagree with those Democrats who are aghast that Obama never mentioned “47%” and similar themes. To them, I have two words to say: “Walter Mondale.”
It is criminal malpractice to provide, in a nationally televised debate, your opponent with the opportunity to use well-crafted and well-rehearsed “zingers” designed to disarm your most effective lines of attack.
Finally, the “sound bite” version of the debate is much less lopsided than the full-length version. The excerpts I heard this morning featured Obama calmly explaining his positions. If Obama’s key goal was to avoid a gaffe or a game-changer, he succeeded. That’s not a very high bar, but it suggests the long-term impact of the debate will be negligible.
In the short term, Romney energized his base and Obama dispirited Democrats. The latter haven’t faced a clear debate “loss” — not counting post-debate spin — since 1988. They are, in consequence, overreacting to this one.
So that’s a win for Romney… but a tactical one with questionable strategic value.
Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.