Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Presidential debate 2, wherein Obama actually shows up this time

I know from the Biden-Ryan debate that I'd better check with Charlie Pierce before I blog about Tuesday's debate. And, sure enough, he had some great things to say, America Has Now Met the Many Romneys, and America Knows They Can Get Their Asses Kicked: At the Debate Esquire Politics Blog 10/17/2012:

Those of us who lived under the barely distinguishable leadership of Willard Romney in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (God save it!) know very well that the emotional membrane separating Lofty Willard from Snippy Willard is thin indeed, and that the membrane separating Snippy Willard from Dickhead Willard is well-nigh translucent. Both of those membranes were tested fully here on Tuesday night by the president, by Candy Crowley ... and by the simple fact that certain members of The Help tested the challenger's ideas and found them wanting and, my dear young man, that simply is not done. And both of those membranes failed like rotting levees in a storm. ...

But not even I expected Romney to let his entitled, Lord-of-the-Manor freak flag fly as proudly as he did on Tuesday night. He got in the president's face. He got in Crowley's face. That moment when he was hectoring the president about the president's pension made him look like someone to whom the valet has brought the wrong Mercedes.

"You'll get your chance in a moment. I'm still speaking."

Wow. To me, this was a revelatory, epochal moment. It was a look at the real Willard Romney, the Bain cutthroat who could get rich ruining lives and not lose a moment's sleep. But those people are merely the anonymous Help. The guy he was speaking to on Tuesday night is a man of considerable international influence. Outside of street protestors [sic], and that Iraqi guy who threw a shoe at George W. Bush, I have never seen a more lucid example of manifest public disrespect for a sitting president than the hair-curling contempt with which Romney invested those words. (I've certainly never seen one from another candidate.) He's lucky Barack Obama prizes cool over everything else. LBJ would have taken out his heart with a pair of salad tongs and Harry Truman would have bitten off his nose.
The Bush question was one that Pierce liked Obama's response, as did Bob Kuttner (Game, Set, Obama American Prospect 10/17/2012), Karoli at C&L (Obama Paints Romney as 'Me-Too Mitt', More Extreme Than Bush 10/17/2012) and Ari Melber (How Obama got even in the debate rematch MSNBC 10/17/2012). I actually thought this was one of his weaker moments. Because given the opportunity to remind the whole country why Bush and Cheney left office with approval ratings not much higher than sour milk, Obama instead talked about areas where he supposedly is more like Bush than Romney is. His point to make Romney sound more extreme on social issues than Bush was okay as far as it went, but pointing to previous Presidents of the other party and making them sound more enlightened than the current standard-bearer is a pretty routine tactic. In this case, Obama displayed one of the political failings of his Administration, which is that he didn't maintain a narrative framework about how the Bush-Cheney Administration and their bad policies were responsible for so many problems. Look Forward Not Backward for Obama extends even to politicking. It's one way his essentially centrist, center-right perspective has limited him as the head of the Democratic Party.

But Obama's success in that debate was in getting in lots of good points that reinforce his campaign themes, like his references to Romney's tax breaks for the rich and the break he gets on his own taxes on his $20 million annual income.

I make fun of the punditocracy for practicing theater criticism on these debates, because they are often very superficial or even focused on trivial or foolish points, Al Gore's supposed excessive sighing in 2000 being the all-time classic example so far.

But in a debate, it can be hard to separate substance on the one hand from style and technique on the other. Obama's technique involved jamming Romney on weak points and hoping to create forced errors on Romney's part, and that worked. But that technique was effective because Obama used his jabs at Romney not just as isolated gotcha moments but to build his campaign narrative on the issues addressed. By bringing up Romney's multi-million-dollar annual income and low tax rate and connecting that to Romney's policy proposals, he made it much easier for the audience to connect Mitt's stage demeanor when he let "let his entitled, Lord-of-the-Manor freak flag fly." By talking specifically about Bain and the outsourcing of jobs to China, he suggested to the audience a framework for processing Mitt's scowling and peevishness as the cynical, soulless corporate boss who lays off 30,000 people per year and gets bonuses for doing it, rather than as Mitt being, say, the "experienced job-creator" who sometimes has "to make tough choices."

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