The dust hasn’t quite settled on the final Presidential Debate for 2012, but in the early aftermath, I’m pretty surprised by the analysis I have heard. Following the two previous debates and the Vice Presidential debates, my own analysis pretty well matched what I was hearing in the media.
The short version is this: I believe Mitt Romney clearly performed better than Barack Obama in the third debate. The post-debate coverage, including some of what I heard on conservative radio this morning, and most interestingly, the results of the flash polls of viewers, indicate that most people believe Barack Obama performed better.
There’s any number of possible explanations for why my verdict does not match the verdicts I have been hearing. One may be that Romney did exactly what I would have advised him to do:
- Don’t get bogged down in a what-did-you-say-about-Libya-when exchange with the President as you did during this second debate. This makes you look petty, and it wastes time on an issue that, while it may be important, is simply not of interest to the majority of voters.
- Don’t feel like you have to disagree with everything the President’s administration has done. Americans simply do not feel threatened the way they did after September 11, 2001. In their guts they feel they are safer now than they were 10 years ago. Obama’s administration killed Somali pirates and Osama bin Laden, and drone strikes are killing plenty of bad guys with no danger to American troops. Americans don’t want another war. Steer clear of striking a difference just to strike a difference.
- Clear the record whenever the President attempts to take your previous words out of context or attempts to present them as a caricature.
- Whenever you can do it cleanly, drag the conversation back to the economy. There Americans do not feel better than they did before Obama. Whenever it goes back to the economy, you win.
I didn’t think Romney would do these things, but he did. Every one of them. Brilliantly. The last 2 minutes in which he hammered the President on the economic record of the last 4 years was worthy of going straight to campaign ad without editing. Planned or not, the timing was as effective as the President waiting in the second debate until the last 2 minutes to talk about the 47%.
So maybe I give Romney a lot of points because he followed my advice.
A second theory I have is that many of the commentators are stuck in this mode of awarding the win to the person who appeared more aggressive and who scored more points on zingers. Indeed, this was the summary I saw by most commentators on ABC after the debate, and is a lot of what I’m seeing on internet message boards this morning. Yes, they say dismissively, Romney was calm and Presidential, but wow the President was really aggressive and scored many memorable zingers! Yes – the same crowd that complains how little substance we get in debates is now gleefully awarding a victory to the guy with the bluster and the zingers.
There’s no doubt, “horses and bayonets” will now enter the political lingo. The last phrase to do so was probably “swift boating,” which is a type of ship that the Navy probably wouldn’t count in their current fleet of 285 ships. Here’s the zinger in toto (stutters and digressions edited out):
Romney: Our Navy is smaller now than any time since 1917. The Navy said they needed 313 ships to carry out their mission. We’re now down to 285. We’re headed down to the low 200s if we go through with sequestration. That’s unacceptable to me. I want to make sure that we have the ships that are required by our Navy.
Our Air Force is older and smaller than any time since it was founded in 1947. We’ve changed for the first time since FDR. We’ve always had the strategy of saying we could fight in two conflicts at once. Now we’re changing to one conflict.
President Obama: I think Governor Romney maybe hasn’t spent enough time looking at how our military works. You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets – because the nature of our military’s changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.
And so the question is not a game of Battleship where we’re counting ships. It’s what are our capabilities [are].
I just learned a new phrase recently – l’esprit de l’escalier – the wit of the staircase. It’s a French expression that refers to how one usually comes up with a great comeback only after one has left the dinner party and is descending the staircase to go home. In the United States we might call it the Jerk Store Effect. In any event, I’ll indulge in the game of “what I would have said” (had Bob Schieffer not moved quickly to the next question, which he often seemed to do after a Presidential score):
“That’s a funny joke, Mr. President. But if I understand you correctly, your point is that horses and bayonets are outdated – no longer of use. This is exactly my complaint. My complaint is that you seem to act as though a strong Navy is out of date and no longer of use. I know that nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers are part of the Navy. They are quite effective. They are also ships, Mr. President, not horses.
“I’m not sure exactly what you propose to replace ships with. Your proposal for increased cybersecurity is certainly useful and important, but it is ships that protect vessels in the Indian Ocean from Somali pirates. It is ships that keep open vital shipping lanes near an increasingly belligerent Iran. It is ships that prevent China from intimidating their trade competitors like South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan in the Pacific. It is ships that provide a launching point to contain the aspirations of belligerent dictators.
“It’s a funny joke, Mr. President. If horses and bayonets made the world a safer place for America, I would indeed be calling for increases in our horse and bayonet capabilities. But given that it is ships that do this – aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines included – I find it rather unfunny that you have consistently weakened our naval capabilities. Ridicule might buy you some cheap political points, but I’d rather us buy some ships.”
As long as I’m nitpicking word choice in the debate, I’ll take the opportunity to get another thing off of my chest. Is this line from President Obama really working:
But after a decade of war, I think we all recognize we got to do some nation building here at home, rebuilding our roads, our bridges and especially caring for our veterans who’ve sacrificed so much for our freedom.
To me, this falls right in with the President’s “you didn’t build that” canard. As offensive as that was to small businessmen, the idea that America requires “nation building” should be offensive to everyone. “Nation building” is a term that basically means bringing democratic governance to nations that have only known dictatorship. Applying that term to the United States is essentially saying that the United States currently has no democratic institutions. It’s a complete non sequitur, and plays into every conspiratorial fantasy one might have about exactly what the President means in wanting to “fundamentally transform” America.
Obama’s zingers last night were Joe Biden quality. They blew up in his face, like a badly-loaded musket (presumably like the badly-loaded muskets Mitt Romney is eager to provide our military). From my perspective, they made the President look shallow, juvenile, and petty. Zingers may rally his base, but will they appeal to independents? When one guy is calmly talking about the importance of a strong economy and focusing on big picture ideas in foreign policy, and the other is griping about the micro details of the other guy’s investment portfolio, the two don’t seem equally serious Presidential material.