Why are debates so disappointing?
Mostly, for me it is because they're sodden with hype. After three months of Obama and Romney sniping at each other on different stages around the United States, we were going to get them on the same stage! Calling each other out!
If yesterday's debate were a rugby game it would be one of those dour South Africa-England games, played almost entirely in the forwards with a 24-18 final score, decided entirely in penalty goals.
It was a grim, ugly 90 minutes made worse for me by the fact that I had just got home in time for it and didn't buy snacks to tide me over until dinner. There's nothing worse than taking in a cup of dry, empty rhetoric and a big bowl of unattributed statistics on an empty stomach.
Now, let's get down to some analysis...
Above all, this was a terrible debate... from Obama's opening, robotically flat wedding-anniversary shout-out to his wife, and the "I'm-not-so-secretly-breaking-wind-while-still-trying-to-smile" look that Romney struck immediately and didn't ever give up on, this debate had a screeching clunkiness to it.
Jim Lehrer had a horrific evening in the moderator's chair, both Romney and Obama spoke over him, and each other, and his repetitively broad, "so, on policy how would you say you differ from the other candidate?" questions never got the evening past the recitation of policy manifesto. It was also a jargon-heavy wonk-fest: how many of you know the finer details of the Dodd-Frank financial regulation reform, or the Simpson-Bowles fiscal responsibility review commission findings?
...But it was still a debate, which was being judged, and a winner will be and has been decided, and I see no point in arguing against the consensus that Mitt Romney was the winner. For Mitt Romney, it was the energy he brought to the debate. He was animated and aggressive, and stuck to key points and numbers in arguing down Obama's record as president. Obama's energy was in the tank for the whole debate. He leaned too hard on anecdotes in speeches that didn't quite fit the format and its need for brevity. He didn't hit Romney on his Bain Capital background, the 47 per cent comment, or anything that he'd been hammering him on for months. Obama even made a nasty habit throughout the debate of looking at the ground when Romney was talking, making him appear as if he was a scolded child when Romney entered full flight.
I guess someone should still talk about the substance of what was said, right? Romney schooled Obama a little in their tax debate, while I think Obama returned the favour and had his strongest portion of the night on healthcare. They more or less fought each other to a draw on entitlements, deficit reduction and jobs. Mitt Romney said he would cut PBS's subsidy, but that he liked Big Bird, which was weird. Not one thing was discussed that was new to, or different from, each of the candidate's bland and undefined policy platforms. I'd suggest a visit to Politifact for a full rendering of the veracity of each candidate's claim (Romney was considerably more mendacious and less truthy on the whole, than Obama).
Romney gets a bounce in the polls from this... The ridiculous thing about American political discourse is that key moments, or exchanges, or policy analysis, or anything substantial, don't matter from last night's debate, inasmuch as the mere perception that Romney won.
"Romney victory" is the only talking point now and it was amplified into oblivion in the minutes that followed. The good thing for Obama is he did nothing embarrassing, and there's no material in the debate that can be replayed ad nauseam in an ad or cable news or that can go viral. (I'm not discouraging anybody from doing a catchy autotuned remix, however.)
I'm picking a small bounce in the polls for Romney, in the vicinity of 1.5-3 per cent. Debates don't decide elections and poll bounces are historically minor. But there's a jobs report coming out in the coming days, and a vice-presidential debate next week, so this momentum could be either blunted or amplified by the events of a busy news window.
My takeaway... This debate gave me "Bush-Kerry '04" first-debate déjà vu; wherein John Kerry came out five points back in the polls, was energetic, held his own next to the president (which is most of the point for a challenger in the debate anyway) and Bush seemed terse and cross, scratching audibly on a piece of paper.
The thing about that is, nobody remembers the first Bush-Kerry 2004 debate. You might even consider me a bit of a berk for even referencing it. There's only really about a half-dozen debate moments that anybody really remembers, from the total history of debates.
Nothing substantive happened in yesterday's debate that could change the contours of the campaign. What it did do is change the momentum. Romney came into this debate down, and down big, with a reputation for tripping over his own feet at every opportunity. This debate stopped the rot.
In the context of the wider campaign, what happened yesterday was the equivalent of Romney coming out 15 points down in the second half, getting a little wind in his back, and scoring first after halftime. He'll get a bounce, a little spring his step and some momentum he's never yet had, but he won't take the lead.
The question for me now is how does Obama respond to getting knocked off his pedestal a little and seeing his lead dwindle?
I have a few questions for you to pick and choose from, to prompt a little Friday political debate.
Who did you score the debate in favour of?
What were your key moments?
Do you think anything game-changing took place?
What happens in the debate No 2?
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