Nearly a week has now passed since Barack Obama and Mitt Romney went head to head in Denver. As I mentioned in my post of 5 October, there was a surprisingly generally shared feeling that more might be rising out of the mountains of Colorado than the just the hot air that inevitably emanates from candidates for high office so close to an election. The conventional wisdom coming into the debate was that the race was Obama’s to lose and that Romney’s gaffe prone campaign was sailing into yet more troubled waters. Fresh from his 47% debacle, it was a fairly respectable assumption that the hour and a half that Romney would have in front of a live TV camera would be more than enough for him to deliver several oven-fresh clangers for a salivating media and Obama campaign (to indulge in a redundancy) to devour with relish – unless he delivered his very best game and Obama performed to a breathtaking level of incompetence. The likelihood of this happening seemed very slim indeed. However, the shock event occurred (although I, for one, was less surprised than most for reasons I will outline), with the entire race now thrown into a flux nobody could have predicted a mere week ago.
The consequences of the debate now appear to have been seismic and have led to a number of theories emerging from Obama’s incredulous supporters as to how this travesty occurred. They fall under three broad headings:
- Obama was too nice: Straight after the debate, Chris Matthews, whose rant has now gone viral, suggested that Obama hadn’t listened to enough MSNBC coverage and had let Romney away with “lies”. He was, according to Matthews, “enduring the debate rather than fighting it”. The high point of Matthews’s meltdown was when he said he didn’t know how Obama “let Romney away with the crap he threw out”. Matthews’s explosive reaction to his hero’s failure was to prove an early indicator of where Obama’s supporters were going to take the grim (depending, of course, on your point of view) aftermath of the Denver Disaster. Gary Younge in the Guardian argued that Obama was not angry or passionate enough. Michael Tomasky in the Daily Beast went further and suggested that perhaps Obama doesn’t want to win. Joe Klein of Time ascribed his problems to an inexplicable diffidence, describing his performance as an exercise in “unilateral disarmament“.
- Obama failed to prepare: This argument is effectively the teacher’s scold to the lazy pupil. “You know you could have done better than this but instead of studying the night before the test, you were playing computer games.” Bill Maher, as only Bill Maher can, ascribed Obama’s performance to a combination of post-coital lethargy (on account of his wedding anniversary falling on the same day) and narcotic consumption. Today, Toby Harnden in the Daily Mail (an Obama critic) suggests a more plausible if less entertaining version of what happened, his source for which is an anonymous Democratic Party insider. Said insider suggests that Obama made scant preparation for the debate, “breaking off whenever he got the opportunity” and complaining petulantly to a supporter that his aides were making him “do [his] homework”. Sensationally, this anonymous aide goes on to tell Harnden that at the end of the debate, Obama was so mentally detached from what had happened during the debate that he thought he had won it and needed 24 hours before accepting that he hadn’t. This argument was echoed by Romney surrogate Gov. John H. Sununu, who described Obama as “lazy and disengaged“.
- It was the Moderator’s Fault: This argument is essentially to blame either (a) the format of the debate; or (b) the moderator, the veteran broadcaster Jim Lehrer, for failing to take control of the debate and hold Romney’s feet to the fire. Typical of these criticisms was former Al Gore campaign consultant Bob Shrum, who used his Daily Beast column to argue that Lehrer’s was “not only a pushover, but an interrogator from the pre-modern age”, complaining that Lehrer didn’t drive the debate in the direction of “women, African-Americans, Hispanic and the LGBT community—or any of their concerns”.
Listening to some of these arguments has left me in the same position in which I have found myself with increasing frequency in recent years when listening to political debate – namely that the positions taken are too outlandish to predict and thus hard to refute. However, taking each of the above in seriatim:
- Obama was too nice: This argument is absurd. Gary Younge’s explicit invocation of anger as a missing ingredient is vapid and self-serving. It is true that Obama was trying to be nice (largely in order to preserve his likability advantage with the public) but to suggest that turning on the anger would have helped flies in the face of all evidence. Anger can be a useful means of communicating an authentic concern. However, it only works when the anger communicates an authentic concern about an issue in relation to which the public agrees. In a country in which self-identified conservatives (i.e. people who have a pro-Romney ideological bias) outnumber self-identified liberals (i.e. people who have a pro-Obama ideological bias) by roughly two to one, Obama’s refusal to get angry and vituperative looks to any objective observer like a wise concession to the reality that his core beliefs are not very popular. Additionally, as Mark Halperin of Time has pointed out, Obama has a tendency to come across as “kind of a dick” when he gets angry, something which might explain his insistence on playing it cool. Meanwhile, Mr. Tomasky’s suggestion that Obama might not want to win is almost beneath contempt. Obama and his minions have been expert in running the most unscrupulous series of negative campaigns ever seen in a modern election. I fail to see how a man whose surrogates have accused his opponent of killing the wife of one of his employees and of being a felon could be accused of lacking appetite for the chase. No. The idea that Obama has not been sufficiently combative or that he lacks hunger is risible. The argument is a smokescreen for the fact that Obama’s Leviathan-worshiping, community-organising statism are simply not very popular.
- Obama failed to prepare: This explanation sounds more plausible. But again, on closer examination, it too inhabits an alternate reality in which there is nothing wrong with Obama’s policies, just a communications problem. What Obama sycophants like Bill Maher and Joe Klein refuse to understand is that Obama in fact doesn’t debate well because he does not understand public policy very well. As I’ve said in my 5 October post, this is a man who believes that ATMs cause unemployment. His understanding of economics literally seems to be limited to what he can memorise from flashcards (“fair share”, “millionaires and billionaires”, “spread the wealth around”, “invest in our future”). As I’ve said before, his debating performance, dreadful though it was, was not appreciably worse than his usual performances. Brit Hume on Fox News summed his performance up rather well: “This idea that Romney won the debate because Obama basically didn’t show up – I don’t buy that. The Barack Obama I heard on that debate stage was the Barack Obama I’ve been listening to now for four years. He sounded very much like himself. I don’t think he was terribly bad, I think he has a very weak case.” Obama’s problem is not that he is a bad debater, but that he has a pedestrian mind. This is starting to become clear to Obama supporters such as the aforementioned Joe Klein, who suggested that it was “bigoted” to question Obama’s ability and Andrea Mitchell, who went as far as to ask John Sununu to “take back” the accusation that Obama was lazy. As Bismarck said, one should never believe a rumour until it’s officially denied.
- It was the Moderator’s Fault: This accusation seems to go to the heart of the mindset of many of Obama’s supporters, who appear to earnestly believe that it is the job of the media to support Obama, including the effective rigging of debates. This is a harsh accusation to level but an increasingly hard one to avoid. The most charitable analogy I can draw is that of blaming the referee after losing the match. At worst though, its analogous to demanding that the rules be changed every time your opponent scores. I’m glad to see that Jim Lehrer is defending himself against these charges.
One way or the other, pathetic as the Obama sycophants’ excuses and explanations are, I expect that they will have an effect on the next debate. Expect a much angrier, more aggressive and more vituperative Obama. This could get very interesting…