Of debates, expectations, and empty chairs
The New Yorker is as good a place as any to start a round-up of reactions to the first Obama – Romney debate. As we would expect from the publication, the articles within were generally sympathetic to the President.
“The President has always been someone who takes the truth seriously and has a great faith in the American people and their ability to handle big ideas,” Burns said. “He doesn’t patronize them. He uses the campaign as an educative process. He wants to win but also wants to be clear about his ideas…. He took complex ideas like Medicare and the debt and tried to explain it to people so they can understand them while at the same time not being patronizing. And he is doing this with an opponent who is completely dissembling on every issue!”
Having defied the conventional wisdom by suggesting a couple of days ago that Romney might have a big night, I’d love to defy it again and argue that Obama did a lot better than most of the pundits said he did. But just as I was thinking about how to sustain such an argument, I flipped on CNN for a bit of post-debate commentary, and saw James Carville looking as if somebody had forced him to eat his tie. “It looked like Mitt Romney wanted to be there and President Obama didn’t want to be there,“ Carville finally spluttered, his face contorted into a horrible grimace. And he went on: “Romney had a good night.” Shortly after that shocker, Stephanie Cutter, one of Obama’s campaign managers, came on direct from the post-debate spin room. “We feel pretty good about the President’s performance in there tonight,” she said. Uh-oh, I thought, Did she just say “pretty good”? And there was worse to come: “He wasn’t speaking to the people here,” Cutter went on. “He wasn’t speaking to the pundits. He was speaking to the people at home.”
Regardless of the treatment inside the issue, the cover is brutal. Particularly interesting is the reference to the empty chair of Clint Eastwood’s GOP Convention performance.
Recall that in the wake of the GOP convention both red and blue teams enthusiastically jumped on the convention performance, splitting along the fault line of the symbolic meaning of Eastwood lecturing to an empty chair. Was the old white man yelling at a chair a metaphor for the GOP? – or- Was the empty chair a symbol for an absent incompetent president?
That debate was was waged primarily on twitter with competing hash tags, but we also had a mini-version in the comments on the Donk. At least that question is now settled. When the New Yorker cover depicts an empty chair representing a MIA President – Clint Eastwood won. The enduring image of the empty chair at the GOP convention depicted in the New Yorker is exactly the image he intended.
As regards perception of the debate outcome, CNN Polling was definitive:
“Denver, Colorado (CNN) – Two-thirds of people who watched the first presidential debate think that Republican nominee Mitt Romney won the showdown, according to a nationwide poll conducted Wednesday night. According to a CNN/ORC International survey conducted right after the debate, 67% of debate watchers questioned said that the Republican nominee won the faceoff, with one in four saying that President Barack Obama was victorious. “No presidential candidate has topped 60% in that question since it was first asked in 1984,” says CNN Polling Director Keating Holland.”
The reaction on the right was a predictable and consistent mixture of triumphalism and relief, best exemplified by the opening minutes of The Colbert Report. The response on the left was more interesting, spanning a wide range of rationalizations and emotions including: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
As John Stewart demonstrates, the comeback of choice for most Democratic partisans was to call Romney a liar. Of course, both candidates lied during the debate. Personally, I am dubious of the value of “Your guy lies more than my guy!” line of argument, but if you think it helps your team to prove that your candidate tells 9.7% fewer lies… Hey – knock yourself out.
In my mind, Democratic strategists did Obama no favors with the transparent and absurd expectation lowering exercise leading into the debate. The spectacle of watching Obama proxies twisting themselves into pretzels in order to lower expectations in the days leading up to the debate was laughable. We are left with the question: Did they fail to set expectations low enough? – Or – Is aiming to clear a low bar a really bad debate strategy? Perhaps the President would be better served taking the counsel of a 15th century Italian sculptor:
“The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.” – Michelangelo Buonarroti
If electorate expectations are high, would it not be a better strategy to work your ass off to prove them right? People like to be proven right. As opposed to arguing the voter’s expectations are wrong just so you can say “I told you so” after the fact? That’s not a winning strategy. That’s a whining strategy.
Two more to go, plus the VP debate next week. Set your expectations accordingly.
Portions x-posted from “The Dividist Papers“