Reliving The 2012 Presidential Debates

This space has been quiet in recent weeks due to travel and book stuff, but I’d like to take today to re-post my same-day analysis of the three presidential debates held last year. Usually, presidential debates have as much bearing on the actual election as newspaper endorsements, but with President Obama coming into the first round with such positive momentum on the heels of Mitt Romney’s famous “47 percent” tape and proceeding to deliver a historically awful performance, 2012 was different. These debates actually registered in of what ended up being a fairly close election.

Here are my three immediate reactions, all on one page:

Debate 1: Colorado

Romney Takes Charge
October 3, 2012

Barack Obama went into the first debate trying to appear dignified and presidential. Mitt Romney approached it like a boss.

ICYMI, our moderator was 193-year-old Jim Lehrer, who went into the auditorium at the University of Denver, sat at a desk, and let Mitt do his thing. First it was John King, now Jim—I’m waiting for the moderator at the next debate to ask Mitt for permission to use the bathroom.

President Obama, buoyed by strong polling numbers, seemed to come in with a strategy of playing it safe, giving calm policy answers, and trying to remain above the fray. As the president, he is used to polite and respectful discussions where everyone follows protocol. Mitt Romney is an alpha male finance CEO. He’s not afraid of hostile takeovers. He pulled one on Jim Lehrer.

This debate, while devoid of guidance (and kind of a good metaphor of what happens when CEOs like Mitt can run wild in unregulated markets— they are free to stomp on necks and take names later), did have some decent moments of policy discussion, on things like the corporate income tax, specifics of Dodd-Frank and Romney endorsing Bowles-Simpson.

The president’s problem was that even when he technically won individual arguments on their merits, Mitt often made his case with so much more confidence and clarity that a casual viewer would think he was obviously the expert. President Obama may have a better product, but Mitt was a far superior salesman. The president didn’t even look like he was buying what he was trying to push on us.

President Obama stammered while citing data sets; Mitt looked straight into the president’s eyes, misdirecting and making up scenarios, and just daring him to say something. Instead, Obama looked down with a weird smile, which can work at the World Series of Poker, but not so much in American politics. It made him look like a junior partner being scolded by the CEO.

Over the last four years, the president has mostly been in meetings where everyone is trying to work together for a common goal. Over most of his career, Mitt has been in meetings where he was trying to kick the ass of the guy across the table. Match them up in a 1-on-1 debate, effectively remove the moderator, and you can see how they respond.

We can blame the president’s lack of preparation (I agree with Jeffrey
Goldberg that Netanyahu would have been the best sparring partner—especially for the foreign policy debate), his apparent disinterest in being there or the stress of the job, but there’s no excuse for backing down, especially to someone as smug as Mitt Romney.

Mitt is down in the polls both because he can’t keep his foot out of his mouth—see his 47 percent tape and his talk of “harvesting” companies, as well as the fact that the St. Paul Ryan Budget/Prayer for Economic Miracles is unpopular with older voters.

Obviously aided by the CEO’s own words, President Obama was having a lot of success painting Mitt Romney as a heartless number-cruncher happy to throw people out on the street and let them die of cancer just so he could stack more money in his Cayman Islands accounts. In cartoon form, something like this.

The president had saved the auto industry from guys like Romney who wanted to let it go bankrupt (Mitt wrote a famous op-ed which sealed Michigan for Obama long ago), which was a nice frame for him to cast himself as someone fighting for the average worker against Wall Street bullies like Willard Mitt Romney.

Unfortunately, when it came time to take on the big bad boss, President Obama was nowhere to be found.

Paul Ryan didn’t really come up until the second half of the debate. The killing of Osama bin Laden waited until the very end, and was immediately eclipsed by a rather depressing and overly humbling closing statement. There is a time and place to be self-deprecating; when you are getting smirked at and almost mocked by a pompous CEO, that’s when you need to stand your ground and pound your chest. Mitt was on such an alpha roll, that when he thanked President Obama at the end of the debate, I thought he was about to ask Michelle out for (non-alcoholic) drinks after.

In the biggest surprise of the debate, one dedicated to domestic policy, the 47 percent tape didn’t come up at all. I won’t blame Jim Lehrer—although I would have loved to hear him ask Gov. Romney about “a computer movie emailed from a chat line”—but President Obama made his biggest blunder of an unmemorable evening by not bringing it up. The tape’s impact on the race has been proven since its release, and it’s been a very effective tool with which to hammer Mitt’s entire mentality, and has been used this way in campaign ads such as this one.

The president’s failure to talk about the 47 percent tape is inexcusable and deserving of all the “typical weak Al Gore Democrats” insults. He ramped up to this debate running against the evil downsizing, outsourcing and money hoarding boss who resents the average American and when it came time to can’t claim to stand up for them, couldn’t even call Mitt out on his mean-spirited dismissal of half of this country’s work ethic and moral character.

President Obama comes from a world where you earn respect. Mitt Romney comes from one where you take it. The president makes the sound, logical and (to me) convincing argument that he inherited a disaster, has done a lot to fix it, admittedly not as much as he promised, but he’s trying his best.

To paraphrase a wise man, losers talk about trying their best. Winners close the deal. Mitt the CEO won Wednesday’s session by taking charge and calling the shots. In other words, being the boss.

Debate 2: New York

Obama Owns The Oval Office
October 17, 2012

It was appropriate that he was surrounded by the guests of every bar mitzvah ever, because President Obama performed like a man tonight.

Not that we liberals ever need extra motivation to panic, but the president’s historically awful first debate performance had him dropping in the polls at speeds Felix Baumgartner would be jealous of. He had a substantial lead, apparently chose the wrong strategic blend of playing it safe and Xanax, and got bossed by the ultimate CEO, Mitt “Mr. Coal” Romney. At least he didn’t get outright fired like the moderator.

Uncle Joe Biden slapping around young Paul Ryan last week stopped the hemorrhaging and helped shift the tone, but those two men are not running for president. A vice-presidential debate in and of itself can only have so much importance—Dan “Not Jack Kennedy” Quayle was on the winning ticket in 1988. Paul “Also Not Jack Kennedy” Ryan is simply a hyperbolic man with a parabolic hairline who got sent back to the kids table where he belongs.

The president of the United States has the top job in the land. He has the ultimate corner office—so ultimate, it doesn’t even have corners. President Obama’s performance at the first debate in Denver was so damaging because he cowered and refused to defend his occupying that office while a rabid corporate raider undressed him on stage. Tonight, he kicked his feet up on the Resolute desk and defended that room against a hostile takeover attempted by a shameless opportunist.

With this newfound self-assuredness, President Obama demonstratively won the debate on an issue where he had real vulnerability, the security failure at the consulate in Benghazi. Looking Romney straight in the eye, something he had conspicuously avoided doing in Denver and taken tremendous and deserved heat for, the president blasted his challenger (whose foreign policy portfolio consists of the Salt Lake Olympics and his blind trust) for politicizing a tragedy in a way that as someone who has the important serious job of president and commander-in-chief he found “offensive.”

Choosing to respond to being called a petty jerk by acting even more like a petty jerk (this moment in particular was bad, but his demeanor ranged from douche to appalling throughout the event), Romney tried to play a gotcha game with whether the president called the incident an “act of terror” in his statement at the White House one day after four Americans were killed. When he got fact-checked live by moderator Candy Crowley, proving that Obama did in fact use those words, Romney came across as naïve and non-presidential as he has since winning the nomination.

Trying to score a political point with dead Americans as if he was an analyst at Bain looking for an obscure missed disclosure to try to negotiate a better price on a deal cannot be spun or explained away to an audience who watched the callousness live. Americans flocked to Mitt last week because they like a boss. They do not, however, like a bully.

The transfer of gravitas could almost be seen on the candidates’ faces. From that moment, Obama seemed to hit every point with laser focus, while Romney was the one left stammering with nothing much to say. When the president brought up the 47 percent tape in his closing remarks, tying Romney’s denigration of non-income tax payers to his military veteran grandfather being able to go to school on the G.I. bill, he was the adult in the room and Romney was the drippingly slick salesman with a stale pitch and a bad deal who had clearly overstayed his welcome.

Obama scored big points on immigration, effectively tying Romney to the extreme Arizona law, and energy, making the point a lot of us were waiting for (gas prices were low four years ago because the economy was on life support and nobody was buying anything, although I wish he also informed everyone that oil is a global commodity and the president can’t control prices). Romney’s bizarre answer on a question about equal pay for women also made quite an impression.

The former governor of Massachusetts related the issue to trying to find women for his staff, and to help with this (clearly PR-driven) operation, his team assembled “binders full of women.” Notwithstanding the fact that Bill Clinton is currently filing a Freedom of Information Act request for these binders, Mitt Romney talks about women as if he’s never worked with them and it takes a concerted effort complete with office supplies just to find somewhat competent ones to plug in for “inclusive Republicans” photo-ops. Growing up in the exclusive boys’ club of Bain Capital, maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised.

One thing about Wall Street and it’s often unfortunate culture that’s always stood out to me is the grandiose titling of employees. If you meet someone in investment banking who isn’t an executive vice president of something, he (it’s usually a he) is either 23 years old or cleaning toilets.

Two weeks ago in Denver, Mitt Romney won by standing firm in his power suit and demonstrating in all his alpha glory how much he wanted the title of president of the United States of America. Tonight, Barack Obama owned the office by proving just how seriously he takes the job of being president of the United States. The opportunist has no transcript, and the emperor executive has no clothes.

Debate 3: Florida

Romney’s Meek Agreement Tour
October 23, 2012

During the third presidential debate on foreign policy, Mitt Romney once again accused President Obama of having gone on an “apology tour.” The president could have more accurately accused his challenger of spending Monday night on an agreement tour.

President Obama solidly won the debate on the issues and in stage presence, sounding measured, extremely well-informed and decisive, while Romney sweated his way through a series of concurrences with the president, occasionally punctuated by random factoids, empty assertions and some more of his trademark bickering over the rules and semantics. However, in a debate about foreign policy, which (judgments aside) is a secondary or tertiary concern for most people, the question is whether Monday’s Moderate Mitt roadshow will be enough to cover up the bad taste George W. Bush left for so many voters (and the bad policymakers George W. Bush left for a Romney administration).

The president was clearly the commander-in-chief and conducted himself as such. Romney had to avoid being the crusader-in-chief, which forced him into joining the president on almost every major theme, from Iran sanctions to leaving Afghanistan in 2014, leaving the two men to battle over such critical issues as who visited Israel first and the ship count of the U.S. Navy.

In what will become the enduring sound bite from the debate, Obama blasted Romney’s either asinine, political (shipbuilding is a major industry in swing-state Virginia) or both criticism that the Navy has its least amount of ships since World War I:

“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.”

This amazing bit of condescension only confirmed my theory that these two presidential candidates really dislike each other, probably more than any opponents since the union was reunited. Really though, does Mitt actually believe that the Navy of 1916 was superior to the Navy of 2012? I’ll match his famous $10,000 wager if he really feels that way, and I’ll even lay three carriers and two subs. Mitt has just the guy to take that bet—his Israel hand, Sheldon “Red” Adelson.

As an observer with a rooting interest, I am pleased with the way the debate went, but if this particular event represents the foreign policy priorities and interests of the American people, we should be concerned that our electorate and political observers have such large blind spots in an increasingly connected world.

First off, we learned the entire world consists of China, Israel, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya (which Romney didn’t even bother pawing at this time), Egypt, Mali and the one indispensable nation, America. That’s it; that’s the list.

Europe was hardly mentioned at all, even though its leaders just days ago announced that they are moving toward a common banking supervisor. This will not only have a huge long-term impact on global financial markets, but may well be the first step toward something resembling a United States of Europe. Romney only touched on the continent when making his ridiculous analogy that America’s debt means the country is on track to becoming Greece. Based on bond yields, the free market disagrees with Mitt, although if he takes a hacksaw to social programs and retools the economy around shipbuilding, we just might be on that path.

Despite both candidates jumping over each other to proclaim their love for supporting democracy worldwide, there was no discussion about India (the world’s largest democracy), Japan (the world’s weirdest democracy) or Brazil (the world’s sexiest democracy).

There was also the (sadly predictable) omission of the Mexican Drug War, which has ratcheted up in recent weeks as outgoing president Felipe Calderón looks for a few more scalps to put on his legacy. Cartel violence in Mexico (brought to you by insatiable American demand—so buy local artisan drugs if you can) is responsible for such heartwarming things as 193 people massacred less than 100 miles from Texas, which is a real national security concern for Americans living in places like the Rio Grande Valley and Southern Arizona.

Obviously a foreign policy debate held in Boca Raton was going to be very pro-Israel and Middle East-centric, but it was almost as if Palestinians did not exist. The sad political truth is that there was no upside for either man to bring them up, but it would have been nice if moderator Bob Schieffer asked.

One of the worst moments was when Obama and Romney went back and forth on who had a more authentic visit to Israel. This had all the charm of two hipsters fighting over who first discovered some overpriced trendy attitude farm in Venice or Silver Lake.

Bob did better than his War of 1812 battalion mate Jim Lehrer, but he disappeared for long stretches and didn’t take the dialogue anywhere interesting or revealing, and Obama’s growing confidence as the questions were asked and he had the answers already mastered showed. I like exchange rate conversations more than most people with friends, but most Americans were falling asleep as the candidates argued over Chinese tire imports and trade deficits. As long as they can buy a lead toaster at Walmart for five bucks, they don’t care.

In the scariest non-Josh Romney moment of the night, Mitt’s most enthusiastic endorsement of any Obama policy was on the president’s extensive use of drones. I am one of those voters to whom civil liberties is one of the highest priority issues, and as much as I may disagree with the president’s heavy-handed use of drones and his “kill list” that has included American citizens, Romney’s answer effectively nullifies the argument for voting for the challenger based on this issue. If the Republican nominee was Ron Paul, this could be a wedge issue, but Mitt Romney would only be worse. Drone warfare is here to stay.

President Obama’s confident performance, getting his opponent to agree with him on the big issues and smacking him down on the small ones, propelled him to a decisive win in what was billed as the foreign policy debate. If only there was an actual debate on American foreign policy. Don’t hold your horses.