You might not have noticed since it was pretty dull and a lot of other things were happening, but the Sitting Decider and some asshole Mormon upstart spent an hour and a half talking about basically nothing last night, the first such exercise in extemporaneous theatre of a scheduled series of three.
As is my wont, I’m going to talk a little about it.
First, let’s take note of how lousy Jim Lehrer was at moderating. After entreating the candidates to focus on their differences and the distinct choices they afford, the venerated PBS star let the pols walk all over him. He led by explaining that among the terms of the debate was the provision that it would consist of six 15-minute segments, a provision which I’m so certain was flagrantly violated in all instances that I won’t bother to fact check it. PBS Jim, as probably no one calls him, repeatedly complained about time overruns and lamented during the waning half of the first segment that it was ‘technically the second’ already. He complained once but almost never twice when time had elapsed. By the time he was scrambling to shut the whole thing down with three minutes to go before closing statements, Lehrer frankly admitted that he’s vulnerable to the charge that he “might have done a poor job” moderating. Well, at least it seems he remains a halfway decent reporter.
[Note: Lehrer is a stupid surname whose honor its currently contextual bearer does nothing to improve and is particularly prone to be misspelled by this author. Note also that PBS is just one adjacent letter from PBR, and that you can do this: PaBSt. It follows that hereafter the moderator will be referred to by name only as Jimmy, owing to the manifestly comical irrelevance of PBS.]
Romney seemed to be the worst respect violator, frequently talking over both the others in an increasingly obnoxious bid to “set the record straight.” But both were guilty, as was to be expected, of obvious dodges. In fact, Obama was the original sinner: Jimbo’s first question was whether Barry had anything to say specifically about his views on so-called Trickle-Down Economics, which both had discussed in their opening statements, and the POTUS dodged by discussing his own agenda instead. James countered by asking Willard whether he had any specific question for Barack about anything just said; the answer was the affirmative but an inquisitive sentence was not among those thereafter offered. I don’t recall the moderator having much in the way of intact spine for the rest of the evening.
The most memorable aspects of the debate (where, it should be clear, ‘most’ is merely a relative term) were undoubtedly the jabs. Both sides got in a few, but Obama carried the day. Here are some highlights:
- [In response to Romney alleging his tax plan won’t cut taxes on the wealthy] “For eighteen months he’s been running on this tax plan, and now, five weeks before the election, he’s saying that his big, bold plan is ‘never mind'”
- [Regarding his own allegation that Romney sometimes defines “millionaires and billionaires” as small businesses, and after having mentioned Trump] “I know Donald Trump doesn’t like to think of himself as a small… anything”
- [Evoking Romney’s earlier entreaty to “listen no further”, intended to ease the concerns of those explicitly 60 and older who might be concerned about the Governor’s plans for Medicare] “If you’re 54 or 55, you might want to listen”
- [Regarding regulation in a free market, and looking dead in the camera] “Does anybody out there think that the big problem we had is that there was too much oversight and regulation of Wall Street? Because if you do, then Governor Romney is your candidate”
- [Regarding Romney’s alleged unwillingness to elaborate the details of how he’ll replace existing legislation like Obamacare and Dodd-Frank] “Is the reason that Governor Romney is keeping all these plans to replace secret because they’re too good?”
- [After Obama segued quickly among multitudinous discussion topics in response to fairly vague guidance to discuss repaying the deficit] “We’ve gone on a lot of topics there, and it’s going to take a minute to go from Medicaid to schools to oil to tax breaks and companies overseas”
So, check the scoreboard on that one.
Other relatively memorable statements included amusing one-liners. Mitt told us “by the way, I like coal” and, whilst stepping on Jimmybob’s toes to address the President, called the Vice-President “your running mate.” He also flubbed a line about the “poor kids — er, lower income kids, rather.” Obama pushed back on the phrase ‘entitlements’ during a narrower discussion of Social Security, saying:
the name itself implies some sense of dependency on the part of these folks… who’ve worked hard… and there are millions of people out there who are counting on this.
Lil’ Jim even asked, to laughter but in trying to salvage his emphasis on contrast, “let’s move to health care, where I know there is a clear difference [between the two of you],” which made it all the more amusing when Obama dropped a reference to the success of the individual mandate in Massachusetts. And that magnified the irony of former Massachusetts Governor Romney’s earlier remark while discussing Medicaid reform that one of the glories of America is that the states, rather than the federal government, serve as the “laboratories of democracy.” Like I said, theatre!
But let’s get serious. The President said a few interesting things. Unsurprisingly, given his cheerleading on murdering Osama Bin Laden, Obama said that the first role of the President is to keep us safe as Commander-in-Chief. This view is regrettably in agreement with the phrasing of Article II Section 2 of the Constitution, which enumerates the powers of the President and begins by naming him the C-in-C. It was still troubling to hear since that rhetoric has been abused for more than a decade and I would much prefer his primary duty be to see that the laws be faithfully executed. To his credit, he again identified the primary source of the deficit:
When I walked in the Oval Office, I had more than a trillion dollar deficit greeting me, and we know where it came from. Two wars that were paid for on a credit card. Two tax cuts that were not paid for, and a whole bunch of programs that were not paid for. And then a massive economic crisis.
But he should have gone further and singled out the banks as the source of the crisis. He also name dropped Exxon Mobile as doing well enough that cutting subsidies are unnecessary: “Why wouldn’t we want to eliminate that?” Of course, he’s had nearly four years to eliminate that and hasn’t, or even attempted to persuade Congress in earnest.
But it was Romney who really gave us the bacon. As already mentioned, he seemed to repudiate trickle-down taxation structures and claims he won’t lower taxes on the rich. But the most interesting exchange of the entire debate centered around Romney’s approach on cutting programs (emphasis mine):
ROMNEY: What things would I cut from spending? Well, first of all, I will eliminate all programs by this test — if they don’t pass it: Is the program so critical it’s worth borrowing money from China to pay for it? And if not, I’ll get rid of it. “Obamacare” is on my list. I apologize, Mr. President. I use that term with all respect.
OBAMA: I like it.
ROMNEY: Good. OK, good. So I’ll get rid of that. I’m sorry, Jim. I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I’m going to stop other things. I like PBS. I love Big Bird. I actually like you too. But I’m not going to — I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for it.
Romney says a lot without saying anything. What does it mean for a program to be critical? We get almost no information on determining victims, but we get a double-dose of xenophobic rhetoric to motivate the test. In fact, one of only two concrete examples is PBS! Despite the Corporation for Public Broadcasting being extraordinarily cheap and producing incredible results compared with other programs — consider the return on investment from the Department of Defense — PBS is on the chopping block. Not too unsurprisingly, a social media firestorm has erupted to defend Big Bird, and donations have jumped to my local NPR affiliate. But this tall talk doesn’t point toward likely policy outcomes (the lobbying to defend CPB would be legendary) and serves only to underscore Romney’s predilection for firing people. Indeed, later in the debate Romney revisits the other identified victim of his test while discussing health care: “I know my own view is I’d rather have a private plan… If I don’t like them, I can get rid of them and find a different insurance company.”
As things were winding down, both parties got even more obnoxious. In a transparent bid to upsell his faith, Romney waxed evangelical: his (two minute?) opening statement discussing the role of the federal government included the words ‘Creator’ twice and ‘God’ once. He bent over backward to remind us he loves the military and won’t cut it, even name dropping turmoil in the Middle East during a debate explicitly about domestic policy. But Obama immediately responded in kind, mentioning his varyingly successful efforts to end the Iraq war, the Afghanistan war, al Qaeda, and bin Laden (in that order). Closing arguments were largely platitudinous, with the only clever line coming from Obama:
And so part of leadership and governing is both saying what it is that you are for, but also being willing to say no to some things. And I’ve got to tell you, Governor Romney, when it comes to his own party during the course of this campaign, has not displayed that willingness to say no to some of the more extreme parts of his party.
But with a few exceptions, I felt the entire endeavour was a pretty spectacular waste of time in which no one performed well. If I had to make a call, I’d say that Obama ‘won’ the debate. He got more good one-liners, committed far fewer gaffes, and was stronger on content. There was a bit of a numbers runaround on deficits, and Obama seemed to come out narrowly ahead. But the BBC reports that pundits and polls agree it was Romney’s night: “Romney appeared in command while Mr Obama was hesitant.” In truth, Obama did seem tired and irritable. The Daily Show’s weighed in:
He lamented at the beginning of the evening that it was his anniversary with Michelle, promising her they wouldn’t be celebrating it next year in front of 40 million people. And he more frequently appealed straight to the camera with sarcastic assertions that if viewers liked absurd policy positions, his rival is their candidate. Romney did seem very confident and benefited as the challenger from having Obama’s record to attack. Apparently his multiple gaffes and jab-receptions were less memorable (or damaging) to the unwashed than his charismatic demeanour.
Ever since the first televised debate in 1960 that many argue was the only reason Kennedy defeated Nixon that November, these events have been much more about presentation than substance. The same could well be said about all of politics. But to the extent that that is true of debates, it might be fair to say that Romney did win this one. I’m more confident asserting that whoever won, Big Jim was the clear loser, even if Big Bird got a shot in the arm from it all. But we’ve still got two to go, not counting the VP debate that is sure to be a chucklefest in a week, and more than a month to election day. I still say Obama has four more years coming his way. Anyone care to bet $10,000 on it?