“You can say anything you want during a debate and 80 million people hear it,” observed Peter Teeley, press secretary to Vice President Bush. If reporters then document that a candidate spoke untruthfully, “So what?”
— New York Times, Nov. 1, 1984
Barring a total meltdown — such as forgetting to wear pants or calling for war with Canada — there was no way Mitt Romney wasn’t going to be declared the winner of his first debate with President Obama.
As a TV show, the debates resemble “American Idol” for politicians. They give the nation’s esteemed political media — TV news channels in particular — their best chance to exercise power. And what TV networks need is a close presidential race, driving up ratings and enhancing their self-importance.
For that to happen, Romney had to win.
It’s also true that with the exception of Clinton-Dole in 1996, incumbent presidents have been declared first debate losers every time. Ronald Reagan performed so badly in 1984 that observers wondered if he’d grown senile. (We now know his Alzheimer’s disease was in its beginning stages.) George W. Bush sank in the polls after his first contest with John Kerry.
It’s also a lot harder being president than a mere candidate. President Obama isn’t the first incumbent to find prepping for a TV show a trivial annoyance amid the 24/7 demands of the White House. (Not to mention of the campaign itself.) He’s probably not the first to underestimate his opponent either.
That said, Obama’s oddly phlegmatic performance in Denver gave TV handicappers exactly what they needed to market the campaign as a cliffhanger. The president appeared alternately bored and mildly annoyed — too professorial by half.
New York Times columnist Charles Blow mentioned Xanax; I was thinking Ambien. My mother-in-law in Texas thought Obama acted like a whipped dog. Democrats of a certain age who keep hoping to see the president channel his inner Harry S Truman found him impersonating Illinois’ own Adlai Stevenson instead — too cerebral to take his own side in a fight.
Was it only last month that journalists wrote profiles describing Obama as competitive to the point of cockiness? Where did that guy go?
An awful lot of it was “mere theatrics,” as it’s tempting to say. On paper, Obama did substantively better.
But scary as it is, a TV game show is exactly how Americans choose the so-called “Leader of the Free World.” How can the president’s “handlers” not have reminded him to speak directly into the camera? To look his opponent in the eye?
But the president’s biggest problem with Mitt Romney was the same one Newt Gingrich (of all people) complained about during the GOP debates: the extreme difficulty of debating a clever liar.
Actually, “liar” is the wrong word. It strikes voters as rude and needlessly confrontational. Nor does “flip-flopper” do justice to Romney’s serial evasions, although I’ve long thought Obama’s campaign was making a big mistake casting him as the “severely conservative” ideologue he pretended to be during the GOP primaries.
And when Romney made his inevitable pivot to what George W. Bush called “compassionate conservatism,” then what?
Well, what we saw during the first debate: a world-class bull artist in action, with Obama seemingly frazzled by his opponent’s circular arguments, multiple self-contradictions, and shameless reinvention. A great bull artist, see, isn’t concerned with truth or falsity, only with selling himself.
Would health insurance companies have to cover “pre-existing” medical conditions after Romney kills “Obamacare”? Well, sure. That is, if you already have a paid-up policy or live in Massachusetts. Otherwise, good luck. Anyway, what are you, some kind of socialist?
Did Romney vow during a GOP debate last February that “We’re going to cut taxes on everyone across the country by 20 percent, including the top 1 percent”? Those were his exact words.
So how could he look President Obama in the eye and indignantly proclaim that “I will not reduce the taxes paid by high-income Americans?”
Good question. Supposedly, he’s going to accomplish both things by cutting loopholes, although he won’t say which ones.
To be fair, Obama almost cornered Romney one time, pointing out that whether it’s taxes, the budget deficit, financial reform, health care, or whatever, Mitt’s all grandiose promises, no credible details.
“I think the American people have to ask themselves,” he said, “is the reason that Governor Romney is keeping all these plans to replace secret because they’re too good? Is it ... that somehow middle-class families are going to benefit too much from them?”
Having asked an excellent question, Obama unaccountably failed to answer it, veering off into bafflegab about how “these are tough problems, and we’ve got to make choices.”
No, Mr. President, it’s because Mitt Romney’s a bull artist. He’s running a carnival sideshow game with no pea under any of the shells.
And in Denver, you helped him get away with it.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at email@example.com.