When President Obama and Governor Romney met for the first of their debates the various factions, supporters, detractors, pundits, et al had their hopes and expectations about how it would play out. And although between and within each group the hopes might be quite different from the expectations; just about everyone was surprised by the way the mash-up went. Even Chris Christy, who predicted a game changing performance by the man he ostensibly surrogates for, was probably only really expecting Romney to deliver a respectable showing which could then be called a win.
The common wisdom on both sides was that the President would go after Romney on a tax plan which favored only the rich, on his vulnerability on the Romneycare-Obamacare issue, on his self-deporting immigration stance, on unpopular women’s health care issues; all of which would be underscored by bringing up Romney’s 47% remarks. The common wisdom also had Romney going after Obama on high unemployment-low job creation, excessive entitlement spending, on his supposed anti-business attitude; all underlined by the slowness of the economic recovery. Assuming that both men would attack each other about and have to defend themselves on positions they had both consistently been identified with for the entire campaign so far, shows that common wisdom is too common though often not too wise.
While Obama was structuring his debate strategy on not being forced into the role of either angry or defensive; Romney was shaking his etch-a-sketch and preparing to do an 180˚ pivot on all the issues that his team knew the American public didn’t like his positions on. It was a classic bait and switch move; which proved to be highly effective on every level.
Romney switched his stance on all the positions he was forced to use as bait to obtain the nomination of a Republican Party under the influence and control of the extremely right-wing Tea Party rank and file. While going far to the right on things like immigration, entitlements, lowering taxes, unchaining business might all play well with the Teapublican base, they were too extreme for the main stream American voter. The proof of the unpopularity of the positions the Romney/Ryan ticket took coming out of their convention was the continued widening of Obama’s lead in the most recent 20+ polls and most critically in virtually every swing state.
An indication of Romney’s willingness to switch from his primary bait came as soon as Ryan was picked as his running mate. Making Ryan the Veep pick was designed to shore up support with the Republican right wing constituents, but when the rest of the American people looked at the Ryan budget; its drastic elimination of Medicare scared the bejebbers out of them. So team Romney shook the magic Bait-a-Sketch and took the 700+ billion in the plans Medicare cuts and put them back in (for big Pharma and the insurance industry), as if cutting the most budget straining entitlement no longer mattered. But the Romney team realized coming out of a lack luster convention that ignoring the fact checkers and pretty much any other aspects regarding telling the truth, could only get them so far; it had them on the defense and losing the election. Dumping the primary bait alone wasn’t going to cut it; they had to turn all the way around from ignoring the truth, to telling lies. They had to change their positions on a whole bunch of things if they were to win over enough of the American electorate to win the White House and the keys to the treasury for the Karl Rove’s mystery money men.
With only weeks left to the elections and voter suppression being struck down in state after state from Texas and Florida to Ohio and even Pennsylvania; the debates was the place to pivot and stand. And Romney did so brilliantly and with a straight face (albeit a bit of a smirk). On his signature issue of cutting taxes for the wealthy, Romney flat out denied he had any intention of doing any such thing. He said he’s cut tax rates for everyone and then let Congress decide what loopholes to cut to make it budget neutral – and if they didn’t raise enough revenue to cover the largess; it would be their fault. On the issue of regulations, Romney’s new opinion was that they were essential, despite his scores of public speeches and primary pronouncements that they were roadblocks to trickle down economic success (an oxymoron). On repealing Obamacare and replacing it, Romney made it clear he would like to keep all the various things that people liked about it, such as not being thrown off or not being able to get medical insurance if you had a pre-existing condition or not having a lifetime payment cap which would bankrupt most people in the event of a serious illness or keeping unemployed children on their parent’s plans. But he also slipped in a disclaimer saying that he wouldn’t actually make sure these things were included; since it would be left up to the states or voucher taking insurance companies to come up with details of the actual coverage, in their finest of print.
The only thing on which Romney was consistent with his primary message was that debate host Jim Lehrer and Sesame Street’s Big Bird would not be getting any more money which Uncle Sam would have to borrow from China. No one asked Romney how he determined if the money going to PBS had to be borrowed and the money used to cover the budget deficit caused by off shore tax shelters came from wage earning Americans, or vice versa. In fact there was a host of Romney pronouncements that could have been challenged on the details and even on the basic facts. But Romney ran over Lehrer’s quiet attempts to ask for more clarity and Obama didn’t raise a finger or even an eyebrow at most of Romney’s blatant inaccurate, misleading or downright untrue statements.
If Obama was trying to establish an above the mud, not engage face to face in order to deny Romney an equal legitimate footing, speak his message right to the people, type of approach; he mostly failed. He could have rebutted Romney’s criticism by being more on the offense without either stooping himself or elevating Romney; instead of using true (but sometimes dull) facts presented with lack of passion bordering on the uninterested. Obama’s arguments were basically seen as accurate, but his presentation was universally seen as flat. No one really expected Obama to go to an in-your-face attack mode; but he certainly could have challenged Romney on the most obvious position switches without being accused of being too aggressive. It wasn’t that Obama was unprepared on the issues; he knew all the flaws in the pre-debate Romney/Ryan policies and was ready to contest them. He might however have been taken a bit by surprise by Romney’s bald faced insistence that a budget busting $5 trillion tax cut plan was suddenly not what Romney was proposing at all; because all of a sudden Romney said it wasn’t. Obama tried to get Romney to say what he had said for the last 18 months; but the wily Romney would own none of that; a new sketch was presented and Romney was sticking to it. So Obama was left shadow boxing with; he said – no I don’t.
Hindsight from the safety of the sidelines is an easy thing to achieve. By the very next day Obama was back on his game knocking off one liners and saying all the things he should have, could have, and would have said the night before. It wasn’t a lack of teleprompter that prevented Obama from effectively counter punching in Denver. Obama is probably as quick witted and certainly more truly informed than any cable, print or radio commentator, myself included. He very likely could have switched from detached to pro-actively engaged if he had wanted to. For whatever reason; Obama kept his distance from what he may have thought of as engaging in a too much of a cage fight style of debate. The real problem for Obama may be trying to figure out what to do in the next debate. Part of that will entail trying to guess what Romney will try to do in the next one. No, Obama doesn’t want to let Romney set the rules of engagement or the agenda; but he does have to consider what and how his opponent will choose to present as his position. Ignoring that he’ll have to take into account whatever set of tactics Romney brings to the next mash-up, will only put Obama in the same position of trying to score points against an adversary that can and will change his position and style to something other than what Obama contends it is. If Obama expects the regulation loving, family friendly Medicare favoring, no middle class tax increase shell game Romney he saw in the mile high city; he’ll probably be surprised again when he meets the one who hard lines, stone walls the fact that 7.8 % unemployment is virtually so close as to be the same as over 8% or claims it’s just something that Obama’s minions made up.
Since the Romney camp now believes and is committed to making the truth infinitely malleable is a workable strategy and that trying to present factual reality straight to the people is also something his opponent will deny; Obama is indeed between a ghost and a slippery place. He certainly doesn’t want to start a game of whack-a-mole with the elusive Romney. But he can’t let Romney keep getting away with, when all the smelly stuff is washed off, a bunch of mistruths and lies. Obama should try to expose the falsehoods as simply as possible each time they are thrown out on the table, then put out his take on the actual facts, also in as simple a manner as possible, and then let it go and be ready to move on. He can’t get caught up in trying to re-litigate issues upon which the facts will not be agreed to. He will also have to be bold in his own right and put his big issues on the table in a way in which they are clear, straight forward, and positive. On the many issues that Obama has the majority of Americans on his side, he must force Romney to risk losing points by either presenting a truthful winning argument against them (which he can’t) or lying about things (which he will).
Obama is the President; he can stand tall on his winning issues without looking arrogant. Romney is a the wanna be; he has to come up with plans that are provably better than what now exists; not just criticize what he defines as not good enough. Romney has to be made to actually show how the things which he proposes will actually make the key economic and social problems facing this country better for the vast majority of Americans; not just make the 2% richer. Obama is faced with the same challenge of proving his way will get America out of its economic hole and back on the path toward the goals of reinstituting economic and social opportunity for the majority of Americans, not just a very few. The one advantage Obama has; he has had four successful, albeit slow and difficult, years of moving this nation forward toward those declared goals.