Thursday, October 04, 2012

Obama-Romney: On The First Debate

Couldn't resist firing the old political blog back up to comment on last night's presidential debate. Scroll down if you're curious about all the prescient things I said back in 2008.  :)

Concerns of the punditry notwithstanding, this was pretty standard Obama strategy. Look back at the debates with Hillary for precedent: he avoids getting in to spats at all costs; he keeps his cool to the point of sometimes appearing to get rolled, because he protects his main asset -- likeablility -- at all costs. And then in subsequent debates he'll counterpunch in strategic ways because he and his team are happiest and most effective when counterpunching.

And Mitt, by lying his face off and reversing some of his core policy positions tonight, gave the Obama team plenty to work with. The 2 keys to Mitt's unlikeableness -- the "etch-a-sketch" willingness to say whatever he thinks will be persuasive at the time, and the fact that his demeanor is that of a jerky rich guy -- were both on display tonight. I think these things -- what I would call the lasting impressions of the candidates demeanors and the long-term impact of what was said on the messaging of ads and stump speeches -- are so much more important than "who won the debate". I recall Al Gore and John Kerry and Hillary "winning" debates, never elections.

Yes, it can be maddening to watch Obama’s Chicago team play low-risk chess. Once they feel they’ve won (get David Plouffe drunk and ask him about his ground game and the electoral math) they methodically protect the win and relentlessly stick to their strategy. Likeability is central to that: we’ve been trained by reality television to separate the contestants into likeables and unlikeables and they know their guy is the likeable character.  He gets the benefit of the doubt as long as he doesn’t change the narrative.

In contrast, take a look at how disastrous this exchange was for Al Gore in 2000:



Gore played right in to his central weakness with voters – that they perceived of him as a socially awkward know-it-all.  Bush parried with a short, beset-upon laugh and a reframing of “what the election was about”.  Gore than walked right in to Bush’s space – awkwardly! Then Bush, a political idiot savant, did something that sealed Gore’s fate: he gave him a guy nod.  The meaning of that nod was: “Look at this clown bothering me, and bothering YOU the American people.” Bush, then seamlessly, gracefully even, finished his thought with the perfect political bumper sticker --  “And I believe I can” – the live audience now fully in his corner, laughing along with him. Then Gore, nervously smiling, finished himself off: “What about the Dingle Norwood bill?” Agh, it’s cringeworthy. It makes me think of the scene in “The Ice Storm” where Toby Maguire asks Katie Holmes, “Have you ever read The Idiot?” and then  keeps repeating “the idiot.”

I’m wondering today whether, for all the hemming and hawing about Obama, the lasting image of this debate might not be Mitt’s commitment to fire Big Bird:



Like Gore, Mitt became a caricature of himself in this moment: the "takeover specialist" who will come in, assess value, and start firing, first with Big Bird and then with (oof) the moderator. The disingenuousness of "I love Big Bird. I actually like you too," is palpable. One can imagine millions of people under 50 thinking to themselves, "He doesn't love Big Bird" just as you read Lehrer's thoughts by the look on his face: "Thanks for nuthin, pal." Mitt behaved on stage like the person a majority of voters perceive him to be: a smug a-hole.

Less than a day after all the criticism for not being aggressive, there was Obama, predictably, counterpunching:
“Thank goodness somebody is finally getting tough on Big Bird. It is about time,” Obama said. “We did not know that Big Bird was driving the federal deficit, but that is what we heard last night. How about that? Elmo, too?”
 I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that the few undecided voters left in this race weren’t all happy to hear the news.

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