Two esteemed observers of U.S. politics will provide live assessments of the four presidential and vice-presidential debates for The Globe and Mail. The author, journalist and speechwriter John O’Sullivan is a writer and editor-at-large of the conservative magazine the National Review. The Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist David Shribman writes for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where he is executive editor.
Monday night’s debate probably decided the 2012 presidential election for Governor Mitt Romney. This is a hesitant prediction because there might be many October surprises, extraneous to the debates, that divert the current direction of opinion between now and November the 6th. But the three debates have allowed voters to “see” the two candidates directly and clearly and, above all, without the distorting medium of either favourable advertising or hostile reporting.
Taken together, the three debates have helped Romney rather than the president. Beforehand Romney was seen as a remote, calculating, unsympathetic, cold-hearted venture capitalist. Now that they are complete, he has a far more favourable image: well-informed, authoritative, presidential. President Obama by contrast is seen as a competent and well-informed executive but less the towering world-historical figure who won the 2008 election. These transformations were the result of the debates which entirely overturned the previous conventional wisdom that presidential debates have little impact on the election itself.
Last night’s debate was an odd amalgam of the first two. In the first debate, Mr. Obama was absent and Mr. Romney, because he produced a strong performance, won very handily. In the second debate, Mr. Obama recovered well but Mr. Romney was also impressive and the result was a near tie which, according to most critics (but not me), Mr. Obama won narrowly. Last night Mr. Obama produced a fighting performance but he was simply out-debated by Mr. Romney who, in my view, won as handily as in the first debate.
Seemingly, the immediate post-debate polls contradict me; the CNN poll shows the president defeating Mr. Romney by 48 to 40 per cent. But the polls immediately after the second debate showed a similar narrow headline victory for Mr. Obama. And they were followed by the continuing surge of Mr. Romney in both national and state polls with, at best, a halt in Mr. Obama’s decline.
Mr. Obama’s task last night was to reverse that decline and begin to claw back Mr. Romney’s lead. He therefore needed to establish his superiority over the challenger which, given the experience any president gains in foreign policy, was not an impossible task. But it was a delicate task. How do you establish your superiority over someone else – especially someone pretty well-informed – without sounding hostile and aggressive? The president never really solved that conundrum. He continually accused Mr. Romney of flip-flopping and back-tracking to the point where he seemed positively rude.
Mr. Obama made very few actual errors. He stumbled nervously when claiming that he had given full support to Iran’s “Green Revolution.” He knew he wasn’t speaking the truth – Iranian demonstrators at the time carried placards asking “Obama, where are you?” – and I think it embarrassed him. Otherwise he was pretty fluent and knowledgeable.
But he had few really great moments – no home runs – and he never really hit his target.
That was because Mr. Romney went in with the intention of disproving the Democrat caricature of himself as a Bush clone intent on war and mayhem. And he achieved his aim almost flawlessly. His first big line – it reeked of the rehearsal studio – was something like “you can’t solve problems just by killing people.” He must have called for “peace” a dozen times. He was determined to be statesmanlike even if the cost was sounding like the late George McGovern.
If such evasive tactics had been the whole of his performance, Mr. Romney would have been dispatched easily by an irritated and occasionally sarcastic Mr. Obama. But Mr. Romney had a series of programs for peace and economic development at his finger-tips on almost every topic raised by moderator Bob Schieffer.
He never lost his cool; and he explained his points very effectively. Explaining well is something that audiences like and that they don’t really get from canned talking points. So his demonstration (in reply to the moderator’s question) of why China would not want a trade war with the U.S. – he shot one hand up to estimate China’s exports to America and he depressed the other hand low to show U.S. exports to China – was both very funny and crystal clear. Mr. Obama’s response was politician-talk.
Indeed, as the debate wore on, Mr. Obama got increasingly tetchy and Romney became more and more the optimistic problem-solver. So Mr. Romney achieved his aim; he looked like a president. Mr. Obama failed in his aim; he never looked to be Mr. Romney’s superior. My guesstimate therefore is that Mr. Romney won on points and that, give or take the odd wobble, he will fasten down his lead and Mr. Obama will fall a little further behind.
In the immediate aftermath of the debate, however, that is not the conventional wisdom.
John O’Sullivan is a British-born writer on American politics who lives in Decatur, Alabama. He is editor-at large of the National Review and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.