If you were a political junkie who missed last night’s presidential debate, you could have quickly found out what happened by flipping between Fox and MSNBC. On Fox it was all high-fiving and smiles; MSNBC was all dour and ‘coulda, woulda, shoulda.’ After listening to the President’s closing statement, a distraught Andrew Sullivan asked “How is Obama’s closing statement so [crude participle deleted] sad, confused and lame? He choked. He lost. He may even have lost the election tonight.”
Sullivan can relax, a bit. Governor Romney didn’t win the election last night, he just stopped losing it. That may not last; the road to the election is still very long and we are more likely than not to see momentum shift back and forth some more. But for committed Democrats who, with a lot of encouragement from their friends in the MSM, were already measuring the drapes for a second term, the night was a shock. Governor Romney emerged as a much stronger candidate, and President Obama as a much weaker one, than the narrative of this campaign to date would lead one to believe.
We won’t know for a couple of days whether the polls have moved; the GOP standard bearer had been slowly clawing back some of the ground lost to the President following the two conventions and assorted gaffes of the last six weeks. But most polls — and most polls of the battleground states — still gave the President a small but real lead. Politics junkies will now be biting their nails to see if the race tightens some more.
But stet all the stets and caveat all the caveats: Governor Romney got a lot done last night, and this is a man we’ve been told for months was tongue-tied, inept, distant and unconvincing. Democratic analyst William Galston at The Huffington Post gives a pretty good summary of the Governor’s achievement:
First, Romney presented himself as a reasonable man — neither an extremist nor an ideologue. He calmly rebutted familiar attacks on his proposals. He was clear and forceful, tough but respectful. He sounded knowledgeable. He conveyed an impression of competence and experience as a potential manager of the economy. He praised some aspects of the Obama administration’s program, such as its Race to the Top education reform program. And when he insisted on the importance of working together across party lines, it sounded as though he meant it.
Second, Romney wove a number of anecdotes — peoples’ stories from the campaign trail — into his policy discussions. This had the effect of softening his image as a soulless manager focused solely on the bottom line. So did his assertion that the country has a responsibility to care for those who cannot care for themselves.
Third, Romney provided a number of policy specifics, and his virtual PowerPoint style — a series of bullets laid out clearly — underscored the impression of specificity. My guess is that viewers will come away with the sense that they know considerably more than they did before
Fourth, Romney found an organizing theme for his proposals — job creation. He defended his views on marginal tax rates as conducive to the formation and growth of small business, a major source of employment gains. By repeatedly returning to the subject of job creation, he linked his managerial skills to the well-being of real human beings.
A good performance in a debate with a sitting president is always going to help a challenger. Simply by holding his own, the challenger suggests to millions of voters that he is a plausible president.
But for a Republican in our era of polarized media, there’s much more. Most Americans learn about candidates these days from the media: from news stories, commentary from talking heads and pundits, and paid advertisements. Without accusing the press of deliberate dishonesty, it’s pretty clear that Democratic candidates in general get better press than their GOP rivals. With every lame comment, every inept decision, every gaffe and kerfluffle chewed over, mocked and thoroughly aired by the mainstream media, Republican candidates generally do better when voters see them without the intervening filter.
Debates may offer more opportunities for Republican presidential candidates than for Democratic ones; it is a chance not only to replace the negative media portrait with something more positive, but to challenge the veracity of the media itself. Bemused liberals used to wonder why Ronald Reagan was the Teflon president; a big reason was that the contrast between the president as portrayed in the press and the president as seen directly by voters was so large that voters stopped believing anything the media had to say about President Reagan. They discounted negative stories to take account of what they assumed was an inveterate, unchanging bias; the more the media howled, the more many voters thought Reagan must be doing something right.
Romney’s strong performance in the debate will further undermine public confidence that the media is telling the truth about the ex-governor. Where was the plastic, uncaring clown we’ve been reading so much about, people asked? Voters had been led to expect an incompetent bumbler, a comically maladroit rich man’s son. Now, given the contrast between the caricature and what appeared at least to be a competent, serious and caring man whose head is on straight, many voters will now give Governor Romney more benefit of the doubt when, inevitably, new negative stories begin to appear. The elite, the effete media is down on him; to many Americans that will now be a reason to support him and to tune out the detraction and the nitpicking.
What Governor Romney did last night was less to win a debate with President Obama than to vault over him to position himself as the Jacksonian candidate in the 2012 race. President Obama allowed himself to be cast as the professorial intellectual who cites “studies” by “experts”. He allowed himself to be rebranded as a wuss on defense (Romney hammered home his plans for higher defense budgets than those the Obama administration wants). The Bin Laden card may not do the President any more good now than Senator Kerry’s Vietnam record did him back in 2004. And Romney went far to blunt Obama’s attacks on his record as an elite investment banker who throws ordinary Americans out of their jobs and wants to cut their entitlements.
Instead he positioned himself as the latest embodiment of an American archetype: the wealthy man who truly loves his country and cares about the common man. George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, both Roosevelts, John F. Kennedy: they were all rich men, either self made or from inheritance. Two owned slaves. Abraham Lincoln was a railroad corporate lawyer — the closest thing the 19th century had, perhaps, to the Wall Street princes of today.
But they all did well among Jacksonians; they all managed to be seen in some way as the personification or at least the ideal representative of the American people. Governor Romney did not reach this exalted status last night, and he may never get there — but he planted himself in a recognizable American political and cultural tradition that enables him to reach over the heads of his media critics and political opponents to make his case directly to the American people.
This was not just about optics. Romney chose last night as his moment to shift toward this high center ground in American politics. He is not an austerity president or a penny pincher where causes dear to Jacksonian hearts are involved. He wants to be an education president and hopes we hire lots of new teachers, he incorporated his Massachusetts health care plan into his narrative and attacked Dodd-Frank from the left as a sell-out to big banks — and an assault on the right of Americans to get cheap mortgages. He pledged to make sure the share of the tax load paid by the rich would not decrease on his watch and he promised no tax cuts that would increase the deficit. This may not be libertarian, small government orthodoxy, but it is mainstream Jacksonianism. Romney is attempting to brand himself as a red-blooded American rather than as a doctrinaire conservative in the race. He wants to run against Barack Obama like John Wayne versus Barney Fife — or Ronald Reagan versus Jimmy Carter.
It was a shift; his enemies might well call it a flip flop. It was also well timed and well calibrated; the right of his party has been mollified by the Paul Ryan selection and now in the heat of the race, GOP conservatives will stand by their man. The Republicans want to win, and they will applaud Romney’s ingenuity rather than complain about his doctrinal deviations as he embraces the pro-defense, pro-middle class, anti-elite rhetoric of Jacksonian democracy.
For Romney, the opportunity to connect personally and directly with a huge television audience had another big advantage: it gave him a chance to bury the “Mormon weirdness” problem. Mormon theology is very far from American Protestant and Catholic theology, but Mormons are as devoted to American civil religion as summarized by the Declaration of Independence as anybody else. Standing in front of the texts of the Constitution and the Declaration, Romney ran through the founding truths: creator, divinely grounded rights of man, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. And he can — and did — do this sincerely.
I am not a betting man; the only wager I have outstanding these days is Pascal’s. If I were more of a gambler, I’d still be more likely to bet on President Obama’s re-election than on a Romney triumph. The President is smart, his team is very good, and Governor Romney will have to fight hard to turn one good night into a winning campaign. It is one thing to lunge for the high ground in a political campaign; something else to take and hold it against counter-attacks. But whatever happens in November, the first presidential debate will be remembered as a night when Governor Romney at least temporarily found his voice and for the first time found a way to present himself to voters across the nation as a plausible, possible president.