Three Debates Down, Two Weeks To Go

With all three presidential debates in the books, we can fairly ask:  what is the role of debates in a modern election?  According to the polls, the pundits, and the talk about momentum, the first debate this year was a significant game-changer in favor of Mitt Romney.  Why?  Was it because President Obama turned in a performance generally regarded as desultory, or was it something else?

I didn’t think the President’s performance during the first debate was as bad as it has been depicted to be.  I think, instead, the key point is that people forgot the presidential debates are one of the few political events that are unfiltered.  The candidates get a rare opportunity to speak to a national audience, in an unscripted setting, without any yakking by pundits or talking heads.  And the national TV audience for the debate, moreover, is interested enough to pick a presidential debate from all other programming options in the modern video world, and therefore probably consists mostly of people who are likely to vote.

In this election, President Obama’s campaign strategy had been to run countless attack ads painting Mitt Romney as a heartless, out-of-touch moneybags who was George W. Bush, Jr.  When all you saw was the ads, the strategy worked fine.  But Romney’s debate performance was inconsistent with the ads.  People watching thought:  “Hey, this guy isn’t so bad.  He seems pretty reasonable and knowledgeable.  Maybe he really can get us out of this mess.”  And with that unfiltered realization, millions of dollars in negative ad buy by the President’s campaign went out the window.  In fact, Romney’s performance was so contrary to the ads that it probably not only helped Romney but also had a negative impact on the credibility of the Obama campaign commercials going forward.

Another reality is that the after-debate period is longer and more diffuse.  People get their sense of how the debates went not just from a few talking heads on the major networks, but from countless TV stations, blogs, comedy shows, Twitter snarf, and social media sites.  It may take days, and a few choice “Facebook ads” or Daily Show mocks or heavily reposted blog items, before people settle on what really happened.  People in the spin room immediately after the debate no longer control public opinion, if they ever did.

In this election, we now turn to the “ground game” and the contest of which campaign can do a better job of getting their supporters off their duffs and out to the polls.  Political operatives, however, will no doubt study the debates in the 2012 campaign and draw some significant conclusions.  First, if you are going to go negative on your opponent, make sure you aren’t attacking on character or personality grounds that can be readily disproven in a 90-minute debate; otherwise, you will be flushing your hard-earned campaign contributions down the tubes.  Second, don’t forget the after-debate period.  As those precious undecided voters are trying to decide who did better, they’ll be looking at a lot of things — and if your candidate came across as disinterested and disengaged, or clown-like, or phony, it will eventually be detected and outed . . . and that will ultimately be the prevailing view of the masses.

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Wasn’t That Debate Supposed To Be About Foreign Policy?

Hey, I thought that debate was supposed to be on foreign policy!

Okay, there was some discussion on foreign policy topics, but President Obama took every opportunity to turn to domestic issues, and Mitt Romney was perfectly comfortable going to domestic issues, too.  President Obama’s phrase of the night was “we need to do some nation-building at home” — something he mentioned multiple times.  He also spoke, frequently, of women’s rights and education.

The tone of the debate, overall, was more civil, with more willingness to indicate agreement than we have seen.  That may well have been Romney’s strategy.  Still, there were some awkward shots taken, and in my view, they were mostly taken by the President.  The President had an obviously scripted comment —  “The 1980s called and is asking for its foreign policy back,” followed by a reference to a “social policy of the 1950s” and “economic policy of the 1920s,” that I thought was forced and unfortunate.  The President’s later comment that foreign affairs isn’t a game of Battleship, and involves aircraft carriers and submarines, also seemed patronizing and harsh, and struck a clanging note in my view.  The President’s interruption of Romney when Romney was explaining his position on the auto industry also seemed unnecessarily aggressive.  C’mon, Mr. President — let him answer, then give your response.

I thought both candidates did a good job, but I would give the edge to Romney.  The President has had the job and has dealt with foreign affairs for years; Romney looked like he belongs on the same stage as the President and could speak knowledgeably about every topic thrown his way — whether it was China, or Iran, or trade policy.  Romney’s closing statement was, I thought, very effective as well.  Romney looked like he could be President, and that clearly was one of his more important goals.

The Final Debate

Tonight, in Florida, President Obama and Mitt Romney have their final debate.  This debate will focus on foreign policy and — as UJ notes in his post today about the Middle East — there is a lot to talk about.

The debate will follow the same format as the first debate.  There will be six 15-minute discussion pods on topics selected by the moderator, Bob Schieffer of CBS News.  The moderator will open each segment with a question, each candidate will have two minutes to respond, and the moderator will guide a discussion of the topic for the remainder of the 15 minutes.  The six topics selected by Schieffer are:  “America’s role in the world,” “Our longest war — Afghanistan and Pakistan,” “Red Lines — Israel and Iran,” “The Changing Middle East and the New Face of Terrorism (I and II),” and “The Rise of China and Tomorrow’s World.”  The moderator reserves the right to change the topics depending on developments, and the order of the topics also can be changed.

It will be interesting to see if there is a change in tone for tonight’s debate.  The last presidential debate was heated, with some very sharp exchanges.  Hyper-aggressive posturing by the candidates may be acceptable when domestic policy is being discussed, but foreign policy is a different arena.  Although the candidates obviously will be thinking of how their statements will affect the presidential race, they also need to be mindful of the foreign audience that will be watching the debate.  I’m sure the people of Israel, for example, will be carefully reviewing the discussion during the “Red Lines:  Israel and Iran” segment.  The candidates will need to speak clearly and be cautious in their comments and (of course!) avoid the devastating gaffe.  I’m sure both the President and Mitt Romney have been practicing the pronunciation of the names of foreign leaders.

For those of us here in America, Libya obviously has been in the spotlight.  Every day, revelations raise new questions about our security arrangements in Benghazi, our lack of a response while the attack was ongoing, and our conflicting and misleading statements after the attack ended.  Another big topic will be Afghanistan and Iraq, where so many of our sons and daughters have served for so long and so many families have suffered devastating losses.  What can we do to make sure that the gains obtained through their service are protected, while extricating ourselves from conflicts that seem never-ending?

It’s a dangerous world out there.  In addition to the rise of Islamic fanaticism and the always unsettled Middle East, there is the ongoing, hair-trigger stand-off between North and South Korea, a resurgent Russia eager to flex its geopolitical muscle, a European Union that seems to be collapsing under the weight of its fiscal irresponsibility, and tensions between China, Japan, and Taiwan about the sovereignty of islands, among many other issues.  UJ’s post notwithstanding, I don’t think President Bush can be blamed for all of these issues — and even if he could, laying blame on a President who has been out of office for four years does nothing to solve the problems.  In tonight’s debate I’ll be listening for thoughtful discussion of these issues and reasonable solutions, not finger-pointing.