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A close debate plays to one candidate's issues

News analysis: Romney at least held his own and may have had a slight edge. Obama was likewise well-prepared and assertive.
The University of Denver was the site of the first 2012 presidential debate.

The University of Denver was the site of the first 2012 presidential debate. University of Denver/Flickr


(Editor's note: Ted Van Dyk served as debate coordinator for several Democratic presidential candidates.)

Immediately after the end of tonight's televised Denver debate between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — and without exposure to post-debate TV talking-head and partisan spin — here is my take: Neither man "won" the debate or had a clear edge on the other. If either man gained a bit from the debate, it was Romney, since he appeared on equal footing with the incumbent president throughout the evening and because the debate moved to the forefront the economic issues which Romney wants to be Topic No. 1 in the election.

Both men were self-possessed, well-briefed, and assertive but respectful toward each other. Neither seemed more commanding than the other. Neither committed a gaffe or made an obvious misstatement that will cause him later grief from media or independent critics. This should not be surprising; both men have been campaigning and engaged in such debates since they ran as national candidates in 2008 — Romney then in an unsuccessful run for the Republican presidential nomination against Sen. John McCain. There was no memorable moment that viewers and media will later mark as a highlight of the debate.

Moderator Jim Lehrer, of the PBS Newshour, did a sometimes nervous but generally solid job of keeping the candidates to the economic/domestic policy agenda, which was the evening's agreed topic. There was no direct audience participation. The estimated viewing audience was between 40-50 million.

Going into the debate, most reputable national polls gave Obama something like a 3-point edge over Romney among likely voters, with a margin of error of about 3 points. That means the two were effectively tied, although my own instinct remains that Obama had a slight edge both nationally and in several key swing states that will decide the election. Coming out of the debate, I suspect, the numbers will be about the same but with Romney having solidified his close position.

The debate not only should have reinforced Obama and Romney supporters' confidence in their standardbearers. It should also have created a general feeling among independent voters that either could govern competently.

Now, a step backward to provide context.

A presidential election with an incumbent president on the ballot traditionally is a referendum on the incumbency. And, absent a major all-out war, the referendum is about the incumbent's management of the economy. No incumbent except Franklin Roosevelt has ever been re-elected with an election-year unemployment rate above 7.8 percent. That rate will remain above 8 percent until election day (and should rise early in 2013) and there are other weaknesses in the economy that make it seem worse.

To overcome this vulnerability, the Obama campaign has pursued the time-tested strategy of "Changing the Subject" — in this case attempting with some success to define Romney as a Gordon Gekko/Rick Santorum character unconcerned with ordinary citizens and associated with harsh social-issue positions. While Romney, pre-debate, had been trying to convince all Americans that they needed a new president to fix the economy, Obama had been trying to energize African Americans, Latinos, unmarried younger women, senior citizens, and other key constituencies around the thesis that change would threaten their interests.

In the most simplistic and traditional campaign terms, Romney has been pursuing the theme that it was "Time For a Change" while Obama has been saying "Don't Let Them Take It Away." These are recurring national-election themes of the past two centuries.

Romney benefited in Denver because discussion ranged across traditional economic and domestic issues on which he's based his time for a change campaign: jobs, tax policy, energy policy, debt, entitlements, health care, and education.

In their closing statements, the two candidates argued ably their differing views toward governance and the role of government.

Obama, once again, asserted himself as being in a long line of Democratic leaders who see federal action as central to everything taking place in society. Romney reaffirmed his emphasis on decentralization of power, reliance on private-sector economic initiatives, and the traditional Republican belief in a reduced federal role.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Oct 4, 12:14 a.m. Inappropriate

TVD's analysis is better than most I've read tonight about the debate. But I strongly disagree with his statement that neither candidate made an obvious misstatement. Romney made many factually challenged statements, and the fact checkers are already calling him out on them. Below is what the NY Times fact check says about Romney's denial that he proposed a $5 trillion tax cut. He also kept repeating untrue statements about how the Affordable Care Act's Independent Payment Advisory Board would limit the treatments patients could receive. http://elections.nytimes.com/2012/debates/presidential/2012-10-03#fact-checks
It is true that Mr. Romney has proposed “revenue neutral” tax reform, meaning that he would not expand the deficit. However, he has proposed cutting all marginal tax rates by 20 percent — which would in and of itself cut tax revenue by $5 trillion.
To make up that revenue, Mr. Romney has said he wants to clear out the underbrush of deductions and loopholes in the tax code. But he has not yet specified how he would do so, opening himself to persistent Democratic attacks.
This week, in an interview with a Colorado television station, Mr. Romney did shed some light – floating the idea of capping each household’s deductions at $17,000.
“As an option, you could say everybody’s going to get up to a $17,000 deduction. And you could use your charitable deduction, your home mortgage deduction, or others, your health care deduction, and you can fill that bucket, if you will, that $17,000 bucket that way,” he said. “Higher-income people might have a lower number.”
The deduction cap has the virtue of avoiding the tough negotiations over which tax expenditures to unwind. Many tax expenditures are highly popular, like the deduction for charitable giving. Moreover, many are important to the stability of the economy. Suddenly ending the home mortgage interest deduction, for instance, would threaten destabilizing the housing market.
But a number of unanswered questions about Mr. Romney’s tax plan remain.
For instance, Mr. Romney did not address how his proposed cap on deductions would affect tax credits. (Generally, deductions lower a given family’s level of taxable income and credits erase part of their overall tax bill.)
It is also unclear whether his proposal to cap deductions would raise enough revenue to pay for his income tax rate cuts – at least not without increasing the tax burden on families making less than $200,000 a year, which Mr. Romney has vowed that he will not do.

Posted Thu, Oct 4, 8:12 a.m. Inappropriate

Clearly based on the above the spin has begun big time. Both TVD and Harris analyses are very weak. How, for instance, did you like the "answers" on how to bridge the partisan gap? One of many instances in which there was a very clear difference between the two and advantage for the challenger.

Clearly the incumbent was ill-prepared, uncomfortable throughout and did not bring his A game. Expect him to take this a lot more seriously next time out.

Posted Thu, Oct 4, 8:39 a.m. Inappropriate

Give me a break Ted. The President got his ass kicked. This race is close and far from over. It will be interesting to see how they both do in front of a 'town hall' style format during the next go around. Ralph

Posted Thu, Oct 4, 10:06 a.m. Inappropriate

This Van Dyk analysis is more balanced and objective than most, especially the high-spin recap in today's NY Times. All readers/observers (including me) see that they want to see and ignore the rest. I'm attentive to how both of them used lots of numbers and facts supporting their contentions. Romney spouted more data, but often the facts he provided were incorrect, or of tangential importance/irrelevant to the questions asked. The structure and dynamics of The Economy are such arcane subjects for most viewers and listeners that this difference between the debaters are not noticed, much less remarked upon. I agree that Jim Lehrer was at times nervous, especially when Romney openly defied him, but in general did a very difficult job commendably.

Charlton2

Posted Thu, Oct 4, 12:28 p.m. Inappropriate

The CNN 'scientific poll' post debate had it 67-25% in favor of Romney. For once, I agree with the Clinton News Network.

animalal

Posted Thu, Oct 4, 3:21 p.m. Inappropriate

Thanks for the comments. It is true that most viewers see what they want to see in these debates. Partisans usually are reinforced ty them and think their candidate's opponent got by with some overlooked swipes or mistakes. As I mentioned above, neither candidate made a glitch last night sufficient that it will stick to him later---although both of them made some dubious claims and stated as fact things which were challengeable. They were not sufficient, though, to become damaging among voters, who by and large make their judgments more on style than on substance.

There were interesting reactions prior to last night by some Romney partisans, who went into the debate being critical of their candidate,
and some Obama partisans, who came out afterward feeling Obama had somehow let them down or performed quite badly. Obama, in fact, did seem a bit off form but not disastrously so. I made my own assessment
based on prior involvement in and observation of such debates.

I did not in the piece discuss feelings which I know both the President and his advisors must have right now. There no doubt is
frustration that Obama does not get another debate chance at Romney
for another two weeks, which can seem an eternity in politics. They
also are no doubt worrying about VP Biden's performance in his debate
next week with Rep. Ryan. He is notorious for making off-the-hip
statements without thinking them through beforehand. He'll be briefed
until he can't stand it over the next few days.

Posted Thu, Oct 4, 7:57 p.m. Inappropriate

"Well-prepared and assertive?" Really, Ted? We WERE watching the same debate, weren't we? I'm not likely to vote for either Romney or Obama because more of the status quo is more of what we don't need, but Romney didn't win the debate so much as Obama just phoned it in.

There are two debates left so Repos shouldn't be measuring for new curtains in the Oval Office just yet, but Obama is going to HAVE to start taking these things seriously...merely showing up isn't enough anymore.

Posted Thu, Oct 4, 10:23 p.m. Inappropriate

If TVD kept up with the post-debate coverage in the major media, he'd see that many of Romney's statements have been hammered by the fact checkers -- on his tax cut proposal, on the Obama administration's energy subsidies, on Medicare, on his health care proposal regarding preexisting conditions, on the size of the deficit, etc. etc. etc. Grotesque misstatements of fact. In contrast, Obama fared pretty well with the fact checkers, criticized mainly for legitimately extrapolating to explain the likely effects of Romney's deliberately vague Medicare voucher proposal in forcing seniors to pay a lot more out of pocket. TVD, after writing an unusually balanced piece, you dive back into the swamp of false equivalence.

Posted Fri, Oct 5, 7:28 p.m. Inappropriate

If Romney's is the moderate, reasonable person he presented himself to be in the debate, he will get along with Democrats, as he did in Massachusetts. His problem, if elected President, will be that unlike in Massachusetts, he will have to deal with his own party.

The idea that he is more effective in working with the other party has to be understood in the Massachusetts context. He didn't have any Republicans to his right to worry about. In D.C. that will not be the case, and however moderate Romney wants to present himself now, he will be severely constrained by Republicans in Congress who will make sure he toes the party's rigid ideological line.

Posted Sat, Oct 6, 9:32 a.m. Inappropriate

This ia a final contribution to the comment stream as the campaign moves beyond the debate. A good point, by the way, by Jackwhelan regarding the difference between bipartisanship in Romney's Massachusetts and in present-day Washington, D.C. If elected president, Romney no doubt would have as much trouble dealing with
GOP diehards as he would with congresional Democrats. Think back to his travails in the GOP presidential primaries in dealing with exactly such hard-liners.

It has been interesting to see the continuing media consensus that the debate was some kind of Romney triumph and/or that Obama failed miserably---or erred in not being more aggressive. This reflects the "birds on a telephone wire" effect among media that Sen. Gene McCarthy often decried. That is, only a few in mainstream media make (or equipped to make) truly knowledgeable and independent judgments about events. Rather, they tend to immediately parrot views expressed by colleagues; often the parroting quickly becomes conventional wisdom.

I continue to feel, several days later, that Romney got a slight advantage in the debate, primarily because it pushed economic issues to the forefront and moved discussion away from himself. It gave him a chance, one-on-one, to interrupt the message of the Obama media campaign. Obama did OK and his performance was in his usual range. He only seemed to "lose" because he did not win---which was the expectation going in of partisans and many in the media. There were many places in the debate where he could have more effectively made points. But viewers, remember, don't remember such points but make their judgments mainly on the participants' demeanor, poise, and body language. It is not just "What did they say?" but "What overall impression did they leave?"

The upcoming Biden-Ryan debate should be particularly interesting since
Ryan is quite knowledgeable about economic/budget/debt/tax issues whereas Biden is more a generalist accustomed to utilizing political talking points. Biden need not compete with Ryan as a wonk but he cannot leave an impression as someone, after four years as VP, who
is less knowledgeable than his challenger. You can be sure he's been warned about this and briefed accordingly.

I have one additional reaction to the debate aftermath: I believe Obama and his campaign have overreacted to the media overreaction
regarding his debate performance. Both Obama's own and campaign
spokespersons' rhetoric has been overly harsh and strident, as if
rage against Romney could compensate for what media (and some supporters) saw as his indifferent debate performance. It is important that Obama leave a continuing impression that he is a serious, thoughtful President and not merely a strident candidate.

Posted Sat, Oct 6, 4:18 p.m. Inappropriate

Again, I agree with TVD that the media have overplayed how well Romney did and how poorly Obama did, but he and I seem to be the only two people who think that. But I am disappointed that TVD refuses to acknowledge how many important whoppers Romney told during that debate, which have been called out by lots of mainstream media fact checkers. It's really not at all accurate to say then that neither candidate made misstatements. Indeed, my disappointment is that the media declared Romney the "winner" while their accompanying fact check columns showed that he "won" by making grotesque misstatements. By what screwy standard does one win a debate by stating blatant falsehoods?

Posted Sun, Oct 7, 11:28 a.m. Inappropriate

Here's a quietly devastating NPR piece on Romney's flip flops on tax cuts. What it doesn't discuss is that Romney and Ryan have proposed cutting taxes particularly for wealthier people, and you can bet they'd deliver for them.
http://www.npr.org/2012/10/07/162456485/taxes-are-certain-but-what-about-romneys-cuts

Posted Sun, Oct 7, 7:45 p.m. Inappropriate

In answer to what by what standard one wins a debate by stating falsehoods, this was a performance, not a debate The winner is the one who is most assertive, and that was Romney. Falsehoods don't matter; people listen to/view performances with their emotions.

sarah90

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