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Good final debate may give Obama campaign boost

There were surprises in style and substance with both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama performing credibly in the final presidential debate.
Mitt Romney and Barack Obama in their final presidential debate, as seen during a viewing at a San Francisco theater.

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama in their final presidential debate, as seen during a viewing at a San Francisco theater. Steve Rhodes/Flickr

Here is my right-after asssessment of Monday night's final Barack Obama-Mitt Romney televised debate of the campaign. As always, it is written without waiting for the TV talking-head and partisan spin.

The outcome: I expected President Obama, as a sitting president dealing daily with foreign affairs, to have a slight edge in the debate. He did. Former Massachusetts Gov. Romney, on the other hand, passed quite well the "commander in chief" test. He showed a command of knowledge on all subjects discussed and made no major blunders.

We'll have to see if the debate itself moves national and key-state polling data over the next few days. Going in, the candidates' poll standings were quite close, with Romney appearing to have some momentum. I suspect that momentum was slowed somewhat Monday night and that the two are again on truly equal footing among voters.

Style: Obama continued the aggressive, on-the-attack style that has characterized his and Vice President Biden's performances since the media consensus judged Romney the winner in the first debate of presidential candidates. He came close, early in the debate, to appearing Biden-like by interrupting Romney a couple times and by showing hostile body and facial language. But he settled down as the evening proceeded. Romney was poised and unruffled. In many ways, their approaches were the reverse of what one usually expects in such debates: The incumbent was more hungry and aggressive; the challenger was steady and disciplined.

Surprises:  The two agreed surprisingly often on most issues. The disagreements were of degree. Romney avoided appearing a hawk or risker of war, which was his largest risk in the debate. Obama several times accused Romney of lying and of taking inconsistent positions. Romney did not respond directly, leaving viewers to decide whether Obama was right or wrong. I was surprised that Obama, on several occasions, shifted discussion to domestic economic issues. Those are the issues, this year, where Romney enjoys a slight edge whereas Obama benefits when the issue is anything else.

Both came well prepared and, in their presentations and closing statements, made the points they came to make. Both certainly energized their core voters. It will be a few days until we know whether either influenced undecided and independent voters.

There will be no more debates. Key battleground-state voters will be exposed over the next two weeks to almost unbearable tonnages of TV commercials, phone, online, and snail-mail messages from the two campaigns. Both campaigns will be going all out to energize their key constituencies and motivate them to vote. Washington, as a blue state certain to go for Obama, will not experience much of this.

A final footnote: Amid all the talk about debate winners and losers, and who did best one night or another, it is good to pause and consider that the debates are an exercise in democracy which we should value. As one who has helped candidates prepare for them, I can attest that the candidates themselves learn from their debate preparations and, in fact, evolve in their policy thinking as a result of same. The debates are good for the country and good for the candidates.

Ted Van Dyk has been involved in, and written about, national policy and politics since 1961. His memoir of public life, Heroes, Hacks and Fools, was published by University of Washington Press. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Oct 22, 9:49 p.m. Inappropriate

Shouldn't it be "might"?

BlueLight

Posted Mon, Oct 22, 9:53 p.m. Inappropriate

Ted, old fella, you stayed awake for the whole thing.
Sounds like you missed a lot of the substance.

NealMedia

Posted Mon, Oct 22, 10:50 p.m. Inappropriate

TVD: Former Massachusetts Gov. Romney, on the other hand, passed quite well the "commander in chief" test. He showed a command of knowledge on all subjects discussed and made no major blunders.

Harris Meyer: Romney made me cringe with his lack of knowledge. He was reading from a script, and he was filibustering desperately to fill time and appear to show he knew what he was talking about. A lot of the time he looked like a drowning man. I'm sure the Chinese and Russian and Iranian leaders were impressed. Not.

TVD: Romney was poised and unruffled.

Harris Meyer: Were you watching when President Obama slammed him on his lack of knowledge about modern armaments and warfare? Romney looked totally deflated.

RVD: I was surprised that Obama, on several occasions, shifted discussion to domestic economic issues.

Harris Meyer: Of course Obama was going to raise the issue of how Romney would pay for $2 trillion in increased military spending. Romney says the nation is losing strength because of its economic weakness and debt. Obama simply pointed out that Romney's "plan," including his military spending increase plan, would weaken rather than strengthen the U.S. Why were you surprised? I guess you hadn't thought about these issues too much.

Posted Tue, Oct 23, 6:33 a.m. Inappropriate

The president's snarky side certainly came out with the "aircraft carrier" remark. This guy is incredibly thin skinned, and seems to take an instant hating to anyone who dares question him. Watching the split screen in CSPAN, it seemed that Obama spent most of his non-talking time glaring at Romney, while Romney in return gave a slightly munificent patrician smile. I know which visage would serve our country best when it comes to negotiating with foreign leaders. Hatred is the emotion that lesser powers direct at us. We shouldn't have leaders so prone to direct it at others.

dbreneman

Posted Tue, Oct 23, 10:45 a.m. Inappropriate

I stand in amazement at how each person sees or hears such a debate through their own prism, seeing according to beliefs held before the talk begins....Me too!

i cannot imagine how anyone thought Romne4y well informed or statesman like.....all i heard was his staking out new positons not helde before, or repeating drafts of previously offered speeches.

The remakrs some saw as snarky, I saw as both appropriate and brilliant.

I am embarassed and suprise3d at how deaf I am, and we are to the voice/word/demeanor of one we already entecedently disagree with,

lpc

lpatrick

Posted Tue, Oct 23, 2:48 p.m. Inappropriate

Many pundits and reporters have said Romney committed no gaffes last night. What about this one, which in many ways is worse than Ford's comment about Poland and communism? Ford almost surely misspoke about something he really knew, whereas Romney has repeated this several times. And this matters, since this involves Syria and Iran and our military and naval strategy.
http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/eugene-robinson-obama-outpoints-romney-in-third-debate/2012/10/23/a1342358-1c77-11e2-9cd5-b55c38388962_story.html
Romney’s one big flub was his assertion that Syria serves as Iran’s “outlet to the sea,” which will come as news to the many Iranians who live along the nation’s thousand-mile Persian Gulf coastline.

Posted Tue, Oct 23, 8:03 p.m. Inappropriate

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) projects that in fiscal Y2012 US revenues will be 15.8% of GDP and expenditures will be at 24.3% of GDP.

Considering that defense spending is the single largest budget line item in Federal discretionary spending, it would seem that Governor Romney was obligated in the debate in this time of high deficits to explain how national security would be served by increasing expenditures by 0.5% GDP above that in President Obama's budget. In a debate where contrasts in the two positions were few, this is one point of contention which was abundantly clear.

As to this viewer, it seemed that Obama provided legitimate and reasoned rationale as to why increased military spending was not warranted. In this regard, Romney failed in the debate by not providing a basis for explaining where the increased funding would be spent and what national security threat necessitated such an increase in spending.

Romney's argument seemed blunt and can be summarized as solely looking at numbers--age of airplanes, number of ships--rather than at capability for force projection which is a more nuanced and correct method of assessment.

Posted Wed, Oct 24, 8:08 a.m. Inappropriate

"Obama several times accused Romney of lying and of taking inconsistent positions. Romney did not respond directly, leaving viewers to decide whether Obama was right or wrong." - Ted Van Dyke

Ted--what do *you* think? This is what journalists' job is, right--not just to report what the candidates are claiming, but to look at the claims critically and do some research.

I remember it was not long ago, maybe two weeks, that Romney was pushing for war with Iran. The Romney at the debate was a different man with a whole different foreign policy. Seems to me that Obama had a point, and it shouldn't be up to Obama to argue it.

Posted Wed, Oct 24, 10:21 a.m. Inappropriate

The purpose of my right-after piece was to give readers an immediate take on the debate's overall effect on voters and the two candidates. Fact-checking, as always, has taken place broadly since the day after.

I spotted several errors at the time. A few in particular stood out for me.

Romney was mistaken about Obama's "apology tour" in that some of the statements attributed to Obama did not take place during his Middle Esst tour but were excerpted from speeches elsewhere. Obama did, however, make the statements. Romney also, as noted, was mistaken in describing Syria as Iran's outlet to the sea. There is a Russian naval base in Syria, giving Russia access to the Mediterranean.

Obama was wrong when he charged that Romney's auto-rescue proposal contained no federal assistance within it. It did. But the basic element of Romney's plan, of course, was a "managed bankruptcy."
You might or might not call Obama's retort to Romney re defense spending an error. It was a condescending, low-politics response, as if Romney had never moved past horses and carriages, etc. It did not take into account the fact, for instance, that the carriers to which Obama referred require huge numbers of support ships. If you subscribe
to Romney's argument about necessary defense increases, you could judge him right in his comments about declining capabilities and force levels. If you do not---and I do not---there were more serious counter-arguments to be made than the glib one made by Obama. It was certain to have offended families with serving military or military veterans.

On the central issue of long-term debt reduction, neither candidate told a full truth. Even quite severe defense cuts, and upper-income tax increases, which Obama proposes, will not make a major dent in current deficits and long-term debt. Obama made an outright misrepresentation by stating flatly that "sequestration (i.e., automatic cuts at year end) will not take place." His campaign hastened to backpedal the following day, saying he really meant
"should not take place." Obama also said it was the Cnngress which had come up with the sequestration strategy. As Bob Woodward's recent book documents, it was Obama who came up with the idea as a means of one-upping Republicans in budget politics. Romney's budget math
also was lacking since it includes spending cuts which are unlikely to ever take place and defense increases which could not be financed without either tax increases or robust economic growth, generating fresh tax revenues, which is not presently in sight. Both danced around a central cause of our long-term debt crisis---i.e., the lack of meaningful structural reform of both Medicare and Social Security programs.

You might or might not call them errors, but both candidates took postures in the debate which were somewhat perplexing. Romney, after spending the entire campaign as a kind of McCain clone on national security/foreign policy issues---always to the hawkish side of Obama---
suddenly emerged as a peaeemaking, moderation-in-all-things advocate
stating "we could not kill our way" out of ongoing terrorist and regional threats. Obama slipped past documentation of the past four years' economic/financial distress by faulting in particular the previous administration and Romney's friends with interests in China.

The fact is that the late-2008 crisis was caused not by either major party but by irresponsible financial speculators. Alsn Greenspan, at the Fed, fed the speculation. The Clinton administration undertook the financial deregulation which made many of the exceses possible. The George W. Bush administration had a mindset in which finance and business were seen as A-OK in all respects. Obama was closely allied with Wall Street in 2008; it was his single greatest source of campaign contributions. Obama, on becoming president, underestimated the depth of the crisis, which he later has conceded. Plenty of blame all around. Voters would respect that kind of explanation, rather than a They Did It assertion by either candidate.

No one made note of the two candidates' responses to the question about
the greatest threat to U.S. security. I expected both to begin by saying that the greatest threat to our security did not come from abroad but from financial/economic/social weakness at home. Both got around to it but not as the first priority. Emphasis on domestic
renewal would have given both candidates a logical departure point for their basic arguments about priorities.

It was not necessarily the candidates' fault but there was no serious discussion about international financial/economic dangers. China and Russia were major topics without sufficient time given to exploration of their evolving roles in the world and their regions and where their and our interests converge and conflict. The "get tough on China" rhetoric by both was exaggerated. None of the debates have really explored the federalism issues that unlie the two presidential
candidates' ideological departure points. But the same criticisms could be made about past presidential debates. The ones which really established them as an institution---the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates---were filled with non-issues, invented issues, and some transparent falsehoods on both sides.

Fact checking is important but, often, even the fact checking sometimes proves later in error. The main thing: Did the candidates give voters an overall sense of themselves and where they would take us?

Posted Wed, Oct 24, 11:56 a.m. Inappropriate

Frank Rich nails it on Romney and the "commander in chief test."
http://readersupportednews.org/off-site-opinion-section/72-72/14159-romney-fails-the-commander-in-chief-test
The consensus, well summed up by the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, was "Obama had a better debate, but Romney passed the commander-in-chief credibility test." Do you agree?
That was the consensus, but it’s meaningless on several levels. This “Romney passed the commander-in-chief credibility test” is a Beltway cliché that means in this case that Romney didn’t duplicate the Gerald Ford, Sarah Palin calamity of garbling major facts (except those about his own previously stated positions) and that he regurgitated memorized boilerplate as if he were handing down wise revelations (e.g., “Assad must go” and “What’s happening in Pakistan is going to have a major impact on the success in Afghanistan”). Romney also showed “commander-in-chief credibility,” one assumes, because he retreated from his usual hawkishness: constantly invoking “peace,” tossing in a favorable citation of the U.N., and coming out for a firm withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014 only two weeks after Paul Ryan said the reverse. Mitt even knocked the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and, speaking in general of the Middle East, said, “We can’t kill our way out of this mess.” Translation: Undecided voters have told campaign focus groups that Americans don’t want a saber-rattler in the White House right now, let alone the second coming of George W. Bush.

Posted Wed, Oct 24, 12:15 p.m. Inappropriate

A number of errors that need to be corrected in TVD's "fact check" exercise.
1. If you look at what Obama actually said in those comments abroad, he never "apologized" for America, as TVD implies. Numerous fact checks by professional journalists confirm that.
http://voices.washingtonpost.com/fact-checker/2011/02/obamas_apology_tour.html
2. Romney's managed bankruptcy plan for the auto companies included no federal dollars to help them recover, only loan guarantees. Numerous sources have said there were no private investors ready to pony up the needed billions to save them. It's widely agreed among those who have studied this that Obama's bailout was necessary and successful and that Romney's proposal would have led to the failure of those companies.
3. Romney's statement about the number of Navy ships was wrong. Fact checkers have noted that the lowest number of Navy ships was actually during the George W. Bush administration in 2002.
4. Congress passed the sequestration law. President Obama had a plan for spending cuts and tax increases on wealthier people, skewed heavily toward spending cuts, but congressional GOP leaders overruled Speaker Boehner on a "grand bargain" and refused to accept ANY tax increases. See Matt Bai's definitive article on this in the NY Times Sunday magazine.
5. The "lack of structural reform" of Social Security and Medicare is not the cause of our long-term deficit problem. Social Security's long-term shortfall can easily be fixed by raising the cap on income subject to the payroll tax, so it once again covers 90% of wage income. The real cause of out-of-control costs in our entire U.S. health care non-system. Medicare is only part of that, not the cause of it. Obamacare starts a process of controlling overall costs, and Obama in a second term would strengthen the cost control features. But TVD hates Obamacare and refuses to acknowledge that.

Posted Wed, Oct 24, 3:19 p.m. Inappropriate

A lot of these ersatz fact checkers are checking conclusions, projections or intentions, not facts. Maybe Obama never said "I'm sorry" during his mid east engagement, but there could be no doubt that he saw America's performance on the world stage as something that we owed the middle east regrets over. The nature of these "fact checks" can vary widely. They can be too picky about a specific word, or too focused on the checker's interpretation of the mood that was conveyed. But they are seldom actually talking about objective facts. If a candidate says "I passed legislation that cut funding to the National Fluffy Cats Bureau 20%", it's a simple thing to see if the candidate championed a bill with that as its aim. However, if the candidate says "Elect me and our nation will never again waste taxpayer dollars on subsidies to fluffy cats" there's no fact to check. So the fact checker says, "The candidate has never cut funding to animals before, so we award him 27 Noses On Fire." More often than not, these exercises tell you more about the beliefs and predilections of the checker than the checkee. The fact checkers' declarations should be taken with as much salt as the candidates'.

dbreneman

Posted Wed, Oct 24, 3:37 p.m. Inappropriate

Later commments reflect the polarization plaguing the ocuntry and our politics. They prompt some thoughts.

I've spent a lifetime in Democratic politics but am an American first and Democrat second. I do not let my political affiliation define me as a person. Partisan talking points do not automatically become my opinions. The same is true of millions of others. I don't "hate" any political figure although I felt contempt for Nixon, George Wallace, and the senior national-security appointees around LBJ and GW Bush.

I was an avid supporter of President Obama in 2008 and was impressed by his pledge to become a unifier reaching across partisan and ideological lines to address issues crossing those lines. In office, however, he immediately became a highly partisan operator, framing legslation on a one-party basis and demonizing opponents when gridlock
ensued. His politics led to the loss in 2010 of 63 House Democratic seats and, thus, control of the policy agenda. I had expected that in
2011 he would shift, as President Clinton did in 1995 following a similar loss of House control, to a more bipartisan strategy. Anything undertaken on another basis, from that time forward, was doomed to failure. But Obama continued on his highly partisan, polarizing path. The result of such a strategy can be seen in the looming "sequestration" crisis at year's end. If the measures scheduled to take place Dec. 31 indeed take place, we'll lose up to 2 percnet in GDP in 2013 and fall back into recession. What was Obama thinking? Maybe that 2008 promises should mean nothing in 2009 or that politics should be conducted in an on-the-attack style, regardles of the surrounding environment. Hard to tell. Actions have consequences and I fear we'll feel them in our economy quite soon.

Does that mean I have written off Obama or hate him? Nope. He's now had four years in the presidency. He is intelligent. He no doubt has learned from his mistakes. My own experience has shown that federal initiatives are important to the country's domestic well being. Economic growth and jobs principally flow from the private-sector. But it is government's job to provide a framework in which that growth can take place---and in which those at the bottom can be lifted and/or sustained. So I am quite wary of political appeals which are dismissive of a government role or which believe a survival-of-the-fittest approach will serve the greater good. (Not that Romney himelf holds the latter view but certainly many in his party do). I have been wary, too, of Romney's relative inexperience in foreign affairs and his posture, until now, as mentioned above, as a kind of John McCain clone. His debate performance Monday night would have us believe that, now, McCain/Hyde has been banished and Romney/Jekyll has been unbound. His foreign-policy advisers are mainly hard liners and I suspect some of them were annoyed by their candidate's message change Monday night. What would Romney's foreign/national security emphases be, if elected, beyond an attempt to increase defense capabilities? Hard to tell.

Now, fact checking. What I do hate are hypocrisy and b.s., from whatever source they come. Both candidates Monday night did their share of fibbing and shading but neither floated a Big Lie. Younger
voters will not recall that JFK, in his 1960 debates, got major mileage from two debate Big Lies. The first was his assertion the U.S. was falling far behind the USSR in intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) production. Fact was, the U.S. had a huge lead over the USSR in ICBMs. The second Big Lie was that a secret USIA poll, suppressed by the GOP administration, showed the U.S. falling in popularity around the world. In fact, there was no such poll. It was an invention. JFK also benefited from his debate pledge---meant to get him on the hawkish side of Nixon---to defend unimportant offshore islands off China if China attempted to retake them by force. Risk nuclear war for Quemoy, Matsu, and the Pescadores only a few years after the bloody deadlock with Chinca in Korea? Yes, JFK said he would. I campaigned for JFK and was thrilled when he won;
I could never have cast a vote for Nixon. Yet his debate assertions
went well beyond any false promise or misstatement made by eiher Obama or Romney. I, as most others, had no idea at the time of the JFK-Nixon debates that I was being misled.

This amounts to a suggestion that voters try independently to satisfy themselves regarding "facts" and claims made by political candidates.
Even those we regard as the good guys can be floating some whoppers.

Posted Wed, Oct 24, 6:55 p.m. Inappropriate

TVD, almost everyone but you realizes that Romney's "plan," repeated Monday night, to lower tax rates by 20%, raise military spending by $2 trillion, spare the middle class any tax increases, and at the same time close the budget deficit (without specifying any tax loopholes or deductions he'd close or spending cuts he'd make other than Big Bird), is a big lie -- the central big lie of his candidacy.

And your credibility as a pundit is completely undermined by your refusal to acknowledge the total obstructionism of congressional Republicans from the very start of Obama's term. Haven't you yet read Mann and Ornstein's articles and books about who's responsible for the current impasse in D.C.? You're embarassing yourself.

Posted Wed, Oct 24, 7:56 p.m. Inappropriate

Romney's plan can be achieved easily with a prosperous economy. A thriving economy always creates more revenue for the tax collector. Simply imposing higher tax rates seldom does. Romney's plan fails if one assumes that the economy will continue bouncing along the bottom as it has under the current president. It is a peculiar proclivity of the so-called progressives to postulate that wealth can only be redistributed, never produced.

dbreneman

Posted Thu, Oct 25, 6:59 a.m. Inappropriate

Harris Meyer is correct. The demise of the Republican moderate and the Blue Dog Democrat is ample enough proof.

Recently on Charlie Rose, former Secretary of State James Baker commented on the extreme degree of partisanship that had arisen in Washington. Baker attributed it to the redistricting process that has occurred at the state level which creates "safe" Republican or "safe" Democrat districts. It has been said that with the redistricting that only 100 House seats really are in play during any general election.

When districts are safely Democrat or safely Republican, the general election no longer matters--a win in the primary is sufficient. And in such circumstances, a candidate cannot be perceived as moderate. A moderate candidate or one that is perceived as compromising on principles will have a very well-funded primary campaign that will appeal to the political base of the party that decides primary elections.

And with the advent of well-financed groups such as FreedomWorks and Americans For Prosperity, Republican candidates in particular can find themselves facing a more ideologically pure opponent should one not toe the line in Congress.

Under these circumstances, what is the motivation for any member of Congress to compromise? The current state of gridlock is the result.

This is not a new state though and TVD should not be blaming President Obama for the situation. This hyper-partisanship on the right was evident in the Clinton administration when we came very close to impeachment over a politically embarrassing but non-criminal affair.

Posted Wed, Oct 24, 10:03 p.m. Inappropriate

Instead of asking who "won" the debate, let's address the far more important point of what each man had to accomplish at the debate. Romney had to look reasonable, well informed and presidential. Obama had to discredit Romney as a wreckless sabre-rattler who was ignorant of world affairs and risked dragging us into a war (a concern for many undecided voters, particularly women).

It didn't happen. At times Romney looked more presidential than the president, he spoke at ease about every country discussed, and he looked measured and reasonable. In other words, he defied the caricature created of him by Team Obama and sympathetic media.

How do we know we pulled it off? Simple. Three groups of undecided voters, two in Florida, one in Ohio, were asked who won the debate. All three groups gave the debate to Obama. Then they were asked who they were leaning toward supporting. The Ohio group went strongly for Romney, the Luntz group in Florida decisively for Romney, and the MSNBC group was split.

And that's what matters most: the impact of the debate on undecided voters.

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