Thursday, October 4, 2012

Final Thoughts on the First Debate

 "My 1-point plan for winning this debate: lying." (Source: AP)

I honestly hate debate formats. As someone who is into policy more than politics, I think it's a terrible forum for understanding what the candidates would do and whether or not their plans will work as they claim. And that's not even unpacking the veracity of their claims. Debates are a fine format for electing a High School class president, but probably not so good for a leader of a country.

With that being said, here is my long summary of the debate:

1. It is important to remember that the 10% or so of the persuadable and undecided voters remaining seem to care disproportionately about the deficit for some reason. Many of these people aren't following closely and aren't wonky enough to understand that especially after a near Depression, the economy/job creation and the deficit often work in the inverse of each other. That is, it makes more sense to run short term deficits in order to continue to boost the economy until you get closer to full employment. So thus "dealing with the deficit" in the short term means lower economic growth and less job creation.

But that is why the debate focused so much time on taxes and the deficit and therefore related issues of tax reform and entitlement reform. It should be noted though, those issues will have, at best, an infinitesimal positive effect on job creation. All of the liberal wonks I follow on Twitter were pulling their hair out during this part of the discussion, but it was probably worthwhile for undecided voters.

That being said, having duel discussions about cutting spending and creating jobs, as if both things exist in an unrelated vacuum, was curious. All those budget cuts that Romney supports would lead to job losses. Take his joke about PBS. A lot of people work for PBS and if you cut their budget, people will lose their jobs. There are dozens of other examples. Somehow the job losses resulting from cutting PBS's budget are OK, but potential job losses (or slowing job growth) from, say, increasing taxes a few percent on prosperous small businesses are unacceptable.

Romney chastised Obama for not supporting Simpson-Bowles and then admitted he'd accept no debt reduction plan that raised taxes in any way, even at a ratio of 10:1 spending cuts to tax increases. A good follow-up from Jim Lehrer would have been to ask Romney how he planned to cut a deal with Congress for tax reform and debt reduction, which Democrats and Republicans could support, without including these basic compromises. It would be a question that would take a candidate out of the abstract world and into the real world how bills become laws.

2. Chris Hayes made a great point in the MSNBC recap. The Obama team feels, and has felt for 5 years, that Obama's signature "brand" and most important characteristic is his likeability. He will not risk losing that edge by unnecessarily going negative in a debate when he's leading in all of the polls. Now, should the race tighten, you will probably see a more pointed Obama in the coming two debates. We shall see. Obama's modus operandi is to present a cool, calm, confident demeanor, and then have ads and surrogates do his dirty work. That way his hands stay clean. It's tough to argue against that strategy now, seeing how it has served him well since 2007. Also, the thinking is that a continuous series of ads in swing states on a daily basis work better at persuading voters than a few forgettable debate quips. Obama's debate strategy, even against Hillary Clinton, always seemed to be to just calmly present his case and stay on message, avoiding gaffes.

It may come as a surprise to the gang on MSNBC, but a fiery black liberal probably wouldn't do as well electorally as Obama has done. If, say, Chris Matthews' style was more popular with the public at large, he'd be hosting the network Evening News, not a dinner time show for political insiders on basic cable. And I mean that as no shot at Matthews, who I generally find entertaining and knowledgeable. It's just a fact.

 "Why didn't Obama attack Romney more like I would have?" (Source: Mediate)

3. Romney comes off well in these debate settings. He sounds like he's giving a presentation to a Board of Directors. Or perhaps making the case to a financial institution to help lend him money for a leveraged buyout of a company he intends to load up with debt and bankrupt in return for huge profits.

He has figures at the ready, even though they aren't always accurate and he sounds convincing. Every bullshit artist sounds convincing. He talks in "1., 2., 3." sequences, even if he doesn't really have three different points to make. Obama could learn to use more of the "1., 2., 3." setup in his answers rather than the "...and", "and also," "and let me just add..." framework, which tends to make his answers run on longer and make them less effective. Using the "1., 2., 3." setup encourages people to listen more closely because your answers have a beginning and end to them. With the way Obama answers a lot of questions you never know when he's wrapping up his main point or beginning to make a related point. Perhaps he should read this. And that leads to my next item.

4. Debates are about style and how you say what you are saying. Fact checkers have already showed Mitt was full of shit about most of his accusations and defenses of his plans ("what plan? what plan are you talking about? that's not my plan").  Obama seemed completely unprepared to deal with this more brazen morphing of Right Wing Mitt back into Moderate Mitt. During the long back and forth over the $5T cost of Romney's proposed tax cuts, Obama seemed exasperated at times and surprised that Romney could be so bold as to completely deny the plan he's been running on for 15 months in front a national debate audience.

 "Is he really denying the existence of the tax plan he's been campaigning on for 15 months?" (Source: Daily Beast)

5. Really, going back to 2006 when Romney began running for President, he's presented a sort of Potemkin Village candidacy, saying whatever he needed to say to win voters at that particular time. And then, as Jon Lovett noted, he has this masterful tactic where he feigns offense when you bring up the fact that he just did a 180 on an issue from where he stood 15 minutes ago. Then he'll restate the current position the rest of the night as if it existed all along, rinse/repeat.

6. And because of those flip flops, Romney came off more appealing to people by conceding the policy ground to Obama and the Democrats. Romney changed or lied about his position on $5T in tax cuts and how they would be financed, his proposed cuts to education, and his non-existent health care plan to replace ObamaCare, among other things. This is hardly the victory for conservatism that Reagan's debate win in 1980 was. This was a stylistic win for Romney, where he was forced to lie about substance in order to compensate for GOP policy proposals that are unpopular.

7. I'd need several separate posts just to dissect Romney's inconsistent message on ObamaCare and Health Care overall. But here are a few related paragraphs instead. I'm still not sure how Romney's argument that "RomneyCare is a great plan but should only be adopted on a state by state basis", passes any threshold for ideological consistency.  Sick people in Massachusetts have the same problems as sick people in Montana. And the basic Actuarial Management principles at the heart of both laws apply regardless of where your reside. You can't implement any one leg of the three-legged stool without either bankrupting private insurance companies and/or making the uninsured problem worse.

In short though, it is remarkable that 15+ minutes of the debate were spent arguing over a law that both men support in private, but only one is able to support publicly. Romney is unable to admit that he really supports it and has had to create this unconvincing opposition to the law as a whole, while agreeing with nearly all of the particulars. He mainly cites the newest Conservative argument against it: the Commerce Clause. This holds that State government control of health care is a brilliant model, but Federal government control of health care is the death of freedom (meanwhile, of course in neither case does the government control health care since it is still private insurance, but anyway...). If only the Republican party didn't go batshit crazy in 2009, Romney could have proudly run on his RomneyCare record, as he did in 2007-2008, and it would be settled bipartisan consensus that the law was fine. We'd just be arguing about what, if any, tweaks to make to it.

Finally, this point cannot be overstated about ObamaCare: If Romney wins and repeals ObamaCare, PEOPLE WILL DIE as a result of it. Or as the Tea Party calls that: freedom. That is not hyperbole. Just like that ad about Bain Capital, of course Romney won't be killing them personally. But these laws effect real people, not just numbers on a balance sheet. Stacy Lihn, who spoke at the DNC, will no longer be able to get treatment for her kid if ObamaCare is repealed because of the lifetime limit on coverage. As many as 89 million people would likely be left out of Romney's plan for covering people with pre-existing conditions. If a plan leaves out 89 million people, it may be a plan in that it contains a series of words strung together to make sentences that are readable, but that's not a health care plan that actually solves a health care coverage problem. It's plan for the sake of you being able to say you have a plan. Potemkin Village Romney strikes again! That has been every Republican Presidential candidate's health care plan since the 1980's: a one-page series of words that don't really solve any of the problems - soaring costs, access to insurance, compensating outcomes rather than activity, etc., but simply allows the candidate to say he has a plan, hoping to end a discussion of the details.

8. On one of the few big issues that Romney did not reverse himself, he admitted or at the least didn't push back against the charge that he and Paul Ryan are in favor of ending Medicare as we know it for those people currently under 55 years old. Obama accurately characterized this as a voucher plan that would ultimately put Seniors at the whims of private insurance companies at their most vulnerable times. We used to have a system like that before Medicare. And that's why Medicare was passed to fix that problem. The Romney/Ryan plan essentially attempts to reduce health care spending, not by implementing any cost-saving reforms, but by just shifting costs from the government onto seniors and recreating the same problems that existed before Medicare. By sticking to this and continually emphasizing "current seniors aren't affected", Romney just wrote a campaign ad for Obama for anyone under 55 years old.

9. Obama seemed to be setting up an argument that he never got around to making, perhaps getting stuck in the weeds trying to rebut Romney's lies. But if you are making the case that "things were awful when I took over, but things are improving now, so stick with me", then you need to champion the improvements. Obama didn't mention the nearly 5 million private sector jobs created in the last 2.5 years. He didn't mention rescuing the auto industry from bankruptcy. If you want to make the case that your campaign is moving forward in the right direction and Romney would take the country back to the policies that caused the problems, then say the name "George Bush" a few times. He did reference the tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 and the lowest rate of job growth in 50 years in the early aughts after the tax cuts were passed, and then the financial collapse/Great Recession. It was a solid lawyerly argument against Romney. But people don't remember what happened a week ago. Say "George Bush" a few times at the next debate. Then undecided voters will think, "Oh right, George Bush, yeah things were really bad during those years. Romney wants to do what?"

10. In conclusion, Romney did what he needed to do. He had a good debate "performance" and won it on the strength of his energy, tone, and delivery. The fact checkers are already doing an autopsy on his statements though and it's not going well.

We'll see if Romney's debate win ends up moving enough voters in the coming days to make this a close race down the stretch. All of the instant polls showed most people believed Romney won the debate by significant margins. But the same polling and focus group anecdotes showed very little movement by anyone who was still undecided. And it showed Obama's positive favorability rating was unchanged while, Romney's negative favorability rating only improved slightly. With polling averages showing Romney trailing Obama by around 48-45, Romney would need to win the votes of over 80% of the remaining undecided voters in order to win the Presidency. It's a very tall task that even two more excellent debate performances may not be able to salvage.

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