Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Jonathan Chait warns Obama supporters not to expect too much from tonight's debate

We could all drown in pre-debate commentaries & speculations if we let ourselves get sucked into that swamp.  But I think it's worth paying attention to some brief & characteristically shrewd analysis from Jonathan Chait.  Chait argues that the structure and format of tonight's "town hall" debate make it unlikely that, even in the best of circumstances, Obama can use it to repair the damage from the first presidential debate very decisively.  Some highlights:
President Obama’s first debate was disastrous in two distinct ways. He appeared listless and professorial, unable to boil down his beliefs into crisp statements, and generally looked far less like a president than did Romney — forceful, poised, firing off bullet points with measured assurance. On top of that, he allowed Romney to execute, in the course of 90 minutes, the sort of ideological repositioning he usually requires months or even years to pull off, defining himself to middle America as a health-care-loving, tax-cut-for-the-rich-abhorring, anti–Wall Street Massachusetts moderate.

Obama’s dilemma in his second debate is that he can fix the first problem a lot more easily than the second.
Too true. And here's part of the reason.
A town hall debate is not really a debate. It is a kind of competitive question-answering show. The format revolves around undecided voters tossing queries at the candidates. The whole gestalt of the program is to privilege interaction between the candidates and the regular people speaking with them — for them to press each other with queries makes them look like they are avoiding the questions. Worst still, voters can be counted on to implore them to stop attacking each other and just get along.

And so the opportunities to expose the omissions and outright falsehoods in Romney’s repositioning will be vastly more limited than they were in the first debate, and the risks of attacking them much greater. This isn’t to say Obama can’t try to take Romney apart, only that the potential for such attacks to backfire is both large and — here is the crucial thing — uncertain. [....]
I suspect that's probably right.  The first presidential debate on October 3 offered Obama his best shot, and he blew it.  In tonight's debate he may be able to strengthen his candidacy to a certain extent, but probably not that much.  And he could easily blow it again, in a different way, if he's not careful.

On the other hand ... such matters are hard to predict, and all sorts of unexpected things might happen.  It's easy to imagine various ways that Romney could also blow it.

Chait is an exceptionally sharp and insightful political analyst, so his assessments and predictions always deserve careful attention.  But he can sometimes get things wrong too.  As Chait himself admitted, before the Biden-Ryan debate he "predicted that Paul Ryan would wipe the floor with Joe Biden," and this prediction turned out to be utterly wrong.  So we'll just have to see what happens tonight.  Like it or not, a lot may be riding on the outcome.

—Jeff Weintraub