Saturday, October 20, 2012

Some further post-debate commentary

Out of many collections of commentary, analysis, and reflection following the second Obama-Romney debate, here's one useful round-up from Andrew Sullivan.  Several of the pieces he quotes from are worth reading in full; and some others, which are off-base or superficial in substantive terms, are illuminating for symptomatic purposes.  [The additions in brackets are mine.]

=> According to the Gallup Poll:
Americans who report watching the second presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney believe Obama did a better job, by 51% to 38%. That is a sharp reversal from the first debate for which Romney was widely regarded as the winner.
But so far, at least, the second Obama-Romney debate has not been followed by nearly as great a swing in electoral polling numbers as the first debate.  It appears that while Obama repaired some of the damage from the first debate, he didn't repair all of it.  (Or, perhaps, the real point is that Romney hasn't lost everything he gained from the first debate.) Overall, Michael Tomasky's assessments on October 17 (see below) still look plausible today.
[T]his debate probably won’t change the dynamic as much as the first one did. [....] But certainly liberals and Democrats got the boost they wanted.[....] So how much difference does it all make? Not as much as the first debate, but my guess is probably enough. Obama needs these kinds of headlines: He’s back!
The third Obama-Romney debate is coming up on Monday.  And then it will probably be a nail-biter all the way to November 6. As Tomasky said, "It’s showtime."

—Jeff Weintraub

Andrew Sullivan (Daily Dish)
October 17, 2012 - 10:38 a.m.
 The Town-Hall Debate: Blog Reax II

[The very intelligent centrist political analyst Marc] Ambinder judges the debate:
Obama killed it. He outdebated Romney, he never once seemed churlish, he had a better command of the facts, and he conveyed the aura of a man who is confident about his choices. Romney kept hitting bumps. He didn't let go of small points. He seemed irritated and peevish. He was uncharacteristically tongue-tied. As I reviewed my notes after the debate, though, Romney probably did better than my gut told me. But Obama still won the evening, and did so convincingly. I think if this debate had been first, Republicans would have a conniption. But since Romney tightened a race that won't loosen up much no matter what happens, the momentum for Obama will probably be somewhat less.
[Designated reasonable-theo-con Republican columnist for the NYTimes Ross] Douthat thought Romney made two stylistic errors:
Romney is very skillful at the on-stage slash and parry, but he has weak spots, and veterans of the long Republican primary slog remember two of them particularly well. One is his tendency to argue pointlessly with the moderator and his opponents over the rules of order. The other is his habit of pressing his advantage too far, seeking a kind of alpha-male moment that can seem bullying instead of strong. (His attempt at a $10,000 bet with Rick Perry was the paradigmatic example.) He gave in to both temptations this time around.
Bob Wright [whose commentaries are frequently off-base or even stupid, but not in this case] analyzes Obama's stage presence:
I think Obama succeeded in striking a very delicate balance: He had to be sharp and feisty and tough (to erase those particular doubts about his first performance), but he had to stop short of Joe Biden levels of aggressiveness and remain essentially likeable. I think he did that. I've heard some commentators say Obama was "angry," but he didn't strike me as crossing that line -- except maybe a few times when he displayed righteous indignation that I thought was effective. Certainly he didn't seem angrier than Romney, and he wasn't as disrespectful of moderator Candy Crowley as Romney was.
[Relentlessly serious policy wonk par excellence] Ezra Klein looks at the substance:
After the first debate, President Obama’s supporters comforted themselves by saying Obama’s deficiencies were stylistic, and Romney’s victory was the result of confident lying. But reading the transcript, it quickly came clear that President Obama’s stylistic shortcomings were connected to his substantive shortcomings. His answers were rambling, his case for his candidacy was vague, and his attacks on Romney were often confused.  So I sat down tonight with a rush transcript of tonight’s debate. The same thing was true. The candidate who struggled on style also struggled on substance. But this time, that candidate was Romney.
[Jonathan] Chait celebrates Obama's victory:
President Obama is not a great debater, but in the second presidential debate, he gave his best performance. Mitt Romney came off well, but not nearly as well as he had during the first debate. Obama enjoyed friendly questions from an audience that obviously leaned left. But more importantly, Obama simply did not allow Romney to occupy the center as he had before.
[Premier right-wing hack at National Review Online] Jonah Goldberg complains about the questions:
I thought the questions, prescreened by Candy Crowley, were for the most part indistinguishable from questions the Obama campaign might as well have drafted for her. Nearly every one was asked from a fundamentally liberal premise. Why on earth this debate was handed to undecided voters in a state where Obama is leading by nearly 30 points is beyond me. These weren’t undecided voters; they were at best dyspeptic Democrats.
[Political scientist & blogger] Jonathan Bernstein pushes back:
I thought the questions favored Obama during the debate, but a second look convinced me that it's wrong: the questions were about as fair as it gets. From the "Town Hall" audience questions, I count three that were solidly pro-Obama and one that was somewhat pro-Obama; three solidly pro-Romney and one somewhat pro-Romney; and three neutral ones.
[Dissident moderately-conservative Republican Josh] Barro is disappointed by both candidates:
[I guess you want to know who won the debate, and the answer is President Barack Obama. He was as alive tonight as he was asleep two weeks ago. He defended his record and called out Mitt Romney on his flip-flops. Romney looked defensive and rattled, particularly when he badly botched the exchange on Libya.

But setting aside the horse race, I found the substance of tonight’s debate incredibly depressing, because neither candidate made a remotely convincing case that he can fix America’s economy. [....]

That’s not to say I’m surprised. If Obama had a serious economic agenda, he would presumably be working to implement it. Instead, his administration appears resigned to plod along in a tepid recovery that will leave unemployment above 6 percent for years to come.

And if Romney has a serious economic agenda, he has worked very hard to ensure that nobody finds out what it is.]

Romney and Obama fought with each other a lot tonight, but the subtext of their messages was sadly similar: If elected, they will sit around and hope the economy gets better. That's not a message that gives me much hope for the next four years, no matter who wins.
So is [another dissident Republican, conservative analyst and self-styled Voice of Reason on the right David] Frum:
For all the talk about competing with China, it is not Chinese industrial labor that is exerting downward pressure on the wages of the accountants, lab technicians, and paralegals of Long Island. Their jobs are being revolutionized by information technology or off shored to English-speaking Indians. President Obama touts higher education as the solution to all economic ills, but in the first half of the 00s, the wages of college graduates stagnated. What happens to the typical American worker in a world where routine white-collar work is exposed to the same global competition as blue-collar work?
[Consistently sharp economic journalist] John Cassidy finds that "the overwhelming majority of the pundits proclaimed the President the victor":
Even Charles Krauthammer and Laura Ingraham said that he won on points. With this type of unanimity, the media narrative for the next few days, which is at least as important as the debate itself, will run in favor of Obama and against Romney. The G.O.P. candidate, rather than being praised for having delivered a strong indictment of Obama’s economic record—the CBS News poll showed that sixty-five per cent of viewers thought he won the economic exchanges, against just thirty-seven per cent who thought Obama did—will be criticized for his blunders on Libya, guns, and women.
And [Michael] Tomasky declares, "Obama is back!":
[Obama won the debate. Won it big. Maybe not as big as Romney won the first one, but big enough to be clear. More interesting than that, though, is the way he won it.]  [....]

So how much difference does it all make? Not as much as the first debate, but my guess is probably enough. Obama needs these kinds of headlines: He’s back! Obama shows some fight. Obama on his game. Et cetera. He’ll get those, and he earned them. The press was hungry two weeks ago to get Romney back in this thing, so there’d be a race to write about, so the stories would get eyeballs. Romney delivered, and the press wrote it. The same will happen now.

But this debate probably won’t change the dynamic as much as the first one did. Probably fewer people watched. But certainly liberals and Democrats got the boost they wanted. And that bogeyman—Obama can’t debate, he’s frozen, and my own contribution, does he even want this?—is off his back. It’s showtime.