“I'm not a potted plant.” Those were the famous words uttered by defense attorney Brendon Sullivan in representing Oliver North during the Iran Contra hearings. Jim Lehrer could not have made the same statement about his performance in moderating the first debate between the President and Mitt Romney. Before appearing, the longstanding PBS anchor was reported as seething about people questioning his having yet another shot — his twelfth — center change. He protested too much. In the end of course it’s not the potted plant moderator who has to perform but the candidates. The consensus is that Mitt Romney carried the day and that Obama did not, losing numerous opportunities to best the contender. I agree.
Barack Obama has never been a great debater. Let’s remember his initial performances during the 2008 Primary were miserable. At this point, he should be better at it. Nevertheless, however well Romney did, he failed to delver any way near a knockout punch, much less a truly memorable line. Neither did that. What Romney displayed last night was exhaustive preparation. It has often been said that he is weakest when forced to be spontaneous, when he’s out of control. He clearly was intent on that not happening, and successfully so. Listening carefully, he had a series of, if not memorized, then carefully practiced statements in what at times came off as a word dump, a tactical filibuster aimed at usurping as much time as possible. Of small note in the slogan department, he seemed to be testing a new term “trickle-down government” in an attempt to counter the long used trickle-down economics. Expect to hear that again. Another clue to Romney’s determination to get certain lines across was his out of context non sequitur, “What's happening in the Middle East, there are developments around the world that are of real concern.” That came out of the blue in a discussion of the economy.
Aside from being disappointed in Obama’s performance, what I missed most last night was any real connection with us, the audience. There were lots of numbers and program details — or rather and avalanche of words pretending to be details — but no attempt to bring any of them home. In part that can be attributed to the protected bubble in which Romney lives, one disconnected from almost all of us. But it also reflects long running critiques of the President who may understand it well and with immediacy but has a hard time conveying, in Clinton's words, “feeling our pain”. It would not be inaccurate to suggest that being super smart is a deficit for Obama, one the equally brainy former president is able to overcome.
Will Romney get a bump out of this debate? Probably so, but it’s not the last word. The difference in these to candidates approach to government is stark and, while the substance of the discussion last night will be overshadowed by the “horse race”, it ran throughout. Obama may have missed some opportunities, but he clearly stated the difference between the two contrasting philosophies and the results of one over the other. In countering Romney’s economic approach he said,
…common sense, and our history shows us that's not a recipe for job growth. Look, we've tried this. We've tried both approaches. The approach that Governor Romney's talking about is the same sales pitch that was made in 2001 and 2003, and we ended up with the slowest job growth in 50 years, we ended up moving from surplus to deficits, and it all culminated in the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Bill Clinton tried the approach that I'm talking about. We created 23 million new jobs. We went from deficit to surplus. And businesses did very well indeed.
Unfortunately that statement has been lost in the “who won” headlines, but I’d guess it will be reprised the next time around. Biden and Ryan debate next week, but the main show resumes with a Town Hall on the 16th. Voters will be involved in that one.
We heard nothing of the 47%, the 99% or the 1% last night. Those numbers to which people can relate were sorely missed. Shipping foreign jobs overseas came into play, a little, but what about the fact that Romney would be the first president in history to keep a large portion of his wealth in tax-sheltered off-shore bank accounts and investments. Doing so is absolutely legal under our lopsided tax code. The question is whether it’s a strategy worthy of or appropriate for our chief of state? I think not.
Lose statements were made about parents moving their children out of underperforming schools and about preferences for private insurance coverage. As, Romney put it,
…my own view is I'd rather have a private plan. I'd just assume not have the government telling me what kind of health care I get. I'd rather be able to have an insurance company. If I don't like them, I can get rid of them and find a different insurance company.”
How many Americans are in a position to changing their children’s schools or getting rid of their insurance company, much less affording the premiums? It reminds of the former governor’s suggestion that kids look to their parents for college tuition. Ah to have a dad like George or Mitt, which of course most of us don’t.
The stakes in this campaign remain high. The burden of carrying the message is ultimately on the candidates. Let’s hope Obama does a better job of it in the remaining encounters. Surely he now knows what he’s up against and before we all dispair let’s remember he’s a pretty good student.
I call them Transcenders. To brand them nonbelievers is to assume religion and its particular belief system the human default. Worse it suggests that those who have left religion behind lack beliefs. Nothing could be further from the truth. For more read my book.