A Triumph of Form Over Substance

Politico kicks off this morning’s post-debate recap:

As with any performance, a debate score is in the eye of the beholder. At least on stylistic grounds, however, a clear consensus of early reviews – most notably from liberal commentators dismayed by Barack Obama’s lackluster outing – judged Romney as having the superior evening, with a spirited personal demeanor, crisply delivered lines, and a bullet-pointed policy message that kept its focus on jobs while parrying many of the president’s attacks…

Romney was helped by a surprisingly drowsy and dull-edged performance by Obama. The president made no major blunders, and he was consistent in his argument that Romney’s fiscal proposals are unrealistic and irresponsible, forcing a choice between huge deficits or big tax increases on the middle class. But he seemed sedate in demeanor, his words full of pauses and even at times nervous stammers, and he sometimes gave off an air of weariness or impatience toward the proceeding.

Obama can take some comfort in history. George W. Bush was widely judged to have clearly lost the first debate against John Kerry in 2004, a fact that didn’t change the arc of the race. And, as Obama allies noted Wednesday, most voters – unlike many reporters and commentators – do not judge debates principally as theater criticism but more on which policy arguments make sense to them. [Pols emphasis]

The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza on Barack Obama’s lackluster performance:

The incumbent just seemed something short of engaged in tonight’s proceedings.  Like his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, Obama’s debate performance seemed purposely restrained – striving for a workmanlike competence but achieving something well short of that.  Obama’s facial expressions seemed to alternate between grimly looking down at his podium and smirking when Romney said something with which he disagreed.

Our live-blogger’s first impressions notwithstanding, it’s the consensus view among most pundits–and polling conducted immediately after–that GOP challenger Mitt Romney won last night’s debate. Whether or not you think Romney or Obama won last night is a function of partisanship, but also nonpartisan judgments on style and persuasiveness–then and only then, based on the commentary we’re seeing today, are we to judge them based on the facts.

The facts are where this becomes a much less auspicious outing for Romney, but that takes time to sink in with the voting public. The fact-checking that has already begun doesn’t look favorably on Romney’s (latest) views as expressed in last night’s debate, and as we’ve said, if the final impression is of a slick boardroom operator who lies, it’s not going to help Romney in the end.

But without question, Romney looked polished and sounded confident as he resurrected “death panels,” denied the higher taxes his fiscal plans would impose on the middle class, and made claims about “cutting Medicare by $716 billion” that have been debunked over and over again. And this is the key point: the pundits declaring this debate a win for Mitt Romney know all of this. To many pundit class observers, presentation simply matters more than the underlying facts.

As for Obama, most news reports acknowledge that he made “no major mistakes,” and delivered his points with a more digestible cadence–a marked contrast to Romney, who seemed determined to fit as many words into his allotted time as he could. Fact-checkers have noted a few misstatements from Obama, but nothing on the scale of Romney invoking death panels.

But compared to Romney’s fierce energy, Obama looked tired and unprepared. He almost seemed presumptuous that everyone would understand the complexities of being President and fill in the blanks in his halting delivery with the appropriate gravitas, but that didn’t happen.

And while Obama made some good (if often bookish) points, some of the most devastating arguments available against Romney, in particular the recently-exposed video of Romney writing off 47% of Americans as people who “believe they are victims,” were entirely absent from last night’s debate. To the extent that this debate matters in the long arc of the campaign, that decision may well be remembered as a major strategic error.

Bottom line: within Obama’s scholarly hesitation and presumption, as well as Romney’s factless vigor and slick delivery rewarded yet again, hard truths of our politics today are revealed.

42 Community Comments, Facebook Comments

  1. raymond1 says:

    Fact-checking will be all over the left-leaning media but will undecideds and persuadables who DON’T have a Rachel Maddow twitter feed ever see it?

  2. Sir RobinSir Robin says:

    First, that CNN snap poll showing Mitt Romney winning with 67% of undecided viewiers – The poll sample was

    100% white

    100% from the South

    100% over the age of 50

    Mostly male

    Seriously. All older white Southerners, mostly men. And Romney’s favorability rating among the respondents prior to the debate was twelve points higher than the national average.

    h/t http://www.dailykos.com/story/

    Second, the final debate will have more influence than the first debate.

    Third, It’s not who wins the debate, it’s who wins the election.

    Fourth, I diagree with virutally everyone that Romney won. To my eyes, he came off as decidedly unpresidential, and more like a weasly opportunist liar. You see, I have a memory, and have watched this guy over a significant period of time. I don’t care WHAT HE SAID LAST NIGHT. He’s a proven liar.

    No one I’ve found yet, in a cursory look at the analysis of the debates, have gotten into the “substance” of his plan. My take, it’s the same old bullshit that took this country to the brink of disaster under Bush.

    • Fidel's dirt nap says:

      but I do have to say Romney won.  I’ll concede the fact that the man has an incredible skill of making nothing, or making something completely batshit crazy, sound like something reasonable.

      Lets hope sanity prevails.  

      • BlueCat says:

        Let’s not be mindless zombie trolls.  Incredibly, round one goes to Romney. Fact checking  will undo some of the damage but he was confident and aggressive and Obama failed to challenge on the simplest things or use the format to bring up his own positives.  Lehrer was  useless. It was sickening.

        On the plus side, winning debates hasn’t always, or even usually, translated into beating incumbents and there are more debates to come. Few actually watch debates or even get more than the major win/lose news from the after coverage unless there is major gaffe that gets played over and over, like Ford’s no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe statement.  At Least Obama didn’t produce one of those.  

        But let’s not be little mirror image Araps. This was not a good night for Obama. My side lost. Period.

        Absolutely appropriate for team Obama spokespersons to spin the best they can but the rest of us should face the inconvenient  truth. Sucked for our side. On to the next rounds.

        • Fidel's dirt nap says:

          I believe we can both recognize reality when we see it BC.

          All being said, I guess it was easy for Romney to be the candyman.  Tax cuts, no cuts in defense spending, 716 billion in nonexistent cuts back to Medicare, and I’ll balance the budget too !  Obama started down the road about none of that shit adding up, but he needs to press it further, because its plain crazy.

          And Danny is right.  A “crisper” Obama would be better.  Take a little time off to decompress before the second debate.  Get some rest, loosen up, get inspired.  Bring back the old Barry.

          I can’t blame him though. I’d be sick and tired of battling crazy 24 hours a day myself.

          • Serenitynow says:

            failed to hold Romney’s feet to the fire more.  Why not explicitly ask how the math on the $5 trillion tax cut works so that it’s revenue neutral?

            Why not distuingish the ACA’s projected arc of covering uninsured versus Romney’s plan for uninsured with pre-existing conditions (the E.R. will treat them)?

            Why not agree with Romney’s statement that pushing more debt to future generations is immoral and wonder why he wants to do so for further tax cuts for the wealthiest?

            There were countless other moments where I just wanted to shout at the t.v.  But I guess it’s easy to do it from your couch.  

            Anyway, after the debate I thought that Romney, just in his crispness and his untruths and position changes going unchallenged, was the winner of the night.  But I don’t think that it was quite the landslide it’s now being made out to be.  I made the mistake of then turning on MSNBC for their post-debate coverage and the liberal commentators were melting down over it.  I don’t think it’s going to move the needle all that much.  Polls will tighten over the next month and Obama remains the favorite to win.

          • BlueCat says:

            first the new diary above on Colorado undecideds. And there’s this:

            While one can doubt the wisdom of this particular crowd, InTrade bettors gave Obama a 74 percent chance of winning reelection at 7 a.m. Wednesday. On Thursday morning, the president had a 67 percent chance of winning.

            So even with the drop , InTrade still thinks Obama looks like a winner. Not scientific but better than a stick in the eye.

            Read more: http://www.politico.com/news/s

            Feeling a little less nauseous? Now let’s hope Obama learned, is shaking off the rust and will roar back next time. Also let’s hope for a week of big time Romney fact checking all over cable and MSM.

            I also think Romney looked really mean and rude with Lehrer (can’t remember spelling for sure).  They should have used Gwen. It would have been more problematic for him  to be such a dick to an African-American woman, besides the fact that Lehrer was so pathetic, I’m sure she would have done a better job of maintaining some semblance of control.  

          • CaninesCanines says:

            even though, Obama stated, the military hasn’t even asked for it.

            Sounds like Romney’s gearing up for more ground wars.

    • AristotleAristotle says:

      but Obama gave no pushback. He blew the opportunities he had. Everyone knows that $716B figure has been floating around and already been debunked. So why did Obama let Romney repeat it without challenge?

      Sorry, Robin, but this was a clear victory for Romney. But the good news is that it’s a victory on points, not TKO. There are two more debates, and hopefully Obama will shake off whatever mental cobwebs held him back last night.

      • sxp151 says:

        Here we have people who make shit up constantly and impudently. How do we respond to them?

        Do we explain how they’re wrong? Do we chase down statistics to dispute their points? Do we seriously damage their credibility? Maybe, with 15 people responding to every one of their posts, we make a tiny dent, but it doesn’t have the slightest impact on whether our liars post the same stuff again two minutes later.

        So you get Libertad up on stage and he recites something he read in an email 10 times. What are you going to do about it? Because what people do right now in response to him looks pretty pathetically ineffective. You want our easily-trolled commenters up on stage against him? I don’t.

        What the Obama-bashers fail to understand is that you can’t win a fair debate against someone who is literally willing to say anything. This is why George W. Bush and Dick Cheney won all their debates and why Romney and Ryan will win all of theirs. It’s the same reason any athlete would lose a game of Calvinball to Calvin. One side is trying to play by rules, the other just doesn’t give a shit.

        Who’s going to make Romney tell the truth? Who’s going to make Romney defend the position he held this morning? Who’s going to say “One side seems to be lying more than the other”?

        Not even us, apparently.  

        • AristotleAristotle says:

          “What the Obama-bashers fail to understand is that you can’t win a fair debate against someone who is literally willing to say anything.”

          Romney repeated the $716B Medicare slash several times during the debate. One of the PBS analysts pointed out that that had been refuted by several fact-checking media. It’s old news. Obama didn’t challenge it once. The effect upon anyone not decided OR informed will be that that must be accurate.

          Are you saying that letting it stand is the correct way to handle it? Or would Obama have been better served to at least say, even once, that that’s not the truth at all? That Obamacare doesn’t do that? I think he ought to have disputed it.

          One side IS lying more than the other, but it’s up to the leader of our side to say it when he’s on the big stage. He’s the one with an audience of millions, not us.

          • sxp151 says:

            Romney said X. Obama said Not X. Romney said Y. Obama said Y was false. In conclusion, all politicians lie, both sides are equally bad, what are ya gonna do?

            You know this is how the news stories would have played out, because that’s exactly how they’ve played out for the past three years.

            Already Obama has come out with an ad about the $5 trillion tax cut, and presumably more are coming. But on stage he came across as the adult with a real job for whom this isn’t all just a game. Who said “um” a bit too often.

            Debates get high ratings for the same reason football games do. Nobody watches a football game because they want to decide who is the better team in order to start supporting them. They watch because they want their own side to do well. The notion that tons of undecideds are making up their minds based on a debate they probably didn’t bother to watch seems optimistic at best.

            You’ve been around the block as much as I have. You know that no matter what Obama says and no matter what Romney says, the fact checkers will agree that both sides lie equally often. Look at the fact checks on the $716 billion; did you see any that actually explained what was wrong with it? I didn’t.

            I can really easily envision an alternate reality where Obama disputed every one of Romney’s lies as he was saying them. In this universe, every media outlet complains about how whiny Obama seemed and trashes him for tearing down what Romney said without talking about his own record.

  3. Gadfly says:

    Michael Moore the liberal icon said: “This is what happens when you hire John Kerry as your debate coach.”

    The President look tired and got his ass kicked.  No other way to spin it.  The polls will likely tighten.

    Any word on the crowd at the Sloan Lake’s rally?

  4. caroman says:

    said Mark Twain.  But, Mark Twain still died.

    That was the best line I heard this morning from Jon Meacham on Morning Joe.  Romney didn’t die last night, but he still won’t win the election.


    1) I wonder what Republicans think today when they heard that Romney will not cut taxes.  Instead, he says that the cut in rates will be offset by equal cuts to deductions.  As President Obama said (a little too understated), Romney’s big plan is now “never mind”.  What possible benefit is there to cut deductions for home mortgage interest and charitable contributions just to achieve a reduction in tax rates??  (As a CPA, though, I welcome the chance to buy a new car because of the extra fees I’ll get to charge.  Thanks, Mitt!)

    2) The biggest damage from last night is that current seniors were left believing their Medicare benefits will be diminished due to Obama’s Medicare cut of $716 billion resulting in fewer Medicare providers.  Obama left that unchallenged.

    3) Obama’s strategy seemed to be, “we’re winning, we have a strong ground game, do no harm by entering into a risky engagement with Romney.”  Reading the opinions of the Denver Post’s panel of undecided voters suggests that none of them were swayed by the debate.  (There was one person who was clearly a Romney supporter going in.)

    So, Romney lives to see another day but Obama did no harm and the race remains unchanged — Obama is still headed to victory.  The only downside is that the down ticket races didn’t get a boost from a Romney disaster to the great relief of the GOP.

    • Danny the Red (hair)Danny the Red (hair) says:

      Avoid fumbles.

      Give up the easy plays don’t let them get the big play.

      Sit on your lead.

      Problem is a prevent defense usually prevents you from winning.

      I want to see a crisper Obama in the 2nd, but I generally concur with your assessment.

    • Gilpin Guy says:

      is that Obama has a lot on his plate with his first job and simply doesn’t have time to spend every waking moment in debate prep.

      Pols totally misses the possibility that incumbents have other work to do which may make them seem distracted when they are on stage.  Who knows if off-stage, he is involved in another covert operation requiring sending men into combat.  His supporters should understand that he is doing two incredibly difficult jobs at the same time (running for re-election and being president) and they should have his back on this one.  Pols is way off base to say that Obama was being presumptuous.

  5. allyncooper says:

    Romney definitely won on style, but as Walter Mondale asked Gary Hart in the 1984 presidential primaries, “Where’s the beef?” (A great one liner from the Wendy’s commercial and it proved very effective)

    Romney has a “secrete” plan to balance the budget and a “secrete” plan to save social security and medicare. Reminds me of Nixon’s “secrete” plan to end the war in Vietnam.

    Historically Obama is in the same place FDR was in 1936. Both men inherited a disastrous economy and a weak recovery going into their re-election campaigns, but FDR made no apologies and took no prisoners with his “I welcome their hatred!” speech at Madison Square Garden.

    And FDR won in 1936 with 61% of the vote.  

    • Libertad says:

      As Mr. Romney said last night the President should have led … thats the job of the President … to led the nation.

      Its truely sad, Obama could have been a great leader … airports would have been renamed for him like Obama Midway …

      If he’d only understood that when people work tax revenues rise he’s have licked it.

      • BlueCat says:

        are a volunteer, unpaid, zombie troll and would say Romney won and Obama lost no matter what, who cares about your opinion? I mean seriously. Every Obama supporter on this blog has a thousand times more cred than you. I’m proud of my fellow Obama supporters today.

      • cunninjo says:

        Do you agree with Romney that taxes on the wealthy should stay where they are and not be cut?

        Do you agree with his support of the health insurance mandate?

        Do you agree that we should increase funding to the military despite our military leaders saying they don’t need it?

        Do you agree that we should eliminate tax subsidies for oil companies?

        Do you agree that we should not try and eliminate wasteful spending in Medicare?

        I’m just wondering what your response is to the sudden shift towards early 1990s-style Republicanism that Romney displayed last night. Isn’t this precisely what all you conservatives feared most about Romney during the primaries?  

        • Libertad says:

          1. That’s not Romney’s position. He wants to lower the tax rate for all American persons … taxpayers that is.

          2. Don’t know the Masscare system nor how badly Devil Patrick has screwed it up. Concur with Romney that Obamacare should be repealed. Each state can decide what it wants/needs in terms of healthcare, medicare, education, etc…

          3. I don’t know the current or projected future requests from the Military. I support a planned real reduction in military spending in tandem with a revamped military stance.

          4. Are you referencing depletion allowance tax matters, including depreciation? Of note I do believe investment capital should be returned tax free to the investor and capital gains should be taxed at a slightly lower rate than is current.

          5. See the Ryan plan. ps your question is fucked up.

          Romney will govern center-right. Many conservatives believe he is not right enough.

          Q’s for you:

          Last October our President voiced support for Occupy Wall Street at a press conference focused on getting Congress to pass his “jobs bill”. VP Joe “buried middle class back in chains” Biden also expressed support. Do you support these people?  

          • cunninjo says:

            1. Romney said very clearly last night, “I will not reduce the taxes paid by high-income Americans.” So if Romney is reducing all tax rates and making up for the cost of it by eliminating tax breaks for the wealthy, explain how that results in a tax cut for high income earners?

            In fact, if the elimination of tax breaks that benefit the wealthy is supposed to pay for across the board tax cuts, doesn’t that mean high income earners will have a heavier tax burden since they will be making up for the reduction in revenue from middle class tax cuts? So much for putting money into the pockets of “job creators”. How is the end result any different than President Obama’s tax plan?

            2. If Romney no longer supports a health mandate, like he did as Governor, how exactly will he fulfill his promise last night to protect all Americans from discrimination based on pre-existing conditions? Ask the insurance companies nicely?

            3. Last night Romney said he will increase military spending by $2 trillion whether they need it or not. How is that a responsible fiscal policy?

            As to the Occupy movement, I’m not sure what that has to do with the debate last night. As far as I know Obama has never contradicted his support for the Occupy folks.

            I do believe that the ever-growing income divide in this country is detrimental to our long term economic prosperity. When the financial industry is hoarding all the wealth and redistributing it to investments in other countries rather than companies and entrepreneurs in the US, it keep incomes down which is bad for our economy. If that’s what the Occupy folks believe, then I agree with them.

            • Libertad says:

              May 8, 2012

              From Breitbart

              The five men who allegedly attempted to blow up the Route 82 bridge near Cleveland, Ohio were in court today for an arraignment. All five pleaded not guilty to the charges against them. They were supported by their families but also by approximately 50 members of Occupy Cleveland.

              When the arrest of the five men was announced last Tuesday, spokespeople for Occupy Cleveland attempted to distance themselves from them and their tactics:

              “While the group arrested Monday evening by the FBI [was] associated with Occupy Cleveland, they were in no way representing or acting on behalf of Occupy Cleveland or the event that was planned for later today,” the organization said in an email. “Occupy Cleveland has affirmed principles of nonviolence since its inception on Oct. 6, 2011.”

              Now it appears Occupy Cleveland has decided to offer support to the individuals who violated their principles.

              Even at this point BHO refused to denounce OWS and its support for member terrorists.

              I won’t be shocked if a 527 operating in Ohio goes public with Obama’s failure to protect America from terrorism, aiding and abetting the terrorists, etc…

              Obama appears to have supported terrorism through action and inaction as the President.

              Don’t we deserve a more loyal citizen to lead this nation?

      • Half Glass FullHalf Glass Full says:

        Oh please, Libertad, give me a freaking BREAK!

        That’s like Romney saying in his convention speech that everyone wanted Obama to succeed – when of course the ruthless, nation-damaging GOP strategy from day One was to deny Obama even the slightest victory.

        Romney got away with a bunch of howlers due to a flaccid performance by Obama. You will not get away with that here.

  6. CaninesCanines says:

    Maybe Obama was making notes, true. But it looked like he was, well, downcast.  

  7. only 178 more days until the Rockies begin their 2013 regular season.  

  8. Tom says:

    Every article that I’ve seen today, and most of the post-debate commentary last night made a fairly big deal about the lack of attacks from Obama. Then they go on to outline all of the things he could have said, especially about Romney’s 47% comments.

    Romney was certainly prepared to try and minimize the damage from any of the potential attacks. I would guess that the Romney campaign was hoping that a few good lines from the debate would defuse the power of the ongoing attack ads airing in swing states. Obama didn’t give that to him, and instead worked to draw Romney out into providing some details about his policies. On the other hand, Obama’s biggest asset is that the electorate likes him and being combative could threaten that.

    I don’t know that Obama’s strategy worked particularly well, but I can see the logic behind his debate performance. He still seems like the cool-headed nice guy. Romney provided a decent amount of ammunition for criticism. All of the most potent attacks against Romney are still airing on commercials and finding their way into Democratic stump speeches. The style was lacking, but I think the Obama campaign’s objective was achieved.  

  9. ArapaGOPArapaGOP says:

    This was a triumph of substance over Obama’s platitudes and lies.

    Romney has changed this race in one fell swoop. It’s masterful, and the beginning of the end for Democrats in 2012. No coattails for you! You can still lose it all.

    • AristotleAristotle says:

      Lies like “$716B?” Wait, Romney told that whopper.

      I’m going to save this one. “Romney has changed this race in one fell swoop.” You’ll be eating these words when the polls come out next week.

      • harrydobyharrydoby says:

        1. I won’t cut taxes if it raises the deficit.

        2. The tax cuts will be evenly offset by eliminating deductions on the wealthy (and PBS — that’s several trillion right there!).

        3. I’ll cut non-defense discretionary spending to pay for $2 trillion in additional military spending.

        4.  I’ll push off responsibility for healthcare and Medicaid to the states, they have so much loose change jangling in their pockets to pay for it.

        Basically, if you could believe a word he said, after point #1, you could just stop there, since by definition, that’s all that can happen if you don’t increase revenue elsewhere.

        Oh wait, I forgot, Mitt was quoted as saying that just by his showing up, the economy will create 12 million new jobs without him doing anything (vacation time in the Caymans’ perhaps?)

  10. Half Glass FullHalf Glass Full says:

    ColoradoPols from yesterday:

    FINAL BUZZER: Obama definitely “won” the debate … Romney didn’t fail, but he didn’t impress.

    Um: care to reconsider?

    Obama did not “definitely” win the debate, and Romney impressed with his glitz and style, if one forgets his incessant lies.

    • ClubTwitty says:

      Obama did fine explaining his accomplishments but he failed to challenge Rmoney’s lies.

      I think Obama ‘lost’ the debate, but I think he will win the post-game.  

      I also think he’s not going to miss the opportunity in #2 and #3 to land some punches.

      But this one would have been a good one to do that–domestic policy.

  11. Gray in Mountains says:

    President Obama plays b’ball and golf. I know nothing about golf. But, it is common in b’ball to save your good moves until later unless you are going to bury the other team.

    I also think Obama may have been concerned about appearing “uppity” with 2 more debates to go. But, I think he’ll unload and dismantle Rmoney in one or both of the remaining debates.

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