It’s been two days; work and a nasty cold kept me from rolling out my thoughts on the debate. But I think it’s worth reviewing and discussing.
First, Obama got creamed. I think part of that is that he was caught off guard. Romney tacked sharply to the center, conceding policy ground on almost everything — regulation, Social Security, Medicare, Dodd-Frank. Obama was prepared to attack Primary Romney, the severe conservative. He was not prepared for the return of the moderate Massachusetts governor. And he was certainly not prepared for Romney to be so smooth and … well … presidential. Romney was on form, parrying all attacks, knowledgable about policy details and eschewing ideology. Obama simply was not ready for that, having convinced himself that Romney was an idiot that he would easily steamroll.
And he should have been prepared. Primaries are always played to the fringe; the election to the center. Obama, who shifted gears himself in 2008, should have known this. Romney won election in a heavily Democratic state; he knows how to play to the center. Romney was a consultant and an executive; he knows how to pitch.
Why wasn’t Obama prepared? There are a lot reasons for this but I think Megan McArdle’s breakdown is the best, particularly this point, which I also hashed out with Maggie McNeill on twitter:
The president lives in a bubble, and this president, in particular, has attracted a sort of worship that hasn’t followed any president since Kennedy, or maybe Reagan. (There’s a cult of Reagan now, but I don’t know whether that was true in 1984). You see it in things like the invitations to set up a wedding registry for donations to the Obama campaign, to send a Mother’s Day e-card celebrating the administration’s policy achievements, and of course, that infamous paragraph in the 2008 speech he gave after he locked up the Democratic nomination.
The fact that someone on his team wrote that line, and that no one else stopped him from delivering it, is remarkable. Even more remarkable is that four years later, many of his supporters do not grasp why so many people outside the Obama bubble–I’m tempted to say everyone who is not a die-hard supporter–find it hilariously narcissistic.
That is going to make it hard for the president to get good debate prep. With the time pressure he’s under, he needs to make every second of his debate prep count–which is to say, he needs an opponent who will absolutely pummel him. It seemed clear last night that they’ve been pitching him softballs, which is why he struck out on even completely obvious, predictible questions.
(I’ll speak to the Reagan thing: in Dinesh D’souza’s biography, he noted that Reagan was aware of the regard people had for him and, for that reason, rarely let his advisors know his opinion in advance of internal debates over policy. He feared that, once they knew where he stood, they would cant their arguments to support him.)
We’ve talked about the Cult of Personality before. You can see it the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments in the Left Wing commentariat over the debate performance (and their blaming of the useless Jim Lehrer). On MSNBC, it was like someone had died. Andrew Sullivan was practically in hysterics.
I think Obama has, on occasion, had a vague sense of this. But he hasn’t really made the kind of changes you need to make to keep the bubble from affecting your thinking. He seemed completely unprepared for Romney shifting his positions to the center. He was unable to mount even the most basic defense of his record. He seemed to think that just laying out his case would carry the day. He seemed to think that Romney would be as deferential and the audience as worshipful as … well, everyone around him.
(This Cult of Personality is, ironically, one of the reasons I would not be terribly distressed if Obama won, as long as the Republicans can get both houses. Having one of the most worshipped Presidents in recent history rendered impotent in his own White House would do a lot to crack the Cult of the Presidency and shift power back to Congress, where it belongs.)
Probably Obama’s only wise decision was to avoid attacking Romney on the 47% thing. While it enraged the liberal base, Obama clearly knew that Romney would be ready to parry it. Indeed, Romney today brought out the response line he never got to use. And it was not a bad one. I also suspect that Obama held back on attacking Romney because he knows the media will do it for him.
As for the substance of the debate, Reason has a lot of great analysis of the debate and why it was a nightmare for believers in limited government. Here for example, is a breakdown of the promises to reign in spending. Romney, in particular, was ludicrous, saying he was going to balance the budget while increasing defense and Medicare spending and not touching Social Security or Education. That’s … unpossible. Here is Nick Gillespie, pounding both candidates on education, immigration and Social Security.
In the end, I expect the debate will shift some voters to Romney but I doubt it will shift enough to decide the election. We’ve been enduring this for … well, for four years really. Most of the people who haven’t made up their minds can’t figure out how to operate a television anyway. But for the rest, I suspect Romney scooped them up. So there’s a thin hope that Obama will get tossed to the curb. And that’s better than things were a week ago.