Debate Thoughts

Normally I do not like presidential campaign debates very much.  I think they’re designed for talking points and very little substantive discussion of ideas.  Because of this structure we pay way more attention to the theater of the debate and the overall campaign than I think is healthy and we end up awarding a victor based on feeling, look, body language.  All of these things matter, but not nearly as much as the ideas the candidates who carry these characteristics bring to the table.

That said, I loved the debate on Wednesday.  Jim Lehrer (God rest is soul for all of the crap he is getting for letting these men discuss ideas) actually let President Obama and Governor Romney discuss, argue, debate for crying out loud.  There was a very healthy back and forth allowing each candidate to attack their opponent’s ideas and defend himself from the same.  It was fantastic.  What is unfortunate is that this “style” was terrible for President Obama.  It has always been clear the President prefers to discuss things in a prepared statement, with carefully considered wording and a teleprompter to boot, and Democratic consultants and operatives spent much of the week before the debate trying to lower expectations for the President.  And they were right:  the President looked awful.  Theories abound about why the President performed so poorly (Al Gore’s is still my favorite), and you can see some of them here.

My own theories is this:  President Obama is a speaker, and in his vaunted speeches creates straw men and ruthlessly attacks them.  Without someone to defend his opponents position, the President can get away saying anything he wants.  Enter Mitt Romney, whose command of facts and figures (e.g., $90 billion hires 2 million teachers comment) and the President’s inability to defend himself gave the Governor a considerable advantage.

Why this aggressive Romney?  I think there are two reasons.  First, Romney, by his nature, is a “wonk”, more interested in facts and figures than in high rhetoric.  By the nature of his preparation, he was going to come ready to debate.  Secondly, and maybe more importantly, Romney  and his campaign finally figured out he needed to rock President Obama to gain some momentum after his lukewarm convention performance.  Fuller thoughts on this topic can be found here courtesy of Michael Gerson.

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