Debate: What Romney Did, What Obama Didn't, What Ryan Should--And How Romney Can Win

Mitt Romney could win this thing, no thanks to his campaign. And Obama could lose this thing, because he doesn’t seem to be connected to his campaign. 

Over the last few months, the Obama re-election machine has spent hundreds of millions of dollars trashing Romney; the Chicagoans raised $181 million in September alone, most of that money destined, seemingly, toward still more negative ads. Indeed, virtually the whole of the Obama campaign message has been anti-Romney--outsourcing, tax avoidance, 47 percent, and so on. 

And yet as we all know, when Obama was onstage with Romney for the first time in Denver, the President flinched from delivering those same attack lines. It was the most remarkable failure of nerve on a stage since June of last year, when, in a Republican presidential debate, Tim Pawlenty failed to follow through on his earlier “Obamneycare” attack on Romney; within two months, T-Paw was out of the race.   

Psychological theories abound as to why Obama failed to attack Romney last week, but left-wing comedian Bill Maher--who donated $1 million to the Obama campaign--might have said it best in a tweet: “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Obama looks like he DOES need a teleprompter.” Summing up the liberal-left disappointment with Obama in a single sight gag, the New Yorker magazine, on its latest cover, showed the President as invisible--just an empty chair onstage with Romney, a belated vindication of Clint Eastwood’s August 30 “speech” at the Tampa convention.  

But the problem for Obama is that his onstage failure of nerve was more than a missed opportunity to slug Romney in front of 67 million TV viewers. The real problem is that Obama effectively undercut the validity of his whole campaign. That is, if the President himself doesn’t think that all those negative attacks on Romney are worth mentioning in person, why should voters pay attention to them as they appear in commercials? If the White House in Washington isn’t heeding the message of Axelrod & Co. in Chicago, why should the rest of us? In other words, what exactly is the Chicago gang doing with that anticipated billion dollars in campaign funds? Are they a rogue operation of political hit men? Does Obama keep tabs on his own campaigners?   

Once again: If the Obama campaign attacks on Romney are true, why didn’t Obama himself repeat them in Denver, man to man? And if attacks are not true, then why should the American people heed them?  

Meanwhile, the result for Romney has been seismic. It’s not that Romney was superman; he was good, but not great--more on that later. Instead, the earthquake from Denver was Obama’s own fecklessness, thereby shaking the foundations of his own political support.   

In that Denver debate, the voters saw a man, Romney, who was flexible and non-dogmatic--not at all the rigid ideologue that his own campaign has painted him to be. While the Romney campaign still acts mostly as if it is running in a Republican primary, the real Mitt Romney made it clear last week that he is a highly intelligent man who is ready to strike deals with Democrats, just as he did as governor of Massachusetts. As he said in the debate, as governor of a state with an 87-percent Democratic legislature, “I figured out from Day One I had to get along, and I had to work across the aisle to get anything done.” Ankle-biting reporters will inevitably quibble over the details of Romney’s time in the Boston State House, but the message to voters is still clear: Romney is not a take-it-or-leave-it-type ideologue.  

So it was no wonder, then, that an instant CBS poll showed that 56 percent of Americans had a more favorable opinion of Romney after the debate. And as to the question of whether or not Romney cares about the “average American,” the Republican challenger went from 30 percent “yes” to 63 percent “yes.” In other words, a key metric of warmth toward Romney more than doubled after that one 90-minute encounter. It’s that increase in favorables--one of the so-called “internals” of a poll--that bodes so well for Romney; the more people like him, the more he is likely to scoop up votes from the majority of Americans who think the country is going on the wrong track.   

Indeed, in my 40-plus years in polling, I have never seen such a huge shift as that 30 to 63 percent jump,    Oh, except for one other instance: the 1980 debate between my old boss, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan, when Reagan’s affable performance put the nation at ease. And so in that long-ago year, a neck-and-neck race on October 28 became a 10-point blowout for the Republican challenger on November 4. Yes, I think that last week’s debate could be that big of a hinge swing. That is, similarly decisive, although in this more polarized political climate, it’s hard to imagine Romney ever achieving a Reagan-like landslide.  

Moreover, there’s another key difference between 1980 and 2012. That Carter-Reagan debate came late in the campaign; there was just a week to go. Thus, 32 years ago, there was not enough time--and certainly no second debate--for Carter to recover.   

Yet today, there’s not only a second presidential debate still ahead, but also a third. And on October 11 comes the vice presidential debate, plus whatever else can happen in the course of a campaign. In other words, while Obama has done himself deep damage--Romney is now ahead in some national polls--there’s still time for this Democratic incumbent to recover.    

Indeed, since Denver, Obama is back on the campaign trail, and back on the attack; he is trying to reignite those negative Romney themes that are the underpinning of his campaign’s re-election strategy. After all, in Chicago, they fully realize that Obama can’t hope to win a second term based on his own record in office.  Indeed, proving yet again the maxim that a good offense is better than a good defense, the Obama campaign is cranking out ads attacking Romney on the debates. The Obamans know that they have no good case to make, so they are making a bad case--but they are doing it forcefully. To be sure, the Obamans may have to run their footage from the debates with the sound off, because the President was so weak in his words, but the Chicagoans are back to their familiar baseball-bat tactics.  

So what the Romney campaign needs now--has, in fact, needed in the days since that Denver debate--is a real strategy for pressing home its newfound advantage. It is surprising to me--no, make that amazing, unbelievable, incomprehensible--that the Romney campaign is not using footage of the debates in its campaign ads. Instead, the latest Romney spot shows a distinctly pre-debate mindset, hammering, of all people, Stephanie Cutter. Well, here’s a news flash for the Romney campaign--Ms. Cutter is not on the ballot in a month. Driving up her negatives will add to her notoriety and thus drive up her speaking fees in Democratic circles, but it will do nothing to help Romney.   

Indeed, it appears that the Romney campaign is still operating on its own dynamic, separate from the candidate.  

(In fact, Politico reports that the Romney campaign seems also to be operating in a very un-Bain, un-businesslike, un-Romney way: it spends as much on payroll as the Obama campaign, but has half as many employees; and its fundraising costs are four times greater as great as Obama’s, even though it has raised less money.)  

Returning to the more important matter of message, a smarter Romney campaign would have gone national--not just local and swing-state--with ads touting Romney’s performance, and also reminding people, however subtly, that Obama wimped out in Denver. That is, rather than simply paying the extortionate ad prices in the over-bought swing states, the Romney campaign should invest a little money to persuade the whole nation that he is a strong debater and thus a strong debater. As in 1980, there’s a national wave waiting to happen against the incumbent Democrat in the White House, and so a national campaign--at least for this moment--would serve to remind folks that Romney wants to be the leader of the whole country. And who knows--such campaign nationalization could break loose a blue state or two.   

So what, for example, could the Romney campaign be doing? Here’s what: They could be exploiting the meme that Obama is unable to function without a teleprompter; for years, it’s been a joke in some circles that POTUS (President Of The United States) is really TOTUS (Teleprompter Of The United States). That might have seemed like merely a right-wing conceit, but now, as we have seen, even leftist Bill Maher has reintroduced it into the national conversation.   

Specifically, the Romney campaign should send a camera-equipped “tracker” to Obama events--and videotape only the Obama teleprompter. Then some clever “Mad Men” types could concoct a video spot, something like this: the teleprompter-less Obama onstage in Denver, stumbling as he looks down at his notes, compared to the telepromptered Obama on the the stump, delivering a much different, and far more fluid, campaign line.  The message, in other words: Obama can’t function without that word-machine in front of him. And with such intellectual flabbiness on display for all to see, do we really expect the American people to believe that Obama merits a second term?   

In other words, Romney needs to get inside Obama’s head for the rest of this campaign. Just as a runner on base in a baseball game tries to goad the pitcher into a balk or even a wild pitch, so the Romneyites should be feeding the meme that Obama’s debate performance reveals a crippling weakness in the President, long suggested but never fully demonstrated. Indeed, Obama’s performance was ridiculed on “Saturday Night Live” ; even the hipsters have abandoned Obama. Obama has the thinnest skin of any president since Nixon, and so the Romney campaign should be drilling in.  

Yet since none of that is happening thanks to his campaign, Romney should be reminded, yet again, that he will have to win this on his own. 

So Romney himself could taunt Obama on the same point. Why?  Because it is obvious, now, that Obama is going to go to the attack, and so Romney should lay the trap.  And here’s how.  

The next presidential debate is at Hofstra University on New York’s Long Island on October 16.  

But here’s a key difference from Denver: the New York debate format there is a “town hall,” with real people asking the questions. So if Obama tries to turn a citizen’s question into a both-barrels assault on Romney, the President would definitely hurt his positive image, and could possibly even be booed. After all, unlike politicos and pundits, ordinary Americans don’t like a lot of campaign negativity. Thus any ferocious Obama attack would be a reminder to people that the President is no longer the “hope and change” candidate.  

Meanwhile, for his part, Romney, on stage with Obama for a second time, could parry the attack with a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone: “Mr. President, is this what has happened to ‘hope and change’? Is this what your campaign has been reduced to?” Such sorrowful questions will especially resonate with women and independents, who despise the nastiness they see on TV all day. Indeed, it could be a Joseph N. Welch moment for Romney. And thus Obama could lose the last of his “hope and change” halo.    

So maybe, mindful of these pitfalls, Obama won’t go on the attack, after all. And in that case, the Chicago narrative--Romney as the evilly uncaring plutocrat--would collapse completely.  

In the meantime, the Romney campaign also needs a strong strategy for Paul Ryan’s October 11 debate with Joe Biden in Kentucky. Most urgently, Ryan needs to stop “welcoming” the argument over Medicare and get off the subject completely. Yes, Ryan’s most ardent fans want him to vindicate Ayn Rand and talk more about cutting spending, including spending on entitlements, but such talk is a loser with swing voters. Ryan has the base locked up; now he and Romney need the middle. That is, the middle class, as well as middle-of-the-road voters.  

And to get that middle, Ryan needs a clear strategy: When Biden attacks the Romney-Ryan ticket on Medicare and other cuts, Ryan should not engage, he should parry, shifting the debate to foreign policy, going on the attack. That’s what vice presidential candidates are supposed to do--they are supposed to attack. 

Yes, the economy is the number-one issue, but the gaping hole right now in the Obama armor is Libya and the Middle East in general; during the Denver debate, the brief mentions of foreign policy stimulated much knob-turning among focus groups. People do, in fact, care about national security.  

So the Romney-Ryan campaign must be nimble enough to exploit that opportunity. The campaign must show that it can walk and chew gum at the same time--that is, focus on the economy and national security.  And then the Republicans must challenge the Obama-Biden administration’s capacity to do the same.   

As we all know now, the September 11, 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi was a well-coordinated attack by Al Qaeda-ish terrorists. And although the administration knew within hours that it was a terrorist attack, UN Ambassador Susan Rice was sent out, a full five days later, to declare on the Sunday talk-show circuit that “our current best assessment … is that, in fact … it was spontaneous.” 

Not to put too fine a point on it, Rice’s statements were a lie. Yet they did serve a purpose--to smudge up the issue of culpability, stretching out, over several weeks, the public realization that the Obama administration was grossly unprepared for its rendezvous with another 9-11. It’s understandable that the Obama administration would want to cover up the fact that it was unready for a terrorist attack on that day, of all days, but the cover-up is still contemptible.   

So here’s Ryan’s opportunity. Reviving the old Watergate trope, Ryan can ask Biden, “What did the President know, and when did he know it?” Biden is a member of the National Security Council; he has access to everything, and so Ryan should push him--politely but forcefully--to answer the question.   

Indeed, there are many questions that need answering--before the election, not after. Ryan should ask: How did the President and his administration plan for the 9-11 anniversary? Who was in the room? In fact, Ryan might ask, directly, “Who was in the room? Was the President even there?” That’s a fair question, since the President has a habit of skipping security briefings and meetings so that he can hang out with celebrities and keynote fundraisers. 

As an aside, I recall that back in 1979, when the Iranian hostage crisis erupted, my boss, President Jimmy Carter, refused to go campaigning. Carter was being challenged by not only the Republicans, but also by a fellow Democrat, Teddy Kennedy. In other words, Carter had plenty of reason to get on the campaign trail--pronto. But Carter wouldn’t do it; the fate of the hostages was too important, and so he wanted to stay close to the White House Situation Room to monitor the situation as closely as possible. Indeed, I can remember sitting in another part of the White House, the Treaty Room, along with Hamilton Jordan, Jody Powell, and Jerry Rafshoon, all of imploring the president to get out and campaign to save his presidency.  But to his eternal credit, Carter wouldn’t do it. As he said to us, “This is why I was elected--to deal with a crisis like this.”  He was right, and we were wrong. And to this day, I feel ashamed of my role at that moment--and grateful that Carter rejected our collective advice.   

Yet as we all know, Obama feels no such compunctions; the day after the attacks in Libya, he was perfectly happy to skip out on his intelligence briefing, leaving others to figure out what had happened, and what to do next. So whereas Carter was determined to be commander-in-chief, Obama is satisfied to be campaigner-in-chief.   

No doubt the exigencies of a debate will keep Ryan from asking too many such questions, but there’s nothing to stop him from turning to the audience and saying, “Look, they’re not going to give me time tonight to ask all these questions, let alone get answers, but if you go to our campaign website, you’ll see the full list of questions that need to be answered. And you, the American people, should demand those answers!”     

As we now see, the Real Romney--as opposed to the Faux Romney of campaign creation--is eminently electable. Continuing his sensible repositioning, Romney, on Thursday night, said that his “47 percent” comments were “just completely wrong.” That take-back may break the hearts of right-wing zealots, but it was just what the country wants to hear; nobody can be a good president unless he has 100 percent of the population in mind. And so while The New York Times might opportunistically seek to rile up the Republican base with talk of Romney’s moderation, it’s more likely that by now, Republicans just want to win, by any means necessary.  

Still, there’s a month to go. And it’s important to remember that Romney had a good debate, not a great debate; it was Obama’s terrible performance that made the Denver event so one-sided.    

So now Romney needs to keep his momentum going, lest the MSM “tacklers” knock him down again and give the game to Obama.

Yet instead, as we have seen, Romney and his campaign seem content just to bask in the glow of his debate performance; that’s understandable, but in the wake of Friday’s unemployment news--flukey and undeserved good news for Obama--Romney needs to turn on the afterburners. And here are five specifics: 

First, Romney needs to focus on Obamacare, but do it carefully. The giant healthcare bill is a net negative with the American people, and yet since it contains certain certain provisions that the voters like, Romney would be well-advised to calibrate carefully his attack, zeroing in on the least popular aspects of the bill, which are its tax provisions--the Obamatax, as I wrote about in two parts in July, here and here.

Second, Romney needs to incorporate new facts into his message. For example, a new Rasmussen poll finds that 49 percent of Americans consider the US to be weaker now than it was four years ago. The problems we face in foreign policy and national security are clear enough, but the same failure is evident, too, on the homefront. The jobless problem is far from fixed, as more and more Americans settle for part-time work; meanwhile, real incomes for Americans have declined.  

Third, Romney needs to talk about a positive philosophy of government. The American people are rightfully afraid of intrusive statism--Romney’s phrase, “trickle-down government” is a good one--but people are also afraid of applied libertarianism. But Romney, free to be his own man, can make the case that he is for smaller but more effective government. Indeed, he can point to fellow Republican governors--most obviously Scott Walker, but also others, including Bobby Jindal, John Kasich, and Rick Scott--who are turning their states around. Meanwhile, deep-blue states such as California and Illinois are in more trouble than ever.  And that’s a contrast the American people will understand, because it hits them where they live.  

Fourth, when Obama comes after him with a hammer, as he inevitably will, Romney needs to be ready to say, in that more-sorrow-than-in-anger tone, “It’s sad to see what is happening here: President Obama has not kept his promise--he has not changed the tone in Washington. Or maybe he has changed it. For the worst.”   In so saying, Romney could envelop Obama--that is, show how he, Romney, could offer a more better and more inclusive path, including a plan for bipartisan problem-solving.    

Fifth, Romney needs to talk about what Obama no longer can talk about--national unity. In a new movie that I helped to make, “The Hope and the Change,”  we discovered that the same hope for unity that helped Obama win in 2008 is still alive today in the hearts of Americans. Indeed, decade after decade, people want the same thing: a sense of harmony and cooperation, based on a common public good. And so if Obama can’t offer that anymore--and he can’t--then Romney should. As in, “You promised to unite the country, instead, you have disunited us. Well, I will change that. I will unite America in a spirit of can-do problem-solving.”  

So yes, Romney needs to take his hits on Obamacare, particularly the Obamatax. And he needs to remind Americans that their country, abroad and at home, has grown weaker under President Obama’s reign. But it’s those last three points--better governing philosophy, bipartisanship in Washington, and a commitment to a united America--that could form a positive thematic triad for Romney. Indeed, that positive thematic triad could give Romney more than a victory--it could give him a mandate.  

And for his part, President Obama is helping Romney’s comeback. Obama the aloof college professor, living in his ivory tower of isolated self-regard, has already undercut the brass-knuckled Romney-maulers of the Axelrod mob. And who knows--maybe Obama will undercut them yet again.  If so, 2012 really might turn out to be another 1980.   


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