Mitt Romney is now ahead in most national polls, confounding all the Beltway geniuses who had been eagerly trying to shovel dirt on his political grave for the past few months. And the state-by-state polls tell the same story: Romney is gaining on Obama in once-thought-to-be-safe blue states, including Michigan, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania. However, Obama’s favorability rating is hovering just above 50 percent ; so long as he stays above 47 percent, he is no sure bet to lose.
As I wrote last week, the 2012 election could be proving to be closer to a 1980-type election, in which voter hostility to the Democratic incumbent–a public alarmed not just by a weak economy but also by a mixed foreign policy–crystallizes late in the campaign into a resounding victory for the Republican challenger.
As in 1980, the crystallizing moment this year has been a presidential debate. One frequently heard explanation for Barack Obama’s listless performance on October 3 was his desire not to go negative on Romney, as a way of preserving his own “favorables.” If so, that strategy failed utterly, because Obama’s edge on favorability has nearly disappeared. How did that happen? It seems that the contrast between Obama’s looking bored and disinterested, on the one hand, and Romney’s looking like a reincarnation of his dynamic–and moderate–father, George Romney, on the other, has dramatically altered the voters’ perceptions of the two candidates, and thus the race itself.
Meanwhile, the Obama campaign has foolishly gone chasing after tiny issues, thereby losing its big-picture perspective on the dynamics of this election. Even liberal stalwarts such as Matt Lauer and Jon Stewart have questioned or mocked the Obamans’ attempt to turn Big Bird into a major campaign issue. This election is about the economy, stupid, and, to a lesser but growing extent, about national security. Big Bird will be fine no matter who wins.
As I wrote two weeks ago, the Romney campaign has had an opening on the Middle East for a long time, and wisely, in the wake of the Benghazi killings, the Romney campaign has finally begun to exploit that opening.
Romney’s post-debate momentum was so strong that it was not broken by the October 5 announcement of better unemployment numbers. Why? One need not indulge in speculations about “Chicago guys” cooking the government’s statistics books to conclude, nevertheless, that the economy is still in bad shape and that Obama has no plan for making it better.
However, Joe Biden’s oafish performance in his debate seems to have rallied panicked Democrats. After the president’s debacle, even a merely adequate vice-presidential performance came as a tonic.
Still, in that vice presidential debate, in which neither candidate said anything particularly remarkable, it’s inevitable that Biden’s wild gestures and exaggerated smiles–92 according to one count–would prove to be the most memorable part of the debate. Indeed, Buzzfeed published a compendium of Biden gestures, from the “chuckle-bucket” to the “nyuck nyuck” to the sleepy-looking “ambien.” We can ask Al Gore, incidentally–who sighed and snorted his way to media derision in 2000–how that sort of un-telegenic memorability works out on election day. So even though Biden won on substance, it is style that is generally remembered–this is TV, after all–and so the 47th vice president is destined for a sort of video-side-show immortality.
As Marshall McLuhan explained a half-century ago, television is a “cool” medium, rewarding those who are measured and conversational in their presentations. By contrast, TV punishes those who are bombastic or “hot.” And Biden, his white-on-white fangs flashing, was hot–way too hot.
For his part, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) was cool, in McLuhanesque terms, but he also played it safe; Ryan got what he needed, even if he missed key opportunities to really gain the upper hand. Ryan knew, of course, that his goal Thursday was not to debate Biden; instead, and properly, he seized the chance to present himself as qualified to be vice president. However, Ryan could have done more: He needed to prosecute the case against the Obama. And those arguments needed to be made to the American people, not to the Democrat across the table from him.
Unfortunately, Ryan lacked on Thursday night what the military calls “situational awareness.”
That is, the full understanding of the terrain–and how best to exploit it. And here are two examples:
First, on the 10th or 15th time that Biden giggled or snickered, Ryan should have turned to him and said, “What are you laughing at? These are serious matters. It is disrespectful to the American people for you to be grinning on this occasion.” What could Biden have done after that? Keep smiling and prove Ryan’s point? Or stop smiling and concede that Ryan had busted him?
Second, as soon as it became clear that debate-moderator Martha Raddatz was teaming up with Biden against him–and that’s exactly what she was doing, as she let Biden interrupt Ryan 82 times, even as she herself interrupted many more times than Biden–Ryan needed a way to explain what was happening to the American people. He needed to say something like, “Martha, if you won’t moderate this debate in a fair way, making the Vice President play by the rules that he agreed to, then you should move from the moderator’s chair and sit over there next to the Vice President, and I will debate both of you.”
Either zinger would have exploded that Danville debate. And so now we can see what separates the merely good politicians from the truly great ones. The great ones have a gift–the gift of situational awareness, the sixth sense for the exact right time to strike. As the Oscar-winning actor-director Warren Beatty once told me, “Politicians have no sense of drama and the dramatic moment.”
Of course, had Ryan unleashed either zinger, the elite establishment would have gone apoplectic. Yet the people that Romney and Ryan need–not just conservatives, but independents who rightly feel alienated from the elite–would have cheered. Finally, someone would be speaking plain populist truth to elite establishment power.
In fairness to Ryan, it’s almost impossible, during the debate itself, to come up with such a line and deliver it well. But that’s what debate prep is for, to game out all the scenarios, including the possibility–which is always more than a possibility–that the MSM debate-moderator will side with the Democrat. As I wrote on September 28, “In a football game, a team can’t win if the referees are helping the other team. And in the Romney vs. Obama Bowl, the refs aren’t just calling the plays in favor of Obama; they are out on the field trying to tackle Romney themselves.” And the same held true for Ryan vs. Biden.
To shift metaphorical gears and apply a term from the theater, we might say that Ryan needed to be ready to break through the “fourth wall”–that is, through the imaginary wall separating the actor on the proscenium stage from his audience. In other words, Ryan needed a plan for turning to the audience and saying, in effect, “Look, folks, we all can see what’s going on here: The liberal elite–the Democratic wing and the media wing–are ganging up on me here. I’m a big boy, and I can take it, but I want you, the audience, to see exactly what is happening. It’s two-on-one. However, because I have the strength of you and your beliefs, please watch now as I beat them both.” Bravado? Sure. But not false bravado; it would have been a St. Crispin’s Day moment for Ryan.
Meanwhile, Biden, blessed with more experience and perhaps better debate-coaching, knew how to pierce that fourth wall. Three times during the debate he turned to the audience and said some variation of “Folks, follow your instincts on this one.” It’s an effective debating tactic, and it’s not too late for Romney to use it in his next two debates with Obama.
Yet even so, the antic optics of Biden’s debate performance will endure in the public mind. The Republican National Committee put out a video highlighting Biden’s odd expressions, which gained more than 1.2 million views–and yet the spot didn’t hit Biden hard enough. The message would have been stronger if it had specifically nailed Biden for laughing during discussions of a bad economy, or of murdered diplomats, mixing in grim video footage with the veep’s cackling. And it would have been stronger still if it had emphasized a further point: Is this what we have to look forward to for the next four years? More of Biden’s blarney, bluster, and, yes, malarkey, as America fades and the world burns?
One final point on the debates as a whole: Every so often the Republicans do something to prove that they deserve the sobriquet, “The Stupid Party.” The GOP had no business agreeing to such debate moderators as Raddatz, who is a talented enough reporter, but who climbed the greasy pole of Washington DC journalism the way they all do–by expressing orthodox liberal prejudices at all the clutch moments. And so, of course, after the debate, she hugged Biden–but not Ryan.
So how and why did the Republicans on the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) agree to Raddatz? The same way, one assumes that they agreed to let CNN’s Candy Crowley be the moderator of the upcoming debate, and CBS’ Bob Schieffer in the debate after that. Republicans should have learned by now that in DC terms, “bipartisan” is the fig leaf that Beltwayites drape over liberal business-as-usual.
And so in that same spirt of Republicans letting themselves be rooked, the Commission agreed to let the Gallup Organization identify 80 “undecided” voters in New York to form the pool for the questions at the next “town hall”-style debate. I have great respect for Gallup, but here’s a news-flash: New York State, which Obama carried by 27 points four years ago, is not the best place to look for undecideds. And so there’s more than a little chance that the “undecidedness” of some of those New York voters is merely a verbal veil. The best place to look would be in an undecided state, such as Ohio. Or the search for “undecideds” could be taken national–that’s a better idea.
Still, beyond Big Bird, the Romney campaign has gotten some lucky breaks–courtesy of an increasingly flailing Obama campaign. Who knew, for example, that the Obamans would be so thuggish on the “L” word?
Actually, there are two “L” words that matter in this election.
The first “L” word is “lying,” and accusations thereof. As Dan Henninger observed in The Wall Street Journal, the Obama campaign now routinely accuses Romney of “lying.” And such hot terminology, Henninger added, is more appropriate for Daily Kos than a presidential re-election effort:
The election campaign of the 44th U.S. president is now calling another candidate for the American presidency a “liar.” This is a new low. It is amazing and depressing to hear this term being used as a formal strategy by people at the highest level of American politics.
Henninger has it exactly right, although one should not be surprised at the venom spewing from such Chicago figures as the aptly-named mean-girl, Stephanie Cutter.
Yet the problem for Obama is worse than simply coming across as reckless and mean-spirited. In the wake of that listless first debate–in which Obama failed to attack Romney for much of anything–Obama is on the horns of a dilemma in the next debate. Here are the horns:
Horn #1: If Obama goes too negative, he risks looking not only mean, but also desperate–especially in view of the “town hall” format, in which the questions are supposedly coming from citizens–and such negativity would hurt what remains of his positive favorability rating.
Horn #2: If Obama fails to go negative, he repeats the central strategic mistake of his previous debate performance, which is that he failed to back up personally all of those negative attacks that his campaign had been launching on Romney. That is, if Obama says one thing while his campaign is saying another, why should the voters believe the campaign? If Obama doesn’t agree with his own campaign, why should the voters heed the campaign’s negative message?
For his part, Romney could cite that Henninger piece and say, “Mr. President, do you think it’s okay to call me a liar through your campaign staffers, but not here in this debate? If you, Barack Obama, think I’m a liar, I want you to say it me, face to face, right here and now!”
And what might happen? If Obama backs down, he looks even weaker than he did in the first debate. And if he uses the “L” word himself, or anything close, Romney could then say:
You know, Mr. President, three years ago, when Congressman Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) called you a liar in the middle of your speech to Congress, you said the next morning from the Cabinet Room of the White House that you accepted Wilson’s apology. And then you added some eloquent words, “We have to get to the point where we can have a conversation about big, important issues that matter to the American people, without vitriol, without name-calling, without the assumption of the worst in other people’s motives. We are all Americans, we all want to do best for our country.” Well, you were right then; we should always be looking to the better angels of our nature, trying to heal wounds and pull together for the common good. But now, obviously, we have a different situation. Today, you and your campaign are a part of the same problem that you identified three years ago–the vitriol, the name-calling. And that’s a real shame, Mr. President, because as we all remember, the central idea of your 2008 campaign for the presidency was that you were going to change the tone of Washington. Now we are seeing that your pledge had no meaning.
Now that’s a zinger. And it’s the best kind of zinger, because inside the sharp wordplay is a profound truth about what Americans want from their leaders, which is…less politics. That’s right, Americans want more of positive leadership and less of the same old name-calling.
In the same debate, it’s a certainty, of course, that economic issues will come up. And so when Obama starts lecturing Romney on deficits or taxes, Romney should wait for a moment in which the president seems to chide his challenge on budget-math: then Romney should snap back with, “With all due respect, Mr. President, I don’t think that you’re in a position to lecture me on math. Your stimulus promised to get unemployment below six percent, you promised to cut the deficit in half, you promised to save every family $2500 on their healthcare bill.” Once again, the key idea is situational awareness–backed up, of course, with competent coaching.
Then Romney could pause for dramatic effect and continue: “So now we come to another big idea of your 2008 campaig–you were going to fix the economy. And we know how that’s turned out. Mr. President, with all due respect, if you can’t do what you said you would do–and it’s obvious now that a second term for you would be no better–then you should make room for someone who can keep his promises.”
Moreover, once again, Romney must not forget foreign policy and national security. And so we come to the second “L” word, Libya.
Perhaps the death of Ambassador Stevens and the other Americans could not have been prevented; only hindsight is 20:20, and there is, after all, such as thing as the fog of war, including the murky twilight war on terror.
However, we now know that within minutes of the Benghazi attacks, the Obama administration knew that the attacks were, in fact, acts of terrorism, and not at all mere mob violence. And that’s when the cover-up began; the goal was to kick the can of culpability past Election Day. Unfortunately for the Obamans, they needed a two-month cover-up to get them past November 6, and they got only a one-month cover-up. Those Congressional hearings on October 10 put the kibosh to any hope that the Obamans could stonewall their way to a foreign-policy-controversy-free re-election.
And so while the Obamans can still count on loyalists in the MSM to protect them as best they can, the reality of tragic misfeasance before the attack and rotten malfeasance after the attack is becoming apparent. On October 11, the public editor of The New York Times, Margaret Sullivan, felt compelled to note the absurdity of not having the Congressional hearings on Libya on the front page of her paper that morning. As Sullivan put it:
I believe that the Libya hearing story belonged on The Times’s front page…. I can’t think of many journalistic subjects that are more important right now, or more deserving of aggressive reporting.
Since then, the Libya story has continued to grow; it was a major topic on all the Sunday shows. And yet of course, Libya was still not on the front page of Monday’s Times.
Indeed, in a more just world, such brave Libya truth-tellers as Eric Nordstrom and Andrew Wood, now consigned to obscurity by the MSM, would, in fact, be enjoying a far different reception: the full-blown Daniel Ellsberg whistle-blower hero treatment. And if that were ever to happen–if the MSM were to do its job, fairly–then a foreign-policy establishment that is not only corrupt but incompetent would be out quicker than you can say “regional security officer.”
Okay, this is not a particularly just world. Still, Romney has a chance to score big on Libya, too.
In the next debate, the Republican needs to get across the point that he, Romney, fully understands that Biden and all the rest of them are more than willing to throw Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her department under the bus, blaming them for the shocking lack of security in Benghazi. And similarly, the Obama-Biden administration is eager to point the finger of blame at the intelligence community, too.
But the main point, of course, needs to be made against the President himself. When–not if, when–Obama says something to the effect that the Libya intelligence was “unclear,” then Romney needs to come right back with:
Mr President, if that’s the case, why were you not in the Oval Office, the day after, doing your job? Why didn’t you meet with the National Security Council? Instead, you flew off to a fundraiser in Las Vegas, even as our consulate in Benghazi was still smoldering. If the intelligence was “unclear,” as you say, then why didn’t you stay in the White House until it was cleared up? After that, then you could have made a full accounting of what happened, and thereby saved the whole country from this agonizing drip-drip-drip of information over the last five weeks.
Once again, that’s a zinger with an important truth inside: The American people want to think that their president is focused on the presidency, including the commander-in-chief duties. The idea that a president would use Air Force One to go gallivanting across the country in pursuit of partisan glory. And in delivering that truth, Romney can drive Obama’s favorable poll rating down to, or maybe below, that electorally decisive 47 percent threshold.
So yes, Romney can win if he continues to envelop Obama–that is, if he continues to pursue a pincer strategy, coming at Obama from two directions at once. In other words, Romney must be a sharp critic of administration failure, at home and abroad, even as he further demonstrates that he himself is a practical problem-solver. And a big part of problem-solving, as we know, is being able to size up a situation and do the right thing.
Romney may never possess the actor’s deep skill of sensing the dramatic moment. However, Romney does seem to possess the businessperson’s skill of closing the deal. And that’s what he needs to do on Tuesday.
If Romney can close the pincer on Obama, he can win. Indeed, he probably will win.
Photo: pincer movement, Golan Heights, 1973