The Meta-Issue of the Presidential Debates

The Meta-Issue of the Presidential Debates

Winning the Battle vs. Winning the War 

Sometimes you can win the battle and yet still lose the war–and that could well be the story of Barack Obama in his third debate against Mitt Romney.

On points, Obama won the Battle of Boca Raton. The President  was aggressive–always a turn-on for the base–while Romney was careful and cautious. Notably, Romney played it safe on Libya–too safe. No, actually, let’s really tell it like it is: Romney took a dive on Libya. Indeed, at times on Monday night, it seemed almost as if Romney might endorse Obama!  

Yes, Romney showed real strength on the economy, and that’s still the biggest issue in this election. It’s clear that he was viewing every question through the prism of his greatest vulnerability, which is his relatively weak support among women. But women admire gentle strength, not outright passivity.  

Had Romney shown that gentle strength, and engaged Obama, he could have outright ended the election on Monday night. 

Here are three examples as to how he might have done that: 

First, on Obama’s condescending “horses and bayonets” answer, Romney did not need to sit there as he was being demeaned by Obama.  

Yes, Obama might have lost a few microns of likability by coming across as mean, but Romney lost some, too, by coming across as someone who just sits there as he is being scolded.  

So Romney needed some “situational awareness”; that is, the capacity to see the larger struggle, and to come back with words that might not be in his talking points. He needed to say something like:

Mr. President, the Navy does not ride horses and wield bayonets–and it never did.  And so when you cut the Navy, you’re cutting patrol ships, and aircraft carriers, which cannot be in two places at once. It’s a big world, Mr. President, and big oceans–to stay safe from danger, we need to safeguard all of it, not just some of it.

Such a Romney riposte would have devastated Obama.   

Second, on Libya, Romney was also too forbearing.  

He didn’t have to engage or attack on Libya, but he could have said, “Mr. President, we know, all of us, what has happened–it was a terrorist attack.” And then he could have turned to the camera–a strong sense of situational awareness would have reminded him that the true audience is the American people–and said, “In any crisis, it’s up to the commander-in-chief to outline the facts and explain the strategy. This president–any president owes a full accounting to the American people.” 

With that, Romney could have paused. After all, the revelations on Libya are coming now fast and furious; Romney has never needed to master each detail. Instead, what he needs to do is keep the investigative ball rolling, and certainly not do anything to slow it down. Then Romney could he added this closer, again as he looks into the camera:

And let me tell you one more thing: If America is ever attacked, I will be right there in the Oval Office, or the Situation Room, with my top military and civilian advisers. I will never break away from my first duty as commander-in-chief to go on a campaign jaunt across the country. 

That would have exploded the Obama campaign. Now, to some extent, Romney has taken the issue off the table, at least for the remainder of his own campaign. That’s the bad news for him. The good news for him is that the Libya issue is so strong that it’s likely that other forces will keep the issue prominent–and rightly so. 

Third and finally, when the questions came up about America’s role in the world–and just about every question was a variation on that theme–Romney could have made the point that America cannot be strong in the world unless it’s strong at home. Yes, Romney brought it up late in the debate, but he should have brought it up early–and often. 

Once again, it’s not that Romney did badly, it’s that he missed opportunities.  And as a result of these missed opportunities, Romney has lost momentum.    

However, bigger than any single issue, or any debate trope, is the meta-issue of overall credibility. That is, does the would-be president show himself to be temperamentally and experientially suited to be commander-in-chief. That’s the threshold question for voters, and nobody can be elected president without having passed that threshold test.   

On this meta-issue, Romney has passed. He might not have won all three debates, but he did well enough in each to prove himself plausible as a president. Thus Romney’s emergent plausibility undercuts the strongest Obama argument, namely, that Romney is too rich and too right-wing to be good for America. And if Obama has to seek a second term based only on his record, and only on his ability to lead America for another four years–well, then, the incumbent has a big problem.    

As a last point on Monday’s debate: The big winner was Bob Schieffer, who showed the country that the Main Stream Media, at its best, can still serve up calm professionalism. Sadly, much of the MSM  falls well short of that high standard, and as I have argued, that falling short–deliberate desertion of duty for the sake of ideology is more like it–has put the American nation at risk. But unlike two of the earlier moderators, Martha Raddatz and Candy Crowley, Schieffer is not part of that problem.  

The Mythology of the 1980 Carter-Reagan Debate 

Watching Romney challenging Obama has caused me to think back to another Republican challenger to another Democratic incumbent, more than three decades ago. And that challenger, of course, was Ronald Reagan.  

History records that the single presidential debate between Reagan and my old boss, Jimmy Carter, in Cleveland on October 28, 1980, was scored as an immediate huge victory for Reagan. In the mythology of that election, Reagan’s “There you go again” line swatted down Carter’s criticisms, and put the country at ease. And then, supposedly, Reagan’s famous question, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” sealed the deal with the voters.  

Yes, those were good lines, and, yes, Reagan won the ’80 election in a landslide. But there was more to it than that.  

For one thing, Reagan’s victory in the debate was not obvious right away. The next morning, October 29, the national press corps and everyone else waking up in Cleveland saw this headline in The Cleveland Plain Dealer: “Carter and Reagan trade punches but both on their feet at the bell.” The New York Times headline: “No Clear Winner Apparent; Scene Is Simple and Stark.” The Washington Post headline, “War, Peace Dominate Debate.” 

The truth was that Carter had done pretty well. For example, when Reagan said “There you go again,” he was waving away Carter’s attacks on Reagan’s position on Medicare. Yet Carter’s attacks–reminding Americans that Reagan had gotten his start in politics denouncing Medicare, back in the early 60s–were accurate, and scored well at the time with senior citizens. (In fact, Reagan resumed attacking Medicare as soon as he came into the White House, albeit without success–note to Paul Ryan.)  

Yet at the time, in late October of 1980, Reagan was winning by reassuring–that is, by convincing the country that he wasn’t dangerous.  

The most important response Reagan gave in Cleveland came in reply to a question from Marvin Stone of US News & World Report; Stone cited the crises in Iran and Afghanistan–some things  don’t change!–and asked Reagan if he was “all too quick to advocate…military action.” In his most reassuring voice, Reagan made it clear that nobody wanted genuine peace more than he:

I’m only here to tell you that I believe with all my heart that our first priority must be world peace, and that use of force is always and only a last resort, when everything else has failed, and then only with regard to our national security. 

Continuing with his answer, Reagan also made it clear that he wanted an enduring peace–the kind that comes from a policy of peace through strength: 

Now, I believe, also, that this meeting this mission, this responsibility for preserving the peace, which I believe is a responsibility peculiar to our country, and that we cannot shirk our responsibility as a leader of the free world because we’re the only ones that can do it. Therefore, the burden of maintaining the peace falls on us.  And to maintain that peace requires strength. America has never gotten in a war because we were too strong.

Having laid that groundwork, Reagan then launched an assault on Carter: 

We can get into a war by letting events get out of hand, as they have in the last three and a half years under the foreign policies of this Administration of Mr. Carter’s, until we’re faced each time with a crisis. And good management in preserving the peace requires that we control the events and try to intercept before they become a crisis. 

Finally, in a memorable close, Reagan came back to the peace theme: 

I have seen four wars in my lifetime. I’m a father of sons; I have a grandson. I don’t ever want to see another generation of young Americans bleed their lives into sandy beachheads in the Pacific, or rice paddies and jungles in the in Asia or the muddy battlefields of Europe.

Watching Reagan from the Carter holding room, backstage in Cleveland, I reminded myself that I had warned against letting Carter debate Reagan. No matter how good Carter could be, Reagan would be himself–and that was good enough, I feared, to make him acceptable to the American people.  So I had strongly opposed any such debate, only to be overruled. And  so here we were: With those words about peace, Reagan had crossed that meta-issue threshold; he seemed plausible as a prudent commander-in-chief.  Thus a central tenet of the Carter re-election bid went out the window.  We were no longer credible as we tried to portray Reagan as one-half cowboy gunslinger and one-half Dr. Strangelove.   

In fact, in the Times the next day, reporter Hedrick Smith published an astute analysis, observing that the Carter campaign’s argument that Reagan was “dangerous” was refuted by Reagan’s “calm and reassuring” manner: 

The Presidential debate produced no knockout blow, no disastrous gaffe and no immediate, undisputed victor. It was a contest of content against style, of a President repeatedly on the attack to put his challenger on the defensive while Ronald Reagan used his calm demeanor to offset Jimmy Carter’s contention that he was “dangerous.” Where the President was deliberately sharp and intent on scoring debating points, Mr. Reagan was calm and reassuring, as his strategists had wanted.

Exactly. In other words, the Reagan strategists got what they wanted. I am convinced that if Carter had stayed out of that single debate with Reagan, he could have won the election.  

In other words, 2012 was not the first year in which presidential debates have proved decisive. I believe that neither John Kennedy in 1960 nor Jimmy Carter in 1976 could have been elected without their debates. In a presidential election, the lesser known candidate–or the candidate with some new quality, such as JFK’s Catholicism or Carter’s Southern heritage–simply needs the exposure in order to pass that “meta” threshold. I believe that Romney, too, has passed that meta-issue threshold.  

In Boca Raton, he chose to step back a bit from the heat of the fray, and while that stepping back gave Obama some room to fight, at no point was Romney in danger of being knocked out. Indeed, three times during the debate the Republican used the phrase “step back,” as in, let’s step back and take a calm look at the situation in Libya, Syria, and around the world: 

Let me step back and talk about what I think our mission has to be in the Middle East, and even more broadly, because our purpose is to make sure the world is more–is peaceful. We want a peaceful planet. We want people to be able to enjoy their lives and know they’re going to have a bright and prosperous future and not be at war. That’s our purpose.  And the mantle of–of leadership for promoting the principles of peace has fallen to America. We didn’t ask for it, but it’s an honor that we have it.

Once again, as with Reagan 32 years earlier, Romney was saying plainly that he was no hothead. And then he pivoted back to his strongest issue, the economy: 

But for us to be able to promote those principles of peace requires us to be strong, and that begins with a strong economy here at home, and unfortunately, the economy is not stronger. When…Ahmadinejad, says that our debt makes us not a great country, that’s a frightening thing. The former chief of the Joints Chief of Staff … Admiral Mullen said that our debt is the biggest national security threat we face…we have weakened our economy.

Exactly. It was the right mix: Thanks to Obama, we are weaker both abroad and at home.  

As CNN’s David Gergen said of Romney after the debate, “He passed the commander-in-chief test.”  And that’s Romney’s victory. He didn’t need to best Obama on every point; instead, he needed to seem acceptable as an alternative to the incumbent. If so, the anti-incumbent mood of the American people would take care of the rest.   

Beyond Big Bird and Binders 

In his three debates with Obama, it has been judged that Romney won a big victory in the first and then suffered narrow defeats–on points, at least–in the second and third. Yet the debate that mattered the most was the first, because that was Romney’s introduction to the American people, unfiltered by the media.   

So while I have been critical of the Romney campaign in the past, the Romneyites deserve huge credit for one thing–negotiating the issues-sequencing of these debates. That first debate, on the economy, played to Romney’s strongest suit; once that victory was notched, they have set in motion a favorable dynamic for the rest of the campaign. Lesson to future debate-negotiators: Sequence matters.   

However, sequence is not the only issue; performance matters, as well. The greatest pressure was on Romney in that first debate, and he delivered. Now we will have to see if Romney’s un-delivery in the third debate will attenuate that momentum. (And if we can indulge ourselves in a hypothetical for a moment, we can conclude that if Romney’s third debate had been his first debate–had Romney not scored that enormous victory back on October 3–then Obama would be winning now in a walk.)

In any case, though,  we are seeing the detonation of the Democrats’ longstanding anti-Romney narrative–that he’s out of touch, that he’s Richie Rich and/or Thurston Howell III, that he’s a neocon plaything. We might note that Romney has not only been effective in the debates, but also been ingratiating in other settings; his self-deprecating jokes at the Al Smith Dinner were a useful indicator that he can laugh at himself. That, of course, was definitely one of Reagan’s greatest strengths.  

Thus for four debates in a row, the Romney-Ryan ticket has proven itself to be ready for the White House. And so in that context, jibes about such pseudo-issues as Big Bird and “binders full of women” matter only to the pundits, real people are not impressed with “gotcha” games. The Mitt Romney as depicted by Obama campaign ads could have lost over those ersatz issues; the Mitt Romney who showed up to debate in Colorado, New York, and Florida would not lose to such attacks. So the Obama team will have to do better–if it can.  

The Obamans and their Media Minions Can’t Hide the Truth on Libya 

As we have seen, the big issue this year is the economy, but in the wake of Libya, national security concerns have gained prominence as well. So even after the debates are over, Romney needs to stay engaged, because it’s on national security matters that the Obama White House has the most room to maneuver.  

Especially since the killing of Osama Bin Laden in 2011, the President has been happy to tout his national security credentials. And that’s why the tragic debacle in Benghazi has been so damaging to Obama, because it undermined a perceived strength of the incumbent.   

This is a president, after all, who was willing to leave the White House on September 12, the morning after the Benghazi terrorist attacks, so that he could headline a campaign event in Las Vegas. (I am proud to say that that’s the sort of stunt that Jimmy Carter would never even have considered; the 39th President always took seriously his constitutional duties.)   

Moreover, in the President’s wake, the administration has strewn the chaff of confusion, seeking to cover up the evidence of its dismal incompetence.  That is, the Obamans have done their best to spread the blame for bad information all around the federal government’s “intel community.” They have dished blame on the Director of National Intelligence, the hapless James Clapper, and also on the CIA, thus tarnishing their onetime golden boy, David Petraeus.   

The facts of the Libya case have been fleshed out elsewhere–no thanks to the Obama administration–but it’s worth noting that even now, many in the MSM are still busily blurring the evidence. More than a month after the attack, the Washington Post ran a piece with the headline, “U.S.: Evidence doesn’t show planning in Libyan attack.” And New York Times reporter Scott Shane–the past beneficiary of many Obama leaks, so perhaps he owed them a favor–penned a “Q and A” on Benghazi that read like talking points from the Democratic National Committee; fortunately, Clay Waters of the Media Research Center wrote a devastating riposte.   

Yet amidst their frantic efforts to hide the truth about the death of Ambassador Stevens and the other three Americans, the Obamans have made a crucial mistake: They have forgotten even to pretend to fix the problem.  Nobody at the State Department has been fired for incompetence, and the administration has failed to launch any new initiative on diplomatic security.  In other words, one of the worst raps on Obama–that he has no managerial ability–has been sadly vindicated yet again. Under Obama’s watch, bad things happen, and yet responsibility is never fixed. Is this what we have to look forward to in a second Obama term?  Yikes!  

Meanwhile, although Romney seems to be slightly ahead in most polls, he is still no cinch to win; he has more hurdles to surmount.  More on that soon.


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