The Chattering Class: Romney in a Knockout


Okay, Shane, the first debate is in the bag, and that gives us, the chattering class, something to talk about. For my part, I thought that on optics alone Gov. Romney won the debate. He looked more engaged, his answers were delivered more clearly, and he had a much better sense of how he was going to answer the President’s attacks. Romney has never had a problem looking presidential, and that presence helped him tonight. He needed to show that he belonged on the same stage (and ballot) as the president, and he did that for sure.

On substance I’d give it a tie, but only because Obama missed every opportunity to call Gov. Romney on his startling reversals. I think the most amazing line in the entire debate was (from Gov. Romney), “Regulation is essential. You can’t have a free market work if you don’t have regulation.” How could the GOP presidential nominee get away with saying that on national TV? And more to the point, how could Pres. Obama not come back on him like a ton of bricks for this startling reversal? Obama may have had a more consistent and accurate message, but failure to call out Romney at such obvious moments costs him too many points for a victory.

This leads me to my first questions. I’m going to cheat and ask two. First, what was your general impression of the debate? And second, do you think there will be any push back from the right on Romney’s clear turn to the center? His moderate tone and message seem to be what Mike Huckabee and everyone at the NRO have feared from the start. Could his strong performance last night cost him in the long run?


Thank you, Porter, for the invitation to chatter away. Second, I apologize for taking so long with my response.  I’ve volunteered for the suicide watch team assembled by MSNBC, which means that I spent the entire night taking sharp objects away from Chris Matthews.

Romney was impressive.  After fifty hours of televised primary debates, he seems to have mastered the ability to make specific points in the allotted two minutes, then look engaged (without coming across as disagreeable or peevish) when Obama was speaking.  His delivery was better, his responses were quicker, He was respectful of the President, contradicting him without being condescending or peevish, and there was even some humor.

It’s also important to note that Romney has the advantage in these debates, because he gets to play the role Obama filled so successfully in 2008 – change.  The incumbent is always less elusive. Obama has to stand and defend his record of the last four years. Romney gets to dance around, saying: ” Change Dodd-Frank, Change Obamacare, Change everything…and make it better.”  Then Obama calls him on it and says, “Okay, you want to change it – why don’t you tell us how to make it better?”  Except, he was never really able to pin Romney down on those points, and not for a lack of trying.

Are conservatives concerned at the sudden appearance of the Massachusetts moderate?  Far from it.  The reaction from media voices and politicians on the right was a collective standing ovation.  And I think the reasons for this are two-fold:

First, the sincerity of Mitt’s conservative beliefs was always a red-herring issue, one that Newt and Santorum used effectively to pander to the Tea Party base during the primaries.  Most thinking Republicans (there seem to be less and less these days) realized that this dogmatic approach to the issues would (and has) hurt the party, and they are happy to move away from it now.  Parties want to be elected more than they want to be right.

The second factor was timing.  These debates couldn’t have come at a better moment for Romney. He’s been hammered for his ‘47%’ comments, his polls numbers were dropping, and Republicans were talking in hushed tones about whether he would be drag on the national and state tickets.  Wednesday’s debate hit the rest button on his entire campaign and went a long way towards re-defining Romney as the compassionate multi-millionaire who wants to help unemployed families in the Midwestern Rust Belt.  There are lots of GOP supporters who don’t like moderates or Mormons, but they detest Obama so much more.  The glimmer of hope provided by this debate shelved any serious talk about conservative heresy.

My question for you is the obvious one:  Why did Obama perform (because this is a performance) so poorly?  Why did he hold back on dropping the 47% hammer on Romney?  The President just invited the Republicans to take their narrative – that he’s teleprompter candidate coddled by the media – and hang it around his neck.


Good points, Shane, and I think you’re correct about the right. Whatever handwringing seeing Moderate Mitt may have caused on the right will be trumped by the “anyone other than Obama” sentiment. Still, I find it a startling reversal that should hurt him, but likely won’t since Obama didn’t call him on it at the time.

Regarding Obama’s poor performance (and it was poor), I’m going to go with hubris in two forms. First, obviously Obama hasn’t had the recent practice debating that Romney has. This is a classic case of the lean challenger punching his way up to a title bout against a champ who has gotten a little soft in the middle knocking out patsies. Here’s where the hubris comes in; everyone in the Obama campaign, including the president himself, should have known this! There’s no reason for them not to say, “Okay, Mr. President, you’ve been out of this game for four years, if you want to win this debate you need more than a 24 hour prep window.” That said, just like the champ that takes it on the chin, expect Obama to come out sharp in the next debate. It will help that the next debate is on foreign policy, in which Romney is a rank amature and can’t even go to England without stepping on his own feet. But that said, Romney’s vulnerabilities don’t mean crap if Obama doesn’t put in the necessary prep time and learn from this pummeling.

I think also contributing to Obama’s hubris is the lead he had going into the debate and the bump he got from his convention that Romney did not. He mistook the two venues and presumed that his convention success meant he was as strong a debater now as he was in 2008. But the truth is that Obama’s performance at the DNC convention was perhaps one of its weakest moments. Obama just isn’t the campaigner her was in 2008, by any stretch. And the only thing that’s worse than losing a step, which he has, is to think that you still run a 4.4 40 when you don’t. (Sorry for all the sports metaphors. The night of the debate Cy had a cold and wouldn’t sleep, so we stayed up and watched Rocky II. True story.)

I think the teleprompter thing has always been wishful thinking on the Right, and part of their larger delegitimation strategy, so I don’t see that narrative having legs outside the NRO crowed. But as I’ve said, the quality campaigner of 2008 didn’t show up for this first debate. If the 2012 Obama wants to win the next debate, he needs himself one hell of a training montage, preferably with Michelle playing Burgess Meredith standing over him yelling “faster! faster!”.


Romney’s strong debate showing notwithstanding, it seems like he does worst when he does things that support the public’s preconception of him. Anyone paying attention to the election can’t help but see this as a dramatic flip-flop, an etch-a-sketch moment. He’s undermined the two primary pillars of his campaign: tax cuts and deregulation. How does he square what he’s been saying for the last 10 months with what he said in the debate? Obama has already started hitting him on this latest flip-flop, and you can expect some pointed commercials during the next four weeks doing the same. Given that this plays into the Romney narrative so well (or poorly, depending on your point of view), what does Romney do to convince voters that he’s not the strident, Tea Party conservative he’s portrayed himself as in the past, and is, in fact, the moderate conservative from New England that showed up on Wednesday night?


I agree that the Right’s use of the ‘telemprompter’ narrative is little more than the right’s delegitimation strategy, but you can’t be too dismissive of it.  These types of attacks can prove very distracting for a candidate.  As you mentioned with Romney, candidates need to avoid anything that confirms negative perceptions. At this point it’s a distraction, but that could change.  As you point out, Obama has a decided advantage in the next debate on foreign policy. If he stumbles, or even if Romney can debate him to a draw, then that narrative will pick up real momentum.  The President needs a win.

And yes, Romney’s debate performance will play into perceptions that he is willing to change his position to suit his audience. But Democrats need to be careful that they don’t overplay their hand here.  I just finished watching an interview with Mayor Nutter of Philadelphia.  When the Mayor was asked why Obama performed so poorly at the debate, he responded that it’s very difficult to engage in a conversation with someone who’s willing to lie consistently about his own position and his opponent’s.

This is poor strategy for two reasons. First, it makes the campaign look frustrated and confused when they should be communicating confidence and resolve.  Romney has been evasive regarding specific elements of his own plan (just as Obama was in 2008) but it’s counter-productive to accuse him of intentionally trying to mislead the American people.  Second, calling Romney a liar leads to an obvious question that is even more difficult to answer:  If he was so clearly lying, why didn’t Obama point this out to everyone?

And we’re right back to the idea that Obama was not on his game.

Meanwhile, there is nothing unexpected or innovative about what Romney is doing.  In the 2008 primary, Obama ran so far to the left that he made Hillary look like Pat Buchanan.  During the general election he moved quickly and nimbly towards the center. During the primaries Mitt presented himself as even more Conservative than Newt and Santorum and got away with it.  I think most of us are relieved to see him re-inventing himself once again.  In the debate he looked like a reasonable person who recognized that government regulation of business is necessary, instead of blaming the failures of the financial world on government interference.

In the next few weeks we’re going to see the kinder, gentler, Mitt that appealed to Massachusetts votes once upon a time.  He’s already admitted the his 47% comments were wrong, blunting whatever effect that issue will have if Obama gets another chance to raise it at a future debate.  Opportunity lost.

So now we look forward to the Vice Preidential debate.  What are your expectations for Biden?  Do Democrats expect him to regain any of the lost momentum?  Or, are you hoping that he’ll avoid setting himself on fire with a ‘put y’all’ back in chains’ type of moment?  Do Democrats have anything to win here or are they just trying not to lose?


It’s true that in just about every election the candidates pivot to the center after the primary, but this is clearly a special case. Romney waited until very late in the game, this debate, to make his pivot to the center, and all indications prior to Wednesday’s debate suggested that he would ride the Tea Party movement through to November (especially after picking Tea Party-favorite Ryan as his running mate). So I agree that Team Obama have to be very careful not to overplay their hand, but if we’re looking for take-aways from the debate other than Obama’s listlessness, then I think Romney’s reversals should be on the list.

Regarding the VP debate. On the one hand, it’s hard to imagine these debates have much effect on the campaign either way. With Romney’s life-injecting performance last week, he doesn’t need Ryan to do much other than not tank. But let’s say, hypothetically, that Ryan did tank the debate (I don’t think he will, not in the moment anyway). So what? No Vice Presidential debate could be more catastrophic than Lloyd Bentsen’s evisceration of Dan Quayle in 1988. That debate, as you know, is where we got the now infamous line: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Quayle looked small and incompetent, but George H. W. Bush went on to win the election handily. True, Quayle never recovered, but even in this extreme case the election clearly wasn’t decided by the VP debate. So no matter who wins or loses on Thursday, I think it’s safe to say that people will ultimately vote for the head of the ticket.

That said, I think these men will debate each other to a draw. Biden will look wise and experienced. Ryan will be energetic, cite facts a lot, and have great abs.But there are two things I’m going to look for, one from each side. First of all, for Biden, I think success will be defined by how well he can tie Gov. Romney to Ryan’s deeply unpopular budget proposal. If he can hang the Medicare voucher system (“premium support,” a misnomer if ever there was one) around Ryan’s neck and then widen the loop to include Romney, he will have achieved as much as is possible in this debate. What he shouldn’t do is try to undo the damage from the presidential debate, which would only make Obama look weaker.

For Ryan, he has an easier task than Palin did in 2008. The Left (myself included) think little of the “seriousness” of his proposals, and I hate the way he uses “oh, it’s too wonkish” as a dodge–as if to say, oh, I’d tell you, but the answer involves pesky details that the likes of you wouldn’t understand. But there can be no doubt that he is a viable candidate for the Vice Presidency, knows his stuff, and, if the worst happened, could lead the country. Without the burden of having to prove he belongs on the ticket, what can Ryan accomplish in the debates? In something of a mirror to my above comment, Ryan needs to promote Romney, and show how Romney is his own man who shouldn’t be saddled with whatever policies Ryan has promoted in the past.

Romney’s campaign is build on vagaries–there’s a reason he’s telling us about the carrots (12 millions jobs! Tax cuts all around! Increased military spending–paying attention, Virginia?!) and leaving out the stick (narry a detail to be found on how he’ll close a 5 trillion dollar budget busting tax cut through closing tax loopholes for the wealthy–though if anyone knows about tax loopholes for the wealthy, it’s Mitt Romney). So Ryan’s detail heavy budget proposals are anathema to the Romney candidacy. If Ryan spends the night defending his budget proposals, then he loses because 1) he will emphasize the glaring lack of details in Romney’s plans, and 2) he will give the impression that this is the Ryan-Romney ticket. If that happens, then it could undo Romney’s move to the middle last week and scare off independent voters. But on the other hand,  if Ryan can keep within himself, remain a team player, and talk about Romney as much as possible, then he’ll come as close to winning as either man can on Thursday.

All right, I started so I’ll give you the last word. Given the debate, how do you see Romney governing? You’ve said in the past that you wish Governor Romney, moderate Republican from MA, was running, and now apparently he is. If Romney were to win the election, what can we expect from his administration? I’m specifically interested how you think he’ll navigate the rock-and-a-hardplace nature of the US congress. If he were to win the White House, he’ll have an emboldened Tea Party pushing him on the Right while at the same time face an embittered Democratic party on Left. A Democratic party, I might add, who will have learned from McConnell, Boehner and company that obstructionism equals good politics.


Let me start by saying that I continue to be surprised at how much the debate has helped Romney and hurt Obama.  I watched that debate, and while I noticed at the time that Romney’s body language was much more assertive and confident than the President’s, judged solely on the merit of their arguments I would have called it a draw.  I would have expected Romney’s abrupt shifts in policy to have dogged him far more than has been the case.  And for Obama?  The cover of the New Yorker has Romney debating an empty chair!  While it is not a direct allusion, it does remind people of Clint Eastwood’s conversation with an empty chair at the GOP convention.  This is the narrative I mentioned earlier, and it is becoming entrenched.

So I would disagree with you slightly regarding the VP debate: I think it does matter more than in years past. The Quayle pick as VP was a Sarah Palin-esque distraction, an attempt to infuse the campaign with youth and vitality, all packaged behind a fresh midwestern face.  When Quayle imploded across from a wily political veteran like Bentsen, commentators enjoyed it but found it neither surprising nor troubling. Bush was the head of the ticket, and nobody would seriously question his ability or experience.

But the circumstances of this VP debate are such that everyone is now questioning Obama’s ability to take on Romney, his lack of preparation, even his interest in the campaign.  Let’s not forget that in 2008, Biden was tapped for precisely this reason.  Grandpa Joe is a savvy political operative with foreign policy experience who could grab the tiller if things get stormy.  Well, I’d say it’s all hands on deck right now for the SS Obama. Biden needs to go out and earn his money. He must look like he’s in control of the facts, take the occasional pointed shot at flip-flopper Romney, but most of all project the confidence of someone who knows they’re only on mile ten of a twenty-six mile marathon.

Ryan has the much easier job: don’t look crazy.  Parry the thrusts against Romney and, at every opportunity, remind viewers that his boss man-handled Biden’s boss in the last debate.

What would I expect from President Mitt? As you point out, I certainly prefer debate-Romney to Republican primary-Romney.  If he wins (and let me say for the record that I still think Obama will carry this election) he will be under immediate pressure to repeal the Affordable Healthcare Act.  I like to believe two things about Romney:  1) He secretly realizes the US needs health care reform, approves of the AHA and knows it’s exactly the same as his Massachusetts legislation; and 2) He’s smart enough to realize that there is no chance it can be repealed given the state of the Congress in 2012.

My hope for him is that his completely unexpected election victory would generate enough political capital that he can demonstrate real leadership and say to the GOP, “Look, we’ve got bigger problems than the government getting involved in health care.”  I’d like to see a much more thoughtful approach to immigration, more oil and gas exploration, and most of all – how are we going to reduce spending and stop borrowing so much money from China?

My greatest fear for Romney is that he’ll get crushed between the immovable object of a Democrat party determined to punish him for winning (See: GOP 2008) and the unstoppable force of a Republican congress determined to give the country a Tea-Party enima.  That is the recipe of a failed Presidency.


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