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About Last Night

I suppose if I’m going to write anything for this Tohu Bohu again, I should write something about last night’s debate. I usually call them simultaneous press appearances rather than debates, but that thing last night was something closer to… well, not a debate, surely, but a discussion or an argument or something. I don’t know. Whatever it was, it wasn’t good for Our Only President’s re-election chances.

Not that it is likely to make much difference, really. Or rather, it is unlikely to make much direct difference. If the press have decided that they are sick of the lazy mendacity of the challenger’s campaign, the Story of What Happened (which, remember, is always more important than what actually happened) will be that Mitt Romney shook the Etch-a-Sketch. If they have decided that they want people to continue to pay attention to their reporting and opinion pieces, the Story of What Happened will be that Our Only President slept through his alarm. I expect both stories will kick around for a few days; we are now waiting to see who salutes them. The Story of What Happened will very likely sway a bunch of the low-information undecided “independent” voters, very few of whom were willing to sit through ninety minutes of exactly the kind of dull, detailed policy discussion that they have been avoiding all summer to remain low-information.

Where the debates do have an effect, evidently, is in the longer run. There are tens of millions of voters tuning in, almost all of whom have already made up their minds about who to vote for, and this is an unusual chance for the candidates to speak to them at length. The candidate can signal what he thinks is important—tax breaks, investment or the deficit; the economy, jobs or national security; health care, infrastructure or gay marriage; liberty, equality or fraternity. Last night, for instance, Our Only President talked a lot about teachers and education within the context of his Race to the Top program; should he serve a second term, it’s very likely that he really would protect that program and seek more funding for it. That tells us, as partisans, that (for better or worse), that we are backing education reform these days. On the other hand, Our Only President barely mentioned an energy policy at all, and notably refused to defend federal investment in green energy. So clearly we aren’t all excited about that.

Obviously, that has limited effect—the Democratic base is, in fact, highly skeptical about Race to the Top and also keenly interested in energy policy. But it does indicate to us where the Administration is, and thus where we need to put pressure if we want it to move. But within the delicate balance of what we want and what he wants and what he wants us to want, the tens of millions watching the debates make the words into very public touchstones for the Party’s future.

What concerns me, then, about Mitt Romney’s performance is that not only did he utterly repudiate the Mitt Romney of the Republican Primaries, but that he seems to have done so with only the most muted complaint from his Party. This was a Mitt Romney who bragged about his time as Governor of Massachusetts! What was the over-under line on mentions of Massachusetts, because he wound up with 5, just counting the word, and in his closing statement said he would put in place the kind of principles that I put in place in my own state. He talked about his bipartisan credentials. He talked about common ground. He talked about the necessity for regulation, and he talked about caring for those that have difficulties, those that are elderly and have problems and challenges, those that are disabled. We care for them. In a conversation about domestic issues, he very specifically did not mention abortion, the so-called defense of marriage, immigration or guns. I don’t know what the Tea Party heard last night, but it can’t have been reassuring at all. And yet, it appears that they don’t mind.

I think this is more than the usual running-to-the-center. I could be wrong; I am scarcely in a position to tell. But it smells to me like this is a Party and a candidate who have unhooked their expectations from their rhetoric altogether. Which means that if Mitt Romney does take the office he is seeking, which could well happen, he may feel himself unconstrained by the kind of political stuff that usually constrains him. By the will of the Party as given force by the party actors, donors, officials, press and patronage climbers of all kinds and made manifest within the rhetoric of the candidate. You know, by democracy.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


I'm more convinced than you that this debate will sway a lot of minds. In particular, though you called it, "ninety minutes of exactly the kind of dull, detailed policy discussion that they have been avoiding all summer", that's not how it seemed to me. I thought this was more like the Debate Episode in season 3 of The West Wing, in which Bartlet is so quick and sure with his rebuttals that he makes his opponent look befuddled, unpresidential. The one which, with Hollywood license, has the audience roaring and cheering for Bartlet's comebacks by the end of the debate. Fortunately there are two more chances for Obama to look like he's playing in the same league as Romney (or better), but right now I will not be surprised at all if there's a 5-8 point bounce in the polls by Monday.

I'm too young to remember the Reagan-Carter debates, but I wonder if they appeared like last night's.

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