As the third and final debate of the General Election approaches, the political writers of Open for Business look back to what has come before and speculate about what might arise in the last face-to-face debate the candidates will embark on this year.
The first debate was a moderating disaster, though Jim Lehrer's poor performance was masked somewhat by an even worse appearance by President Obama. Lehrer seemed to favor the president throughout, granting him more time than Gov. Romney, yet the Obama was like a pitcher given a generous strike zone who keeps pitching to the middle of the plate anyway. To be sure, Romney had the advantage of — to borrow a phrase from Dubya — being “misunderestimated,” but the president did not even seem to be trying to offer a cover for his dismal record, something he should have been able to do given the extra cushy time slots Lehrer kept allowing him.
OFB's assistant editor Jason Kettinger suggests that the debate commission should implement an age limit for debate moderators, rather like Catholic bishops have. Our editor-in-chief, Timothy Butler agreed, observing that the debate would have been better moderated with no moderator at all rather than the hands off Lehrer. Whether his foibles impact the future of older moderators in general, the veteran newsman is unlikely to receive a chance for redemption in 2016.
While the Obama campaign has tried to suggest Romney changed his views at the debates, the only thing that changed is that many people heard the governor's policies defined in his own, favorable terms, instead of the Democrats' negative ones, for the first time.
Clearly, the average “likely voter” learned something from the debate, as the polls have shown one of the most marked shifts of the entire year. Why did Romney move so much in such a short time? Butler argued that the debate showed to the average American that Romney was actually a capable candidate and a candidate with empathy.
The latter point was the most important. Given a good background of experience in the private and public sectors, the hurdle of proving competence should not prove large for Romney. Instead, the governor's problem is that he can at times appear to be “the President” from a summer action flick: a wooden character who says something authoritative and then is forgotten as the plot follows some more charming Man of Action. Debate #1 showed Romney can actually play a leading role convincingly, all but taking Obama's script from four years ago and attaching it to a record far more robust than the then-Sen. Obama's anemic one.
Moreover, Romney's first invocation of the term “trickle down government” was a moment of genius. The conservative opposition to Big Government is often harder to put into sound bites than the Left's opposition to even the most attractive attempts to lower regulation and create jobs through the free market. By taking the infamous “trickle down” term from the Left's set of weapons, he was able to catapult decades of negativity over trickle down economics squarely back on its source.
That doesn't mean the debate was enlightening for informed voters who had already seen Romney in debates and know his talking points. Kettinger instead argued that the debate was uninformative from that standpoint. “It seems that they think we're stupid,” he quipped. Are clichÃ©s all we have left? Obviously, Romney is not the candidate with a battered record to defend. One does not necessarily have to present a credible alternative if the first option is unpalatable.
Romney's “You pick the losers” is going to leave a mark, Kettinger asserts, in just that manner. After the last four years, is President Obama really going to the voters with Race To The Top as his crowning achievement? Cosmetic education reform is the riposte to 23 million unemployed? Good luck. It is a huge mistake to prod Romney for more specifics; you just might get them. Every time the president makes that point, don't you want to hear more?
Even with second debate, where the president acted more like how veteran debate watchers would expect the candidate of hope and change to act, he failed to put a real chink into the former Massachusetts governor's armor. The tide of polling, which has decidedly moved in Romney's direction since the first debate, continues to flow that way. As Kettinger observed, “we didn't call Romney the “Death Star” for no reason. He's annoyingly competent in debates.
Although Obama's responses were ultimately scored higher by polling data in the second go-around, it was a largely unmemorable debate. The lack of particularly memorable moments (beyond the moderator's bizarre decision to “fact check” Gov. Romney — incorrectly, as it turned out — in the midst of the debate) could explain this phenomenon. While the president was more pointed this time, both men comically avoided answering audience questions in the Town Hall-style debate to a degree even troubling relative to past presidential Town Halls.
Instead of presenting something new, Butler noted, both sides seemed to take a large dose of their best-polled statements from the first debate and mixed it liberally with playground-esque inquiries as to who was getting the most time. (This was especially grating coming from the president, given that he was again being given a significant time advantage, just as he was in the first debate and Vice President Joe Biden was in the veep-debate the previous week.)
Speaking of playground attitudes, the hotheaded “questioning” of each candidate by the other also rang out as something best suited to third graders. It would have been refreshing if one of the candidates had simply insisted on an answer of “because.” At least that would have been more direct, if not more helpful, than the verbal gymnastics required to fit irrelevant stump speeches into the form of answers.
There was one new matter of note, the very one Candy Crowley mucked up by inserting herself into: the current administration's handling of the terrorist attack in Libya. “I still think at some point that it will get very ugly for the president,” Kettinger remarked. Reading and hearing his statement on the consulate attack in the most charitable way possible, you could make a case that the president called it a terror attack.
Nevertheless, if he did, why (as even Ms. Crowley acknowledged) did it take the president a span of time best measured in weeks to finally forcefully label it as a terrorist attack and quit flirting with the connection between the consulate bombing and a troublesome YouTube video?
Though Romney, perhaps partly in shock at the unprecedented involvement of the moderator, didn't handle this as powerfully as he could have in debate two, expect this to be a key part of the third, foreign policy oriented debate. In fact, if the less than stellar performances of the last two debates say anything, do not be surprised if everything goes back to Libya for Romney, just as everything will naturally remind the president of the heroic way he ordered Osama bin Laden's assassination.
Or, if you are the optimistic sort, maybe you can hope we will actually learn something meaningful tonight.
OFB political editors Jason Kettinger and Timothy Butler contributed to this story.