Don't expect a gamechanger in tonight's debate

Once again, the two presidential candidates will square off tonight in a debate, their second of three and the third in the overall series.  Mitt Romney thumped Barack Obama in the first, by universal acclamation, while the irrelevant VP debate had a more mixed (and partisan) result.  However, Pew reported last night that independents liked Paul Ryan better than Joe Biden, by double digits:

Six-in-ten voters say they watched at least a little of last Thursday night’s vice-presidential debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan at Centre College in Danville, KY. Among debate watchers, as many say Biden did the better job (47%) as say Ryan (46%)….

Republican voters overwhelmingly say Ryan did the better job in the debate (88%); a comparable percentage of Democrats (89%) say Biden did the better job. Among independents, 50% say Ryan did better, 39% say Biden.

That puts pressure on Obama to deliver a big win tonight to change the momentum of this race.  Michael Tomasky at the Daily Beast says that Obama has to accomplish eight tasks in order to win tonight.  Most of these relate to mere semantics (“That’s where the mot juste comes in handy”) or personal attacks (“Find a way to reintroduce the plutocrat meme”), but one in particular is revealing:

Have a second-term agenda, and make sure it has some surprises of its own. Some of this agenda can be aimed at constituencies (immigration reform, say). But he should throw in something no one expects to hear, something that will throw Romney off guard. Maybe something about more aggressive natural-gas permitting in a second term. Probably needs to be a little bigger than that. But three things on that order would do the trick.

We are three weeks away from Election Day, and even Obama’s supporters (as Tomasky is) don’t have a clear idea of why Obama wants a second term, or what he wants to accomplish.  So far, the Obama campaign seems to be taking its messaging from Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, who famously told Paul Ryan that “we don’t have a plan – all we know is that we don’t like yours.”  Keep that in mind while reading Tomasky, and see how that fits with every point in his strategy except the one above.

The Wall Street Journal’s William McGurn wonders whether a game-changer is even possible.  Obama’s terrible performance two weeks ago was an emperor-has-no-clothes moment from which there is no real return, McGurn believes:

In Denver he didn’t just lose a debate—he lost the carefully cultivated illusion of a larger-than-life figure who was Lincoln and FDR and Moses all wrapped in one. …

Mr. Obama was the man who declared that he would change the thinking of the Muslim world by the mere fact of his election, restore science to its rightful place, and win what he called the “necessary war” in Afghanistan.

And then came this month’s debate in Denver.

That night, the American people watched “the smartest guy in the room” struggle to put together a simple declarative sentence, and then ask the moderator to move onto another topic after Mitt Romney had given a strong statement about jobs and growth and tax revenues.

Some 67 million Americans were watching on TV. What they saw was the scene from the Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy’s dog pulls back the curtain to reveal there is no wizard at all, just a man from the Midwest who pumped himself up into something far beyond his mortal self—and got the whole of Oz to believe it.

That’s why the first debate was always going to be the biggest in this race, and not just because of the illusion Obama created about himself.  That was not the only fantasy destroyed on that stage.  Team Obama had carefully constructed a cartoon version of Mitt Romney as Snidely Whiplash-meets-Scrooge McDuck, an evil vampire capitalist who was more concerned with counting his gold coins than with other human beings.  The debate showed Mitt Romney as not only a thoughtful and successful man, but one with much more presidential bearing than the incumbent.

Those are not illusions that shatter quietly and fade quickly.  That scale of disillusionment carries long-term consequences for those who built the illusions in the first place.

I make that point in my column for The Week today, and also note that the format and placement of this debate prevents either candidate from having a breakthrough moment, absent help from their opponent:

 First, the debate format doesn’t lend itself to big battles between the candidates. While there will be room for digs against opponents, the town-hall format will force both Obama and Romney to focus their attention on the attendees asking the questions, likely voters provided by Gallup for the evening. That means being solicitous of their opinions and questions, even when they don’t match up with the debate strategies of the campaigns. Each question will prompt a two-minute face-off between the two candidates in which they can go after each other’s answers, but the back-and-forth between those interludes and the audience-participation rounds won’t allow for much momentum for either side. …

Furthermore, neither candidate does particularly well in town-hall-style forums. Most people will recall Romney’s stiffness earlier in the primaries while conducting town-hall forums; the Los Angeles Times notes that more than one of Romney’s missteps came during these interactions, including the statement that he likes to “fire people” as a way to show his enthusiasm for reducing government.

But Obama doesn’t do particularly well in this format either. In 2010, when asked about ObamaCare and taxation in a friendly crowd, Obama gave a rambling, disjointed answer that lasted for 17 minutes. Most of Obama’s gaffes, too, come from off-the-cuff moments. The nature of a town-hall format makes it difficult to prepare for all events with memorized answers, and those kind of answers sound too rehearsed for a supposedly extemporaneous forum. …

Even apart from the difficulties of this town-hall format, the specifics of this debate are likely to be lost by the first of November in favor of the first and last impressions of debates — and the final debate next week takes place on foreign policy, a topic on which the Obama administration finds itself under siege. In other words, this debate will matter, but it will probably matter least of the three.

It’s worth noting, as I do in my column, the different approaches the candidates took to preparation for this debate. Obama holed himself up in a resort hotel for intense practice, probably with more seriousness than he did before the Denver collapse.  Romney, on the other hand, began doing townhall forums while campaigning in Ohio.  That may make a difference in tonight’s debate, as Romney has field-tested his responses, while Obama has only tested his in the theoretical construct of debate simulations.

I’d expect some good moments from both candidates, but don’t expect a clear winner as we saw in the last debate.  Obama will be more prepared, and Romney will be ready for that.  The final debate will have more impact as the last word undecided voters have — assuming any are left undecided by that time.

David Strom 10:01 PM on September 26, 2022
David Strom 6:41 PM on September 26, 2022