Yes, this is yet another debate analysis diary -- but one that is exactly opposite to the media conventional wisdom.
My take is that Obama did well in this debate for exactly the reason the media thinks he did poorly. He came away with the better framing, whether deliberately or not, by locking Romney into a stalemate. He pulled Romney early on into the weeds of an argument over economic facts and budget figures, but he stayed out of the mud. In so doing he denied Romney an opportunity to change the dynamic of the campaign.
Romney really needed to redefine himself in this debate, as someone with a clear vision for America based on values that can resonate with a majority of voters. As long as Romney was stuck arguing over tax loopholes and Medicare policy details, he couldn't do that.
In fact, I was surprised how quickly Romney's framing went off the rails. In one of his first segments, he started half his sentences with a negative ("I'm not giving a $5 trillion tax cut for the wealthy") -- violating what's basically the prime directive of framing: Don't repeat your opponent's frames, even to refute a point, since that only reinforces them. So now the media will be fact-checking whether or not Romney actually wants to give huge tax breaks to millionaires and billionaires. The traditional media's fact-checking so far doesn't inspire confidence, but it ultimately doesn't matter whether they get it right. Romney is now associated in voters' minds with those tax cuts.
To be sure, Obama made sacrifices in holding the stalemate. He passed up opportunities to hit Romney with "47%", Bain, or any of the other big drivers of Romney's negatives. He also ceded Romney opportunities to sound human, and even compassionate. He let Romney at times seem strong, forceful, and confident. But while Romney hit on the "government is the problem" theme a few times, Obama generally kept the debate away from big ideas. Romney rarely had the opportunity -- and never the good sense -- to present the grand conservative vision and value system, extolling the Ayn Rand-esque job creator and decrying government as an enabler of immoral layabouts. The segment supposedly devoted to the role of government was especially striking: Obama did present a vision, even echoing Elizabeth Warren, and then finished with some details of government programs. When it was Romney's turn, he responded to the details and wound up wandering in a wilderness of statistics.
At the same time, by staying off the attack, Obama appeared more presidential. He presented the same calm, "no-drama" Obama voters have come to know. This was advantageous because most of Romney's attacks appealed to fear: Obama will raise your taxes and take away your health care. Republicans have been spitballing those points at Obama for 4 years now, and none have stuck with enough voters to get Romney a lead. Obama may have appeared weak compared to Romney, but he also steered well clear of the radical caricature Romney needed to attach to him to give Romney's attacks a frame. In addition, by pointing out the lack of specifics in Romney's plans, Obama reinforced doubts voters have about Romney's purported commitment to the middle class.
So yes, the media will be talking through the next few news cycles about the points Romney scored and the assertions he made without counter from Obama. They'll be talking about how much more exciting Romney was -- the media really likes excitement. But excitement isn't necessarily a good thing, especially with Romney trying to mount a campaign of fear.
In fact, what's more important is what the media won't be talking about: They won't be talking about a grand clash of visions, or how Romney finally presented one that could resonate with swing voters and energize his base. They won't be talking about Romney's deep values, or how he managed to communicate them in the debate. Instead, they'll be talking about facts and figures. And it doesn't really matter what they say: Voters already viewed Obama as someone who's more trustworthy and better shares their values, and since Obama's already ahead on framing, they're more likely to believe his version of the facts than Romney's anyway.
In short: Obama was ahead by a touchdown. He gave up some yardage tonight, but took time off the clock and prevented a big play.
Update 10/5 1:25 MDT: Thanks to grog for the spotlight. I just now noticed it.
I'd be remiss if I didn't credit George Lakoff as one of the masters of political framing. He has a new post on his blog about the debates. It looks like it was written before the debate, but a few things he said are especially important in the aftermath:
Limit discussion of policy details. Policies — and the facts and figures behind them — should only be discussed when they exemplify your values. Avoid isolated facts and figures. Tell stories with clear morals.So: Even if Romney gets away with all the lies, it doesn't help him much. With both candidates focusing on policy details, neither gains much ground. And that helps Obama.
Presidential debates are not won or lost on how good a policy wonk a candidate is.
I'd be interested to see Lakoff's take on debate #1.