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So the consensus among pretty much everyone: pundits, press, snap polls, focus groups, etc. were all that Romney beat Obama pretty handily at last night’s first presidential debate. But how did he do this? I think there were four key factors that led to Romney being perceived as the winner last night:

  • Assertiveness
  • Tossing spaghetti
  • Two-faced Romney
  • Narrowing the discussion

I’ll take these one by one, starting with:


I think this one is a pretty easy one to explain, and pretty obvious to anyone watching. Romney simply refused to have the last word, and stomped all over moderator Jim Lehrer in order to get it. We already knew Romney would have the final, final word in closing arguments, but he bullied Lehrer into having the final say on every question but the last one, when Lehrer basically told them they each had about 90 seconds and Romney went first. However, Lehrer’s lack of assertiveness and control perhaps minimized how much it appeared Romney was stomping on him other than the occasionally “um” and “excuse me”s Lehrer was inserting now and then in a futile attempt to retain control of the debate.

Having the last word on almost everything both gave Romney the appearance of being more assertive (while Obama on more than one occasion actually deferred to Lehrer out of respect so he could move on) as well as allowed him to make a series of assertions which ultimately went unanswered by Obama. This apparently both made Romney look like a stronger leader and gave the appearance that Obama didn’t have an answer to Romney’s accusations.

Tossing spaghetti

I’m using this term to try to keep this blog post PG, but the essence of this one is that Governor Romney was throwing so many lies and distortions at President Obama that Obama had to pick and choose which ones to respond to if he wanted to have any time left to respond about his own record and plans.

One attack that stood out to me that sounded effective, but becomes rather absurd once you think about it, was the accusation that 3% of the small businesses not covered by Obama’s tax cuts employ one quarter of the workforce. Now, just taken on it’s face, this would make it sound like Obama’s plan has a pretty significant hole in it. But then you think on it: How can 3% of small businesses employ 50% the number of employees as 100% of the large businesses – that’s the claim Romney is making. I know there are a lot of small businesses, but if you look at the claim that way, the claim becomes patently absurd. And it’s absurd because there are a lot of businesses that are anything but “small” in the number of their employees but who classify themselves as small businesses for tax purposes.

The second pretty big absurdity is that Romney provided two items he could cut from the budget to reduce the deficit: Obamacare and PBS. The problem is that getting rid of Obamacare actually increases the deficit per the CBO, and PBS is something like 1/100th of 1% of the entire budget. We could save more money by building one less submarine a year in all likelihood.

And as a prime example of spaghetti tossing, there was a moment where Romney threw out several whoppers all at once: that there are no tax breaks for moving jobs overseas, that 50% of the green companies Obama has invested in have failed, and that states will effectively meet the needs of the poor and elderly by having complete control over Medicaid dollars (many states don’t do it now with the flexibility they currently have) and then…Lehrer ended the segment and they went off to the next topic. Three significant whoppers end up going unchallenged because both Romney can’t not have the last word and he is just throwing everything out there in hopes some of it sticks.

Two-faced Romney

We now have a new phenomena in this election: not only do we have a fantasy Obama, but we now have a fantasy Romney too. Romney spent much of his time at the debate pretending to be a candidate that he’s never been during the campaign, partly to make himself look moderate and partly to disarm Obama’s most likely attacks against him.

Romney started by insisting that he needed to give middle class and small business tax relief – which is fine – but then asserted that his plan would be revenue neutral. When challenged on this, Romney’s ultimate answer was to say that no one can accuse him of wanting to raise the deficit by cutting taxes because he will refuse to do so, whatever his tax plan says notwithstanding.

This was Romney’s first attempt to disable Obama’s attack on him of being just like Bush, by insisting that the math in his plan adds up, and even if it somehow doesn’t, then he’ll toss it out and do something else because, by god, you have his word he won’t increase the deficit by raising taxes.

His next attempt was on the deficit, when he attacked the president for not adopting the Simpson-Bowles plan, and then proceeded to attack Obama – and Simpson-Bowles – by saying that we shouldn’t increase taxes. So he’s insisting that Obama should have adopted a plan that he says was the wrong plan! But name dropping Simpson-Bowles makes Romney look like he may be willing to compromise on the deficit when he has no intention of doing so. Romney also said things like he’ll “probably” have to get rid of the oil subsidies in order for his tax cuts to be deficit neutral, but he never actually commits to the idea.

Perhaps one of Romney’s biggest attempts to disarm Obama’s attacks was his sudden embrace of government regulations. I was pretty stunned with Romney came out with this:

Regulation is essential. You can’t have a free market work if you don’t have regulation. As a businessperson, I had to have — I need to know the regulations. I needed them there. You couldn’t have people opening up banks in their — in their garage and making loans. I mean, you have to have regulations so that you can have an economy work. Every free economy has good regulation.
This statement is diametrically opposed to pretty much the very concept of Romney’s campaign that government is too big and needs to be eliminated wherever possible. He then extended this further by saying that he actually agrees with most of Dodd-Frank (despite wanting to repeal all of it), and cites Romneycare as a solution to healthcare, even though it’s exactly the same as Obamacare, which he wants to repeal because it over-regulates. He also made similar claims about not wanting to cut education funding (despite saying he would earlier in the campaign) among other things. He almost literally made up a new campaign at the debate in order to appear to moderate voters and to thwart Obama’s attacks against him. I think this is where Obama was probably caught most off guard.

I made a remark early in the debate that the theme seemed to be “we agree,” and while that wore off some by the end, I think it’s still apt. “we agree” was a major theme by Romney. He tried to give the appearance that he agreed with all the popular things Obama has done or is proposing, while attacking everything else. I think a big part of the strategy here was to narrow the gap between himself and Obama so it becomes less of an ideological big ideas battle and to turn the election into something like “Hey, I actually like all the popular stuff Obama is doing, so you don’t have to worry about that. As a result, it’s safe to vote for me to go in a new direction on everything else.”

Narrowing the discussion

While we had discussion in the debate about broad policies, especially where Romney wanted to attack Obama, when Romney was on defense, he tried to change the discussion from broad ideals to narrow policy decisions or parts of laws.

With taxes, Romney turned a discussion about whether the rich should pay their fair share into a discussion about how much taxes 3% of small businesses would pay. With Dodd-Frank, he turned a discussion about the general theme of regulating banks – and regulation in general – into a discussion about a single, specific provision in the bill (which I think also caught Obama off guard as I don’t think he was prepared to talk about the law to that degree of granularity). With Obamacare, he turned a broad discussion about health care in this country into a quibble over the Medicare board.

This had the double-edged effect of making Romney look knowledgeable by talking about specific portions of laws or policies (when Obama wasn’t prepared to do so, at least not on those specific items), while simultaneously deflecting the discussion away from broader differences about the role of government and how policies should be implemented that were likely to be more damaging to him.

So what can Obama do to correct this?

Obama has the advantage next time of knowing largely what Romney’s tactics may be now and the fact that the next debate is a town hall debate, which will be more traditional answer-rebuttal format and the final debate will be on Obama’s perceived strength of foreign policy, and where Romney will likely have less of an opportunity to use the same tricks he used above (perhaps other than bullying the moderator again).

However, Obama is facing a conundrum in that, at least the CNN focus group last night didn’t like it when candidates attacked each other, and one of Obama’s lowest ratings came when he insisted that Romney’s tax plan didn’t add up. So perhaps the biggest instance of Obama challenging Romney’s questionable claims was seen as one of his low points of the night, at least by that specific focus group. The other issue Obama faces is the fact that Romney is throwing so much spaghetti at him that if he were to respond to all of it, he would have no time left to talk about his own accomplishments and goals.

I think the format of the town hall will help mitigate some of these problems, but Obama still needs to come up with a way to call out Romney without spending exorbitant about of time having to explain everything. I’m not really sure how one accomplishes that. The one time he tried, Romney just repeatedly responded with “you’re wrong” and at least for the focus group, that seemed to be a sufficient defense for Romney.

I think the other thing Obama can do is perhaps be more assertive and animated. One of the criticisms was that he looked flat or that he didn’t want to be there. I think the town hall format will help with that, as Obama will be able to interact with voters directly, though it will be something he needs to work on for the final debate on foreign policy.

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