Why Obama lost
October 4, 2012 1 Comment
1) Noam Scheiber’s analysis is the best I’ve read:
The problem was that Obama proceeded as though playing it safe, which was strategically defensible, was at odds with defining Romney. But these two things are actually perfectly consistent. The Obama campaign has done a masterful job portraying Romney as an out-of-touch plutocrat, then connecting that character profile (Romney defenders would say caricature) with a set of policies that favor the wealthy over the working stiff: upper-income tax cuts, voucher-izing Medicare, draconian spending cuts. Which is to say, they fleshed out a detailed portrait of their opponent and what he stood for, and they made it stick. There was nothing especially risky about continuing in that vein tonight. The campaign has been field-testing those themes for the better part of six months.
Had Obama been on his game, he would have hammered away on this relentlessly. Every response would have explained how Romney’s polices favor people like himself, who don’t need help, and short-change the people who do. Social Security, Medicare, health care, education—pretty much any question Jim Lehrer could have thrown at him could have been connected to this larger picture. Instead, Obama spent too much time in the weeds of his own proposals…
Romney, on the other hand, debated like a candidate completely aware that the game wasn’t about details, but what the details summed to. Every response was exquisitely calibrated to reveal a man who feels middle-class pain and has no ideology other than what works (to borrow an Obama mantra from 2008). He started out with anecdotes about struggling women he’d met in Dayton and Denver. He portrayed himself as an advocate of expanding health care and regulating Wall Street. His only objections to Obama’s accomplishments on these fronts were entirely practical: to the rising healthcare costs Obamacare would bring and the clunky government bureaucracy that would run it; to the way Dodd-Frank labeled the five biggest banks too-big-to-fail (which, he argued, would commit the government to backstopping them, though the truth is that it also earns them a lot more government scrutiny).
In reality, Romney spent most of the last year-and-a-half telling voters he wanted to wipe these measures off the books, with only the vaguest suggestion of what he might do instead. (Obama’s best line of the night came when he urged voters to ask themselves, “[I]s the reason that Governor Romney is keeping all these plans to replace [my programs] secret because they’re too good?” which worked on a variety of levels.) But tonight he was simply Romney the businessman-technocrat, willing to tinker here and there—keep this, lose that—until he stumbled on the right answer.
It was Obama’s job to point out these fundamental contradictions in Romney. And though he tried at times, he generally failed to do so.
2) Seth Masket points out why Obama might not have been as prepared as we’d expect:
The second reason is that to the extent Obama prepped for this debate, he prepped to debate someone else other than who showed up. The awkward Randian conservative, so uncomfortable in his own ideological skin, had morphed, incredibly rapidly, into a pragmatic, confident moderate.Jim Tankersly (via Wonkblog) summed it up nicely:
Apparently Mitt Romney likes government regulation, loves Medicare the way it is, agrees fairly regularly with President Obama, and does not, in fact, want to cut taxes very much. Those are gross simplifications of Romney’s economic platform, and ones very much at odds with the anti-tax, anti-regulation, pro-entitlement-reform campaign the former Massachusetts governor has waged for more than a year.
I was really struggling with this. I couldn’t tell whether Romney had completely abandoned his old positions on taxes and regulations or whether he was just casting those positions in a new light. Regardless, the pivot to the center that had been conspicuously absent from Romney’s campaign this year finally happened, in the space of 90 minutes.
Again and again, he missed open goals. He let Romney say that he, Romney, would take better care of entitlements than Obama would. Incredible. He watched as his attack on Romney’s tax proposal kept bouncing off, until he looked feeble for repeating it. Why on earth didn’t he force Romney to say which deductions would be removed to pay for the lower rates? He let Romney boast about his Massachusetts health care plan and in the same breath denounce Obamacare (to all intents and purposes, the same policy). Romney’s argument about letting states be laboratories is tactically clever, and there’s something to it, but surely Obama could have asked why Romney doesn’t at leastadvocate Romneycare to the rest of the country. The president remembered to criticize insurance companies but (unless I missed it) forgot to mention that Obamacare is mainly about covering 50 million people who, you know, don’t have health insurance. He let Romney attack him for failing to cut deals with the GOP, as though Republicans would have compromised if only they’d been talked to politely. In response, Obama meekly referred to Republican intransigence, but threw the comment away. That was a chance to lay the blame for paralysis in Washington on Romney’s party, where it mostly belongs. And what about the 47 percent–about moochers, dependents, people whom Romney won’t ever convince to be responsible, this nation of parasites? Hardly worth mentioning, I suppose.
And the others have plenty of other examples. Now, in all fairness to Obama, this is surely hard to do well. It’s not as if Obama is stupid. But it is a real shame as the performance was clearly so far below what Obama is capable of and it really allowed Romney to skate by with all his lies and distortions in a way that he should not have been. Just imagine a “come on, just give us one deduction Mitt. Just one. Home mortgage interest? Charitable giving?” and then follow that with the “secrets” line (his one good attack of the night). Romney was always going to come off well because he really brought his A+ game, but Obama certainly could have fought him to a draw– or even won– given the superior material he has to work with. The problem is that Obama really did bring his C game. And it hurt.