|[L] Gov. Mitt Romney [C] moderator Bob Schieffer [R] President Barack Obama|
This year’s cycle of Presidential debates have all been influential and informative, but in different ways that one would expect. This is especially true about the slow poison that was passively administered in Boca Raton, Florida.
During the first debate in Denver, unanimous opinion was that Republican Presidential Nominee Governor Mitt Romney (R-MA) won a decisive victory against Democrat Nominee President Barack Obama (D-IL). Focus groups dramatically swung towards the challenger. It seemed that the distorted image of Romney which the Obama 2012 campaign spent $100 million in early television advertising went to waste compared to many voters first unfiltered view of candidate Romney
In addition, Crowley chose to violate her agreed upon position as moderator and played real time (and wrong) instant fact checker. At a key moment, when Mr. Romney pressed Mr. Obama about his Rose Garden statements regarding not calling the action in Libya an act of terrorism, Crowley verbally pushed her way in and insisted that the President had called it an act of terror.
Yet during post debate interviews, the CNN journalist admitted that she was wrong and that Governor Romney was right on the point.
Everyone expected that the Foreign Policy debate in Boca Raton, Florida would concentrate on the Benghazi blunder and candidates trading barbs. In fact, Boca Raton debate Moderator Bob Schieffer started the candidate forum with a couple of wide open questions about Benghazi seemingly begging for blood to be drawn. But Mitt Romney did not take the bait. In fact, he pretty much deferred that issue. Later in the forum, Romney expressed support for some of Obama’s foreign policy as he differentiated is own vision to defend democracy and pursue peace through strength.
Many conservatives stomachs churned, suspecting that their standard bearer was blowing it. But after a few rounds of questioning, it dawned on many right-leaning political observers that Romney’s deferential debate performance was what Bill Sammon would call Strategery . Saturday Night Live mocked Republican Presidential candidate then Governor George W. Bush (R-TX) for being a bumkin and a Bush who was prone to mispronounce words, despite Ivy League educations. The “43" Administration used Strategery as an inside joke for meetings, taking the press misestimation of their skills to their advantage.
Foreign policy is the domain of Presidents and not challengers. So when going toe-to-toe with President Obama, Romney was likely to be diminished by a reply by the President “Well, I was in the situation room” as well as “This deals with classified matters” and “We can not comment on a matter in which we are still investigating.” None of those potential retorts would do the challenger any good.
The tag team phenomenon of moderator Crowley just so happening to have the Rose Garden transcript and master debater Obama suggesting to Crowley to read the transcript leads some cynics to conclude that it was a convenient set up. So Bob Schieffer’s begging for blows about Benghazi might have been a trap. Had Romney engaged about Libya, he would have muddied the waters and partisans would claim “He’s playing politics with a tragedy.” So to use a football analogy, it was wise to play prevent football and punt on such challenges.
Partisan Democrats would declare President Obama the winner no matter what in the third debate. So the surrogates in the spin room were anxious to say that Obama had won on points with all of his jabs. Perhaps. But that missed the point of Romney’s strategery. Although politics is my favorite contact sport, it is not won or lost on the best out of three debate scores.
During the first debate, Romney was iconoclastic, shattering the false image that the Obama campaign had peddled against him during the summer. At the second debate, Romney demonstrated that he could go toe-to-toe arguing with his opponent. That is important, as the incumbent was fighting on a level playing field with the challenger, mooting many inherent advantages of incumbency. For the third debate, Romney’s mission was to not make unforced errors and appear statesman-like.
I likened the debate to a slow political poison given in Boca Raton because Romney’s subtle strategy was not to win the debate but to win votes. By appearing reasonable and giving credit to good parts of Obama’s foreign policy, he burnished his credentials of being bipartisan and reasonable. By not engaging in pointed attacks while standing for what Dennis Prager would call Americanism as well as echoing President Ronald Reagan’s peace through strength, he appealed to undecided voters (many of whom could be called Reagan Democrats) as well as women who recoil from too much conflict. And then there was Mr. Obama’s debate demeanor.
President Obama relished taking the fight to Mr. Romney by interrupting him numerous times, using sneering condescension in addressing his opponents issues and demonizing his challenger. Of course, this is indicative of the Obama 2012 campaign, which has been all about ad hominem attacks rather than presenting a real second term agenda. The negative message constantly coming from Obama 2012 materials is in marked contrast to the Hopey Changey meme from 2008. Even if that is the Democrat’s Presidential Re-Election strategy, it is a mistake for Obama to be that messenger, particularly in an event when he is side-by-side to his opponent. The dirty work is typically left to Vice Presidents, who’s essential qualities typically include breathing, carrying his home state and doing dirty work on the stump for his boss.
Obama’s punchy performance might have rallied the base (again) but did not expand his supporters. Obamatons, and seemingly the Boca Raton Press Corps, cheered when Mr. Obama hit back on charges that the Obama Administration has been rapidly cutting the US Naval Fleet. Candidate Obama snarkily retorted about horses and bayonets.
Politically, this was acting stupidly on electoral college politics. Virginia is a swing state and the Virginia Tidewaters have lots of military voters. Even if the military votes are waylaid this cycle, there are lots of veterans and military spouses that will still be going to the polls who would neither appreciate dramatically cutting the fleet nor the derisive tone of the reply.
While it can not readily be proven, I believe that Romney’s reticence to get down and dirty during the Boca Raton debate threw Obama’s briefing binder out the window. It is reasonable to think that Obama was ready to smack down his opponent on nuances of Benghazi and then sell the narrative that Republican Romney was a warmonger. When Romney did not use the anticipated playbook, Obama had to improvise, which deprived him of much (but not all) of his practiced retorts.
Although Romney projected less aggression in Boca Raton, he was not acquiescent to Obama. The Apology Tour jab was a good example. While Mr. Obama denied that he went on an Apology Tour in 2009 and basically to check the transcript that sorry was the hardest word, the public understood it as such. This allowed Romney to springboard by noting that we did not dictate to the world but that we freed the world from dictators. This was done in a genteel and not overwrought manner while still scoring points.
Romney’s strategic passivity and bipartisanship made Romney appear statesman-like and almost the incumbent whereas Obama’s flailing aggression looked desperate and had the vibe of a challenger rather than the incumbent. Focus groups on various networks came to the surprising conclusion that Obama scored on points but Romney tended to win over undecided voters by being a statesman. Polling coming out after the debate shows some narrowing in the horse race, but the big gap (16%) that Romney had amongst female voters has evaporated. So much for the War on Women meme.
What would really be instructive is likeability factor. Even though President Obama’s national overall approval rate hovers at 47% no matter how they tweak the survey sample, Mr. Obama has consistently topped 50% on likeability. That may be an extension of the Hope and Change phenomenon that sounded nice and people inserted whatever they wanted. In the last month, the Obama 2012 campaign has capitalized on killing Big Bird attack and the puerile Binders Full of Women gimmick to besmirch Romney. Most of that snark was by surrogates or on the campaign hustings.
As the third debate went on, Obama fed upon the bile building up in his antagonistic answers. So the first part of his “In the Navy” answer sounded like a reasonable (but mistaken point) about horses and bayonets and newer technologies. But then Obama went further and sarcastically noted: There are these things called aircraft carriers.” That sort of condescension only sells with the truly convicted. It impeaches the aura of the good graces of likeability which remained with him from the prior campaign. The sarcastic “Aircraft Carrier” trope probably made Obama feel pretty good and rang well in his ears but to females watching it made Obama sound petty and petulant.
It is ironic that by Romney not engaging in the muck about Benghazi, it was spoken about more after the debate. Now that journalists from CBS News and Fox News Channel have the real time communications during the Benghazi attack, the media who chose not to be Obama stenographers can report on the horrific response without denouncing it as a partisan Republican attack.
So by being somewhat passive, classy seeming informed and giving approval to his opponent’s foreign policy successes, Romney seemed bipartisan, statesmanlike and positive while protecting his political position. This change in tactics causes the real Obama to come out once he ran out of scripted one liners. So a haughty, petulant and unscripted Obama was on display for voters to see vis-a-vis Romney.
I watched the debate with a bunch of right minded partisans gathered for the Battleground State Talkers Tour event. Assuredly, the audience would have preferred seeing a pugilistic performance from Romney. But in my estimation, Romney’s Boca Raton debate performance was a slow poison for his opposition. It was not satisfying for someone who’s favorite contact sport is politics, but I think that is was a successful tactic to take. In less than two weeks, it should become clear if the “strategery” was successful in electing the 45th President of the United States.
h/t: A.F. Branco