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First Presidential Debate, October 3, 2012

Debate, Podium, President, Discorse, Politics [1]The most impressive thing about Wednesday night’s Presidential Debate is what it was not: a contentious barrage of angry epitaths like those being thrown throughout the blogosphere or even in some of the Republican Primary Debates. Both men were smiling, civil, and even appeared to be listening as the other spoke. President Obama carried on the same criticisms of Romney’s plans, and the Governor politely said that the President’s information was wrong. They both agreed with each other regarding areas of common ground. We suspect that the rules holding applause had a positive impact on the cordial nature of the debate, although it certainly didn’t hurt that Moderator Jim Lehrer’s folksy demeaner and attempts to steer the conversation helped keep the discourse on an even keel.

The debate format was such that Lehrer, the sole quiz master, provided the questions, each candidate got 2 minutes to answer, and multiple guided opportunities to respond to each other. The program was to be divided into six 15 minute segments, 3 related to the Economy, 1 Health Care, 1 The Role of Government, and 1 on Governing. Neither candidate was able to keep within the time limits, and Lehrer was generally unable to interrupt them as they spoke. Frankly, we would also find it difficult to interrupt the President of The United States while he is speaking simply out of respect, and although on this stage he is Candidate Obama, one cannot escape the simple power of the office. As a result, the very first 15 minute segment lasted 25 minutes, and at the end of the debate, the final segment on Governing was dropped.

Although quite a few of the comments from the candidates were answers to the questions they wanted to hear or attempts to simply reiterate the prior opposing points, overall we did hear some clear messages of positions on each candidate’s part. Tiresome after a while was the continued return to the question of Governor Romney’s tax plan, both in the President’s criticism and the Governor’s response.

President Barack Obama [Justin Arnold]

My assignment is to critique the performance of President Obama in around 500 words…challenge accepted.  To do so we will cover two main areas, 1) his stylistic performance, and 2) the themes he chose to create through repetition.

In terms of his “theatrical”, as usual he was calm, smooth, and steady.  He made no direct gaffes, never lost his train of thought or focus, and came across as charming and competent.  This should surprise no one, as he has consistently scored high in this area and this rare ability is by far his greatest gift.

When it comes to the themes he chose to develop throughout the evening, identifying them is important for two central reasons.  The first is that this particular debate played out in such a way that there were really no instantly memorable big moments, whether positive or negative, for either candidate.  Unlike some debates that can be bookmarked by a few great lines or retorts, this one had a steady flow and a real seamless conversional back and forth from beginning to end.  I think there is little question that the Romney camp was thrilled this style of debate is what unfolded.  The reason for this being that the audience really has no choice but to judge the men more on the basis of substance and less on who scored the most clever gotcha points—which is a battle Romney will lose to Obama every time.

The second reason themes are important is because they are pre-chosen for a reason.  They represent the narrative that each candidate strongly believes increases there chance of winning both the debate and the election.  For this reason, it is critical that they are the “right” ones, and that they drive them home effectively.

Obama’s Themes and 2 Best Lines Of The Night

Without question there were three major assertions that the President wanted the viewer to take away from the debate and two that were more minor.  The major themes were each repeated at least three times and the minor ones at least twice.

  1. That Romney (and Paul Ryan) have plenty of plans but no specifics.  Cultivating this idea is an effort to take away the “election of big ideas” that Romney has desired ever since announcing Paul Ryan as his VP.  Besides the claim having some truth to it, for Obama it is brilliant politics and I believe he scored some points with it.
  2. That Mitt Romney’s plan includes $5 trillion in tax cuts and a $2 trillion increase in military spending.  This was repeated no less than four times and Romney adamantly denied the tax claim each time. (Next week we will look at this claim and bring you the boring facts).
  3. Insurance companies are villains.  In three different topic segments the President managed to work in examples of how insurance companies are taking it to the American people, and he did so using vivid language like “jerking people around” and that seniors are “at their mercy at the very time they are most vulnerable”.

The minor themes were that he gave a $3,600 tax cut to the middle class (which I sure don’t remember seeing), and twice harkening back to the economy and tax rates of Bill Clinton.

Interestingly, Obama’s two best lines were both open ended questions—On Dodd-Frank -“Does anyone out there think our problem was too much regulation on Wall Street?”, and on the lack of Romney specifics- “People have got to be asking, is the reason Mitt Romney is keeping these plans so secret because they are so good?”

Governor Mitt Romney [Art Smith]

One may wonder if Mitt Romney is running as hopeless a race as John McCain did in 2008, and whether these debates would be opportunities for him to swing the battle-ax in hopes of stimulating more people to rise up and vote against the current President in the midst of intellectual carnage.  Thankfully, this was not the case.  The Governor was poised, calm, smiling, even engaging with both the audience and the President.  And he was prepared.  I’ll cover his weakest point, his key theme, and of course his two best lines.

The Governor’s weakest point in the debate was not anything he said but the elephant he left standing in the room.  The entire evening the President Obama harped on Romney’s plan to add $2 Trillion in military spending despite the lack of such a request from the Joint Chiefs.  There is no question that Romney has put this on the table (although his website is oddly silent on this or any topic not specifically focused on jobs), but he never directly responds or provides justification for such a plan.  The closest he came was to addressing this question was in the final segment when addressing the question of the role of government, he talked about the government’s responsibility to protect the lives and liberties of its people, in which he said “… that means military that is second to none … I believe in maintaining the strength of America’s military.”  I’m not surprised that he let that question fall to the floor, and I’m sure it was a pre-debate decision not to respond to that criticism because it would have likely had the effect of simply reinforcing the public’s awareness of this spending increase plan by a candidate that is trying to cut everything else in the budget.

Romney’s Themes and 2 Best Lines Of The Night

  1. Mitt Romney will do what the President could not: bring more jobs to America.  Frankly, this appears to be the Governor’s entire campaign strategy, to remind people that there are millions of people without jobs, that the President promised that his plans would reduce the jobless rate to 5.7% by June of this year, and that he failed (by 2½%, which is big).  Almost every item he discussed came back to jobs.
  2. Mitt Romney will do what needs to be done to fix the economy.   He referred to the mounting ($1 Trillion per year) debt as “immoral”, pointed out a few things that he would cut, emphasized how energy independence was critical to America’s economic success, and repeatedly struck the need to reduce the tax burden on small business.
  3. Mitt Romney will close the Great Divide(my term for the political disparity regarding Entitlements).
    1. On Social Security: multiple generations have been put in the position that they need to depend on the government and we cannot break that promise.  However, for future generations will need to talk.
    2. On MediCare, MediCaid, and Education: We need to look at giving the states more control in order to ensure that services and resources are better managed.
    3. On ObamaCare: repeal and replace it with something that doesn’t kill the economy and jobs.

Governor Romney provided a good amount of careful explanations about his policies, but his two best lines were: 1) “Adding $1 trillion per year to the debt is simply immoral.”  That is probably the best way to characterize everything going wrong in Washington right now and  2) “The role of Government is to Promote and Protect the principles of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.”  The fact that large sections of both documents made up part of the backdrop for the stage was a huge connection.


For the non-intuitive undecided voter who is judging on quips and zingers this debate may not have a big impact, but for those out there thoughtfully processing each candidate’s arguments and philosophy, tonight could really move the needle for Romney.  He also likely scored big with the voter who had only heard negative second-hand opinions of Romney and pictured him as some cartoonish stooge.  On this evening he was anything but, and he delivered a truly fantastic performance from front to back.


President Barack Obama’s Web Site [2]

Governor Mitt Romney’s Web Site [3]