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Oct 05 2012

Debate post-mortems

The post-mortems on the first presidential debate provided me with first-hand experience of something that I had previously only read about, which was that the reactions of actual viewers of such debates immediately after watching them can differ quite widely from the media consensus generated afterwards. The things that we are told were significant events in past debates tend to be things that many viewers did not even notice in real time but were created as part of the post-debate narrative.

I watched the debate and went to sleep almost immediately afterwards, deliberately avoiding all the analyses. The next day, I wrote my thoughts about it before reading the opinions of others and gave my view that while Romney did somewhat better than Obama, the latter missing some opportunities to make important points, there was nothing earth-shattering. The whole event was pretty ho-hum, I thought.

Hence I was surprised to read later that some analysts were calling it a blowout victory for Romney and that some Obama supporters such as Andrew Sullivan were even calling it a ‘rolling calamity’ and a ‘disaster’ and panicking that he had blown his chances for re-election with his poor performance.

This illustrates how quickly the media consensus forms and thus poses a problem for me. If I want to know what happened, I will have to actually watch the debates, much as I dislike to, since the reports afterwards tend to lay undue emphasis on things that would have struck me as minor or trivial or may not have even noticed.

Perhaps I can convince myself that the debates don’t really matter all that much (not a hard case to make) and thus spare myself the feeling that I need to watch them.

17 comments

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  1. 1
    Pierce R. Butler

    If you want to follow the campaign as a horse race, don’t miss a single political debate.

    If you want to learn anything of factual significance, don’t bother with them.

  2. 2
    michaelraymer

    I was rather surprised by the media reaction, too. After watching it I felt like it was basically a draw. Sure, Romney was more aggressive in style, but that’s not what I was paying attention to. What surprised me (but apparently isn’t worth mentioning) was how Romney jettisoned his entire party’s platform in that debate. Suddenly he doesn’t want to give tax breaks to the wealthy, and he’s for teachers, and he likes regulations (because otherwise people start banks in their garages?). It seemed like to debate Obama, he decided to simply adopt all of Obama’s most popular positions. It really felt like an etch-a-sketch moment to me, and I was really surprised that the media was more interested in talking about how badly Obama performed than the substance of what Romney said. Obama did seem more passive, but I assumed that was part of a strategy. He was ahead and wanted to play it safe. I did notice he let Romney get a couple attacks in without responding to them when I thought he should have, but he did go after Romney for the lack of specifics on his plans. So again, I didn’t see this tremendous failure by Obama, only a sudden reversal of everything Romney has been campaigning about. The only real failure in that debate seemed like the moderator. Both candidates walked all over him whenever they felt like it, and I thought his questions weren’t very substantive. I’m looking forward to the town-hall debate, since I think that format has a better chance of getting some good questions posed. But then again it’s likely that those people are so heavily screened that it’ll just appeal to the party talking points…

  3. 3
    Doug Little

    I absolutely felt exactly the same way about the debate.

  4. 4
    anteprepro

    Perhaps I can convince myself that the debates don’t really matter all that much (not a hard case to make) and thus spare myself the feeling that I need to watch them.

    Bingo. The only thing that is significant is the illustration of how influential this media narrative can actually be. The implications go far beyond something with as little influence on the election as a single debate.

  5. 5
    brucegee1962

    The frustrating thing is that there were so many way Obama could have blown him out of the water at so many different points. He could have brought up the 47%. He could have said, “Mr. Romney, you say you’re going to cut taxes while you keep revenue the same. How stupid do you think the American People are? Because I give them a bit more credit.” Or “Mr. Romney, your campaign once said that you could start over again with a clean slate in the general election, and it’s obvious that’s what you’re trying to do here tonight. But do you really believe the American people will forget all of the things you said to get your party’s nomination? Because I don’t believe they will.”

    So many lost opportunities.

  6. 6
    felicis

    I have wondered about President Obama’s performance as well, and I’ve come to the conclusion (based on nothing more than my natural cynicism) that he’s deliberately doing worse than he could to keep the pressure for donations up…

    I hope I’m wrong…

  7. 7
    Raging Bee

    …the reactions of actual viewers of such debates immediately after watching them can differ quite widely from the media consensus generated afterwards.

    Or, as seems likely in this case, the media consensus generated BEFORE the debate.

  8. 8
    JagerBaBomb

    Me too. I did a double-take at some of the things Romney said. Seeing the narrative afterward, though, reminded me that for most it’s not what gets said but how it gets said.

  9. 9
    Leo Buzalsky

    Agreed. I was especially caught off guard by the calls for regulations. The whole “garage” argument was a bit…absurd…but he seemed to otherwise take an unexpected rational approach toward the topic.

    One note on the teachers was that Romney put in the disclaimer that he was going to leave that to local governments to decide. In which case, what’s the effective difference between him not wanting more teachers and wanting more teachers, but not enforcing such a policy? I suppose he could want fewer teachers and enforce that policy…so it could be worse.

    There were certainly moments were Obama could have countered Romney more aggressively, but then there were positive moments (in my opinion) that seem to have been overlooked, like when Obama pointed out that for-profit insurance companies are going to have a disadvantage compared to the government because (duh!) they have to make profits…something that should be blatantly obvious, but seems to frequently not be considered in the whole public vs. private sector debate.

  10. 10
    dano

    Perhaps we were watching a different debate. Mitt provided 5 key points for his plan and there were zero rebuttals from Obama. Obama would not even look Mitt in the eyes as if to say my answers are so weak I can’t look at you. On the flip side Mitt always looked Obama in the eyes when he spoke to him. This was a blow out and I knew this even before the news hype after the debate. Even the left wing news station on Sirius was back peddling the next morning regarding fall out.

  11. 11
    dano

    Why is there even talk about the 47% comment when most people I have spoke to (both left & right side) say he spoke the truth and there is nothing more to say about it.

  12. 12
    Mano Singham

    Actually, there is more to say about it. Now Romney says that he was completely wrong about it.

  13. 13
    lorn

    Romney struck me as the epitome of the masters of the Universe finance guys. They walk in like they own the place, expect that people will do as they say without question, and talk in an avalanche of talking points and facts they manufacture on the spot to fit the situation. And once they get a roll going they lay it on thicker and heavier (apologies to Charlie Daniels) so that there is no time to question the first assertion before a second and third are on board. It is a form of bullying and plays into Romney as bully and blowhard.

    This is a common tactic for used car salesmen. They swamp the buyer in words and ideas and while they flounder he tells them what to do. In a very short time the sucker finds himself in a car he didn’t want and with a payments he can’t afford.

    I get the feeling the American public will be feeling much the same way if Romney gets into office. Historically business executives and command type personalities tend to do very poorly as POTUS because nearly everything in government requires compromise and balancing conflicting factions.

    In atmospherics Romney won the field but he did it by bully tactics and lies. Obama won if you ignore the atmospherics and just stick to facts. The general public is generally so ill informed, often misinformed, that winning on points based on a logical and factual presentation is largely lost on them.

  14. 14
    dano

    I guess I see a president that has done nothing for our economy other than assure that my children and their children will be paying off government debt for the next 50 years as a failure but perhaps I may be missing something. The 47% comment makes perfect sense but it was a little harsh for some to swallow. We need hope and change (sorry had to use it here)and another four years of Obama will send what remaining middle class jobs we have left overseas.

  15. 15
    tajparis

    So… most of the people you talk to, left and right, believe that the 47% of the American population that doesn’t pay income taxes* can’t be convinced to take personal responsibility for their lives? You associate with some clueless people, then.

    *Of course, most of that 47% does pay other forms of taxes.

  16. 16
    lorn

    On the general economy: Obama has done everything he could to keep average Americans on the boat after financialization and deregulation, both GOP dogma programs, swamped the economy and the American Jobs Act (AJA) was rejected by a GOP stonewall back by the filibuster. The party that claims government can do no good is determined to prove the point by making sure government does no good.

    Debt: Reagan doubled the national debt and W doubled it again. W was worse because he signed tax cuts that today accounts for rough third off the debt. W also got us into Iraq and that has/will cost us three trillion dollars. Figure Afghanistan at a bit less than half of that. Wars are another approximate third of the debt. Obama has cut taxes and lowered the national debt, look it up, Google is your friend.

    Of course debt isn’t a problem, and won’t be, for a couple more decades but any economist worth beans will tell you you pay of debt, if one desires to pay off something that isn’t normally a problem, when times are good. The GOP took a Clinton surplus and made it into a deficit, remember “It is your money”. Funny how when a Republican is in office deficits are never a problem, not one peep is hear as they run the deficit up, but as soon as a Democrat gets in it is all that matters.

    Carried liabilities by children: Historically deficits are seldom paid off. We didn’t actually pay off the deficit we ran up during WW2. Most of it was simply held and, over time, as the economy grew and the natural rate of inflation continued the debt became an ever smaller percentage of an ever larger economy.

    We are not actually at a historic high debt to GDP ratio. There is no near-term need to address the debt. Once recovery takes hold, assuming we don’t kill the recovery by imposing austerity, the national debt can be addressed. There is little up side for the US economy if we focus on it now.

    Off-shoring jobs: talk to Romney about that. Bain used off shoring jobs, cutting workforce, lowering wages, cutting benefits, and plundering retirement funds as one of their main tools to liquidate the middle class and enrich the top .1%. How do you think he made the money he didn’t inherit.

    Given a stonewalling GOP in both houses, filibuster made the temporary Dem majority meaningless, Obama really couldn’t do much. He nibbled around the edges in the time remaining after handling two wars, the largest financial meltdown since the Great Depression, massive financial impropriety, and working to patch the single biggest hole in the US economy, healthcare.

    The American Jobs Act would have produced something north of a million jobs but, as the GOP leadership announced just days after he was sworn in, making sure Obama was a one term president was their primary mission. Allowing the AJA to pass would allow Obama to claim a victory so the GOP would have none of that. The middle class was kept unemployed so Limbaugh, Rove, and now Romney, would have a club to beat Obama with. Politics is a far higher priority for them than the good of the nation, and the people.

  17. 17
    jamessweet

    It’s much simpler than that: In advance of the debate, Team Obama came to the conclusion that a restrained, no-risks approach would be safer and not really give Romney any room to score points, i.e. maintain the lead. They were not expecting a “different Romney” to show up — a Romney committed far more to centrism, and much more aggressive than anticipated — and the consensus, even within the campaign, is that it was an error.

    Not a grievous error, mind you; Romney has a lot of ground to make up in order to win, and a single debate wasn’t near enough. It does narrow the threshold a bit in terms of what kind of October surprise could swing the election, so it’s risky, but not disastrous.

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