By Alan Bean
My guess is that Mitt Romney will soon be neck-and-neck with the president in most swing states. Nationally, the GOP candidate may soon move a point or two ahead. Debates don’t always such deep impact, of course, but this one was different. Barack Obama’s lead in the polls was based on two factors: a Democratic convention where everyone stayed on message, and an infamous video that made Romney look like a heartless, out of touch, let-them-eat-cake plutocrat. Romney sank in the polls because he looked like a jerk.
Last night, Romney redefined himself.
Yes, I know, all true liberals can’t stand the sight of Mitt for the same reason ardent conservatives cringe every time the president’s visage graces the screen. That’s the psychology of partisan politics. For true believers, the contest devolves into a pro wrasslin’ match in which your guy is “the face” and the other guy plays “the heel”. George W had that effect on me in the dark days of the Iraq war build up.
But the swing voters who decide elections tune in too late and care too little to romanticize or demonize either candidate. This explains why both men had so much to say about taxes, the debt and the financial ramifications of Obamacare–that’s the kind of stuff swing voters relate to.
That’s also why neither man said a mumblin’ word about mass incarceration, mass deportation, abortion, the death penalty, gay rights or any other moral issue. That stuff is for the folks who already know who they’re voting for. With the nation evenly divided on virtually every social issue, why take the chance of offending somebody who, were it not for your stance on a single issue, might give your their vote?
President Obama was so afraid of saying the wrong thing, he spent the evening repeating the same weary talking points. When he strayed from his five-trillion dollar mantra, he appeared to be making things up as he went along. By contrast, Romney had his talking points down cold. He was successful because he reinvented his political persona with such audacity that an unprepared Obama had no come back. What do you do when “a severe conservative” suddenly lurches left?
Liberal pundits are mad at Romney for refusing to explain his deficit reduction plan and for misleading the audience about the $760 million he says Obama will cut from medicare. But it was Obama’s job to rebut these arguments. He didn’t do it, and everybody knows it. The talking heads on MSNBC can’t fix what’s broken because swing voters are watching ESPN.
Why was Obama so tepid, testy and tedious last night?
Opinions vary. One of my Face Book friends suggests that Obama’s campaign schedule means he hasn’t been getting enough loving. Others note that it has been four years since Obama was in a debate and he’s rusty. And then there is the theory that presidents surround themselves with sycophants who turn the White House into a home on the range where never is heard a discouraging word. Confronted with a finger-jabbing opponent, presidents lose their poise and that makes for bad television.
Perhaps it’s not that complicated.
Barack Obama doesn’t have a debater’s temperament. At heart, he’s a bipartisan, centrist politician eager to meet his opponents half way. They don’t call him “No Drama Obama” for nothing. Sure, he’s such a great public speaker who has learned all the rhetorical tricks in the black preacher handbook, but that’s not his natural speaking style. In a debate setting, he gets professorial and reactive. Romney won last night’s debate because he was always on the attack. Only once did Obama accuse his challenger of pandering to his base. The 47% issue went unaddressed. Romney’s years with Bain Capital were never mentioned.
All of this, I fear, was by design. There is no other explanation. Obama realizes that America has evolved into a punitive, angry, center-right nation with an aversion to criticism. Americans love to be told how resilient, hard-working, noble, and all around wonderful they are. Mention our broken criminal justice system, our oppressive immigration policy. or the blood-lust revealed by capital punishment, and we are immediately incensed. This is why Obama, a former street organizer who understands how unjust our core institutions have become, refuses to employ his pardon and commutation pen.
Obama, moreover, is scared to death of coming off like an angry black man. The Republicans are free to engage in the divisive politics of racial resentment because the president fears, with justification, that he would would be punished for addressing the elephant in the room. Imagine what Fox and Friends would do with that.
Having gained a small-but-comfortable lead in the polls, Obama and his handlers believed they could rope-a-dope their way to victory. It ain’t gonna work that way, and last night’s debate shows why. Politicians are self-proclaimed truth tellers who dare not tell the truth. If Obama wants to stay in the White House, he will have to get over his fear of backlash and deliver some truth. Authenticity requires spontaneity, but risk-averse, self-censoring pols like Obama fear what might slip out if they were too “in the moment”.
The Texas Rangers lost a season-deciding baseball game yesterday because they were playing not to lose. The tide turned when Josh Hamilton dropped a fly ball that I could have caught with ease. Hamilton was so determined not to drop the ball that he forgot to catch it. Barack Obama lost a potentially election-changing debate last night for precisely the same reason.