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Debate Watch: Obama Eats Up the Clock, But Romney Sets the Agenda

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During the first Presidential debate last night, CNN ran a clock on screen showing how long each candidate had spoken in total. It reminded me of a time-of-possession clock in a football game. In a game, if one team burns more of the clock, it can mean that they’re controlling the ball, defending their lead, denying their opponents the opportunity to score.

Sometimes. But sometimes it just means they’re running a slogging ground game, while their opponent scores faster and more often by putting the ball in the air.

By CNN’s clock, President Barack Obama spoke for more than three minutes longer than Mitt Romney. But it didn’t feel like he said more. In the first debate of the 2012 campaign, Romney was sharper, more animated, quicker. Two candidates were on stage, but only one seemed to be competing. Obama spent more time speaking but not more time talking. You could have held a whole other debate within the time he spent on “Aaaahs” and “Ummms” and thoughtful pauses.

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Maybe this was Obama’s design: seeing a lead in the polls, the campaign didn’t want to risk mistakes or sacrifice likability. No direct attacks! No sarcasm! No condescension! Maybe it decided it did not want to risk winning the election by working too aggressively to win the debate.

In which case, mission accomplished. Here’s the thing about debates: you win them by debating. By engaging, sparring, refuting and making sharp, memorable arguments. That doesn’t have to mean cheap stunts and canned zingers. It just means laying out a focused case. Staying above the fray is often admirable, but a debate is a fray. If you’re above it, you’re out of it.

The old saw in TV debates is that you can tell the winner by watching with the sound off. Romney looked spirited and eager. Obama, who spent much of the debate looking down at his notepad, was low-key, mild and diffident. Maybe the intended effect was dignified, but with the candidates framed mostly in tight head shots, he often looked chastened instead–gaze downward in split screen, with an opponent looking in his direction, eagerly pressing the case. (In the heavily negotiated debates, the campaigns are, or should be, conscious of the camera framing.) Other times, he looked to Jim Lehrer, as if giving a press conference.

In part, Romney succeeded because he was ready to step into the vacuum left by Lehrer, of PBS, who moderated the debate only in the loosest sense of the word. He didn’t question the candidates so much as raise topics: Tell us about your differences on social security! Talk about healthcare! Say some things about the debt, or government, or really whatever you’d like! Lehrer didn’t direct, challenge, engage. We could barely hear his fluttery objections as the debate steamrolled past him.

That left the candidates free to set their own terms, and Romney, who has gone all in on debate prep for weeks, knew precisely the ones he wanted to set. He positioned himself in the center: suddenly, he was the candidate who didn’t want to lower taxes for the rich and spoke kindly of the safety net. (The “47%” comments? Not raised by Lehrer or Obama, and likewise for “You didn’t build that” and many other recent campaign flashpoints.) And he came with one-two-three lists and ready statistics–lots of numbers that may have conveyed the impression of specificity without offering specifics on, say, his own tax-policy or healthcare math. Ironically, one of Obama’s strongest attacks came on Medicare–a subject Romney, amazingly, raised voluntarily in a question on Social Security.

I’m not actually sure it was such a great performance by Romney–I doubt an undecided voter left it with a clear sense of what he would do if elected–but he was the only one performing. (Here’s where you can say that “performing” is beneath the office of the presidency. But as Bill Clinton showed at the DNC, using TV to make a clear case is part of the job, and it doesn’t have to mean dumbing anything down.) Romney went into the debate like a man with a to-do list; Obama went into it like a man with a to-don’t list.

I can’t pretend to know how or if any debate will change votes. Debates are most intensely watched and judged by decided voters, who want to hear their beliefs argued forcefully. (Case in point: nowhere were the wails over Obama’s chill demeanor louder than on MSNBC’s post-debate liberal panel.) Undecided voters may get turned off by exactly the same aggressive tactics. Maybe there’s a long game here, some 3-D chess that’s utterly beyond me. (The best way to tell: if Team Obama does the same thing next debate. Any bets?)

Maybe. But the short game last night was Romney’s. The Obama who came on stage seemed, most charitably, like someone who was handicapped by the burden of playing it safe to protect a lead. The danger is that, by the time the last debate comes around, he may not have that burden anymore.

Here, my standard disclosure: I voted for Obama in ’08 and plan to do so again in ’12. To paraphrase Walter Mondale: most people who write about politics have voting preferences—the difference is they won’t tell you theirs and I just did. To read my fuller thoughts on political writing and disclosure, click here.

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Brett Leveridge
Brett Leveridge

The pundits' focus on which candidate showed more pep, vim and vigor as opposed to which one actually told the truth is disheartening. A perky lie is still a lie, and it's not that hard to fact-check this stuff. Flip-flopper Mitt was up to his old tricks last night, and any number of his claims are easily exposed as lies. Sadly, few journalists today have an interest in putting in even the minimal effort required to expose those lies. There was a brief, shining moment after Paul Ryan's speech at the Republican convention when it appeared the Fourth Estate was finally ready to hold up its end of the bargain and actually fact-check this stuff, but that was clearly a blip, based on the weak sauce that's been served up over the past 24 hours.

Disquskurr
Disquskurr

Romney wins debate,

But he is s cheat,

My heart does not trust him,

and my vote will not be his,

Come on Obama,

you are our choice,

you are the voice of the people who cannot speak,

you are our home boy,

go fight for the truth,

go fight against the corrupted powerful,

go fight against the the rich who disdain the poor,

we will have your back on election day...

with love a simple American

WinthropF3
WinthropF3

Romney was well-rehearsed. The ''ahhs" and "umms" that Obama uttered conveyed an actual response to questions.

So many things seemed so bloody obvious...but, sadly, Romney's script-writers may be successful in convincing a few ignorant voters that a quick, loud, forceful answer=truthfulness.

Austinite
Austinite

Yes, but if you think about it, do you really think those folk who can be convinced by "quick, loud, forceful answers" were going to every be convinced to vote for Obama anyway?

anon76returns
anon76returns

"quick, loud, forceful answer=truthfulness"

Logicians refer to that as the Chris Christie equality.

The Hoobie
The Hoobie

A dear friend on Facebook posted the following yesterday with the comment "Turns out Romney was following an established debating style!"

The link takes you to what clearly is a partisan Democrat Web site (see their entry on Mitt Romney), so this isn't from a neutral source, but I love it.

I'm definitely going to use "Argumentum ad tl;dr" in the future. Ha!

http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/G...

formerlyjamesm
formerlyjamesm

Romney won in both time economy and time efficiency.   More lies per minute.  Since the conclusion of most of the analysts giving him the "win" is based on the number of lies that Obama did not counter, it's a strange win indeed.

The Hoobie
The Hoobie

As a strident liberal Obama voter*, I am a little disappointed in President Obama's performance yesterday. But not nearly to the hair-pulling, garment-rending, "Game over, man!" extent of, say, Andrew Sullivan or Time's own Joe Klein. Maybe that's a product of the gender gap? (I am Ms. The Hoobie.)

I think (I hope, anyway) that this debate... just doesn't have the power to really change the game much. It might cut into Obama's victory margin a bit (which I'd started to be gleefully optimistic about), but I just don't see it altering some fundamental "facts on the ground," like Obama's huge advantage with Hispanics and women. And I wonder whether the debate may look worse for Romney in retrospect, after the fact-checkers have responded.

And, oh, Romney's weirdly beatific way of beaming when his debate opponent is speaking really reads very poorly to me (admittedly, through my own partisan prism) and always has. It seems both creepily adulatory and quite fake. I wonder what others think of it.

Oh, James, I hate to say it, but as much as I was looking forward to the Time.com Swampland live-blog of the debates, it was kind of disappointing, too. The Time.com debate live-blogs were about the best thing going in '08---like watching lively, fizzy, hilarious, and insightful cocktail parties---but this year, as just a link to everybody's Twitter feeds, it was disjointed and hard to follow. People talking separately into the Twitter void rather than immediately to each other.

*Copyright sometime Tuned In commenter  dsafd asdfasdf.

Austinite
Austinite

This:  "And I wonder whether the debate may look worse for Romney in retrospect, after the fact-checkers have responded."

Sort of seeing it already, little by little.  It's like reporters need to let Romney shine in the light first before pointing out that he did a 180 on almost every single topic mentioned on the stage.

anon76returns
anon76returns

Yeah, not near as much interaction, which was part of the fun last go around.  This time it seemed everyone was trying to be the first one to tweet something clever about big bird.

I think missing Tumulty is a big loss.  No offense to the replacement swampland folks, but they aren't quite there yet (and please don't get me started on including that "kind of a d!ck" Halperin).

The Hoobie
The Hoobie

Yep. A lot of the magic in the '08 blogs was in the interactions. There were a few conversations in this year's live-blog, but the blog's structure (basically a less-functional Twitter stream) made them hard to follow. And I kept thinking, "Why am I not just following my Twitter stream, which is all this seems to be anyway?"

Oh, and I totally agree that not having Karen Tumulty this year is a huge loss! Grunwald was a pretty good addition, but you can't match KT's verve. And Halperin, feh. :-(

I've been really heartened this morning to see the Obama camp come out swinging after the debate:

http://livewire.talkingpointsm...

http://livewire.talkingpointsm...

I know it seems like so much "spirit of the staircase" that's a day late and a dollar short, but I think it'll help a lot. To paraphrase Axelrod, Mitt may have done himself short-term good with his performance but long-term damage with his dissembling. And my sense is that stuff like the comments above works much better on the stump than at the podium anyway---I don't know that Obama "could" have said things like that at the debate, even if he wanted to. And now the Obama campaign knows that Mitt has enough Clintonian brass to just freely lie about his plans and their effects. I trust Obama and Chicago* to course-correct and to press any advantage.

*Disclaimer: We live near Chicago, home of, per Romney, hate and division. (But mostly, as far as I can tell, Chicago's not so much full of hate and division as full of celery salt, drivers who pass on the right, and snarky teachers http://www.slate.com/blogs/the... .)

lucelucy
lucelucy

 Oh, yes.  That cheesy, eager smile.  I'm going to try to talk more about this in the Bookhouse this morning - Firefox is giving me a hard time for some reason.  Gotta call the guru.

Dan Bruce
Dan Bruce

I'm willing to destroy the village, so to speak, rather than let Romney, Ryan, McConnell, Boehner, Limbaugh, O'Reilly,Hannity, Bachmann, Scalia, the Mormon Church, rightwing Christian evangelicals, the Creation Institute, and so on set the agenda for America's future. That simply cannot be allowed to happen. If Romney is somehow able to lie his way into the presidency, I can imagine a million-person march on Washington and other peaceful means of protest being organized to show everyone that 47% of America cannot be ignored.

votedemout
votedemout

"I'm willing to destroy the village" You already set that in motion with your vote in 2008, now please go sit with the rest of the children while the adults try to fix the mess.  

Please don't trot out the very tired position that this is all the fault of GWB, for while he certainly contributed to the mess acting like a Dim-O-Rat with certain fiscal policies, the real problems began when the Dim's took over congress in 2007.  

Queen Pelosi and Prince Harry began this mess with their continuing resolution, no budget, policy, and it has run crazy for close to the past  six years.  You libtards are so busy trying to lie and blame others for your catastrophic social policies that you don't have the time to actually sort out the facts.  Not the convoluted opinions that you try to foist on others as facts, but true verifiable facts.  

Hopefully this election will bring a new administration that actually reads and follows the Constitution, for that document has been shredded by our current WH and Senate leadership.

formerlyjamesm
formerlyjamesm

That's the right wing spirit we are used to, not what we heard last night from your candidate in the debate.  He shifted from government is the problem, I don't care about half of the citizens, regulation is always bad, to some new and confusing hybrid centrist who defends the middle class, who live in a world he doesn't know, to a fair tax structure in which he will pay less than he does now, which is already less proportionally than I pay way down the line.

The right wing is such a joke,  Romney more so, and you, sir, I grant a blue ribbon.  

votedemout
votedemout

Thanks for the award,  I hope the blue ribbon is 1st place.  I will wear it proudly.

Dan Bruce
Dan Bruce

please go sit with the rest of the children while the adults try to fix the mess.

For any conservative and/or Republican to make such a statement shows an utter disregard for recent history.

votedemout
votedemout

I suppose that would depend on which history you were using.  The Aesop's Fables history favored by the Dim's is very entertaining, but like most soap box views has little grounding in fact.  

Romney hit it dead center last night with the description of his children lying to him(my words, not his) time and time again and expecting him to believe it, if they told the lie often enough. That is exactly what we have seen from Dim's over a long period of time.  As a matter of fact that is exactly how the communists train their operatives to distort the truth, in order to fool the uninformed masses.  

Again I would invite you to spend a little time and seek facts rather than rely on whatever liberal opinion you use for your information.  Last night it was on display in glaring lights.  My candidate, Mitt Romney, had the facts and the bumbler in chief had no response.  There was no teleprompter to save him and even though Lehrer threw him many lifelines your candidate was unable to respond to facts.  

As Romney said to your candidate, you are entitled to your White House, you are entitled to your private plane, but you are not entitled to your self proclaimed facts, for facts are facts and they speak for themselves.

Talendria
Talendria

In my opinion, both campaigns (and the pundits) need to stop obsessing over the numbers.  The plain fact is that until the economy starts growing again, the numbers aren't going to add up.  We cannot eliminate the deficit with this degree of unemployment without slashing social services to the bone, and doing that will create many more problems which may not even become apparent for 20 years.  Americans have become accustomed to a high standard of living, and in order to maintain that we've got to get everyone back to work ASAP.  Whoever wins the election needs to focus on creating jobs, spending wisely, and ending the class warfare that's tearing our nation in half.