The (Substantive) Bad News From the Debate: Obama the Clintonian Triangulator is Back

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

In my post yesterday, I assessed the first Presidential debate of 2012 from the standpoint of the contestants' abilities to argue -- whether they could construct and defend arguments, respond to opponents' points, and marshal facts to support their points of view.  In other words, I assessed the debate as a debate.  I gave President Obama a mediocre grade, but I noted that he did display an ability to argue effectively (even though he missed out on a number of opportunities to do more).  Former Governor Romney, on the other hand, earned an "incomplete," because he continues to be unwilling to give the full picture of what he proposes.  Had I been forced to give Romney a grade on the argumentation skills that he actually showed during the proceedings on Wednesday night, I would have given him a D.

As I noted in that post, I had deliberately sequestered myself from the chatter about the debate, in order to be able to write about what I had heard, rather than inadvertently trying to fit my comments into the insta-consensus.  Having now spent the following 27 hours or so absorbing the commentariat's considered opinions on the matter, I am not at all surprised that they are declaring a winner on the basis of pure optics.  The Obama campaign is in full damage-control mode, and the Romney campaign (and its parent company, Fox) is taking a victory lap.

Interestingly, nothing that I wrote yesterday morning is contradicted by the commentary.  If anything, it turns out that I gave Romney too much slack, given the extensive list of lies and misrepresentations that was quickly compiled against him.  (Even his campaign staff was fact-checking its own candidate, regarding his simply false claim that he has a plan to continue the Affordable Care Act's provision preventing health insurers from denying coverage on the basis of pre-existing medical conditions.)  On his show, Jon Stewart declared Romney a clear victor in the debate, even though "he lied his a** off" -- and, I would emphasize, even though he merely repeated his lies throughout the debate, without actually making any real arguments or rebuttals.

There is a simple reason that none of the commentary contradicts what I wrote.  I was, after all, writing about the arguments and counter-arguments, and (as anyone could have predicted) the pundits were obsessed with "style."  Obama looked listless and distracted, while Romney was "aggressive" and "took command of the stage."  The closest that the consensus came to saying anything directly in conflict with my assessment was when some commentators described Romney's presence as "Presidential" or "authoritative," in contrast to my view of him as "smarmy" and maniacally intense.  Some of that is simply a matter of subjective preference.  I rarely find the "big moments" that impress so many pundits at all meaningful.  (For example, I thought Reagans' "There you go again!" line was nothing more than canned corn.)  It is difficult to see how so many pundits could ignore Romney's smugness, but such differences in perception are part of life.

More than subjectivity is at work here, however.  A big part of the hyperventilation among pundits seems to be a matter of both exaggerating what really happened, and simply contrasting the two candidates.  A relatively listless Obama is thus quickly described as "completely out of it," while Romney becomes "masterful" in the echo chamber's world.  Romney, simply by virtue of not having stared at his notes, is suddenly the alpha dog in the room.  Having forced myself to watch MSNBC's Chris Matthews last night (an experience that I have never voluntarily inflicted upon myself), it was obvious after awhile that his absurd reactions had simply become a matter of trying to one-up himself.  By the end of the show, Matthews had convinced himself that Romney had been a magisterial, dominating presence the likes of which we have never seen, or will ever see again.

Even on the stylistic points, therefore, while I can see why so many are saying that Romney had the better of it on Wednesday night, the quick consensus was even more over-the-top than we usually see from the echo chamber.  It was all so extreme, in fact, that it is difficult not to see a rapid turnabout happening -- one of those media groupthinks wherein everyone simultaneously takes a breath and says, "Wait a minute.  What are all these other idiots talking about.  It wasn't that bad."  The internal dynamics of such things defy analysis, but I would not be surprised to see the spin on this changing rapidly.  The "Romney is lying again" meme has already emerged, and even now it is possible to see the story changing from "Obama blew the election, and the future of the world, last night!!!!!" to "Romney managed to get away with stuff, which might or might not help him before election day, depending on what Obama does next."

This is all part of the odd jujitsu of American political punditry and campaign spin.  John Dean's column today at Verdict might well be right: "I believe that Romney’s win was, in fact, a Pyrrhic victory, which also will help the Democrats."  Moreover, today's extremely encouraging jobs report is also likely to change the conversation rapidly.

To the extent that substance in the debates matters at all, however, it is interesting not just to look at how weak Romney's arguments were, or how completely willing he was to simply make things up as he went along.  Professor Dorf suggested to me that it is also interesting to look at the areas in which Obama and Romney AGREED with each other.  If Obama does win the election, after all, one of the major concerns is that he will quickly revert to his center-right, "grand compromising" ways.

As I listened to the debate, I jotted down a short list of issues on which Obama sounded like a Clintonian triangulator.  (At least one excellent piece has already appeared on that general subject, at Esquire's website, by Charles P. Pierce.  I should add that there is one area in which the candidates agreed on a good thing: Romney acknowledged the importance of regulations to a well-functioning economy.  Like everything else Romney said, in his insincere efforts to sound appealing to swing voters, however, we can safely assume that he does not actually believe what he said.)

-- Social Security: At one point, I wrote a note to myself saying, "Big news: SS is safe from Obama."  This is because Obama admitted at one point that Social Security is fundamentally sound, and that a few mere "tweaks" can resolve any issues related to that surpassingly important social program.  Of course, one man's "tweak" is another's decision that full privatization is not such a bad idea after all.  There is no reason to think that Obama has actually decided that Social Security is off the table.  Clearly, Romney and the Koch brothers would gladly get rid of it.

-- Deficits: Romney surely took the cake for the most inaccurate (and smarmy) moment when he described the deficit as a moral issue, because it is all about cheating "future generations."  Given that much of my scholarship in the last decade has focused on the countless ways in which that argument is wrong (and, actually, morally offensive), Romney's comments were especially grating.  Even though Obama did not quite go that far, however, nowhere did he actually defend deficit spending or his (quite successful, given everything) stimulus program, nor did he point out how stupid short-term austerity is, and how the Republicans' stonewalling on various spending issues has harmed the economy.  Instead, he bragged about how his administration has reduced deficits (and will do even more in the future), feeding the Democrats' me-too narrative that fundamentally favors the Republicans' anti-government position.

-- BS: All of which brings us, of course, to the Bowles-Simpson nonsense.  I have been pointing out the absurdity of the Beltway's obsession with that Obama-created mess for quite some time (e.g., here and here).  If I recall correctly, Romney mentioned BS positively in the debate (along with all the more general bulls*t that he was shoveling).  Certainly, Obama has shown every indication that he loves those guys.  Even though, as Paul Krugman pointed out earlier this week, a win by Obama in November would be driven almost entirely by voters who reject the Republicans' attacks on federal programs for middle-class citizens, Obama will surely listen to his Clinton-era advisors and go back to endorsing fiscal orthodoxy.

-- Taxes: Romney said that taxes always harm economic growth.  He is wrong, but Obama said nothing during the debate to contradict him.  Obama himself, after all, has proposed following the conventional wisdom on taxes by reducing corporate tax rates.  We are only haggling over the details.  Surely, some of those details can have momentous effects -- preserving or destroying various provisions that are designed to make the system progressive, including the estate tax -- but the candidates' tacit agreement that the right move today is to lower taxes in general, and to reduce tax rates in particular, tells us that Obama will not put up much of a fight in a putative second term.  Similarly, both candidates agreed that small businesses are the heart of the economic system.  That is also false, even though there are many good things about small businesses.  And they certainly do not generate and sustain the most jobs.  Both parties, however, have gone all in on the "job creators" stuff.

Again, this is not a matter of saying that there is no difference between the two parties.  There are enormous differences, and a Romney win would unleash ideologues who would radically alter American society for decades to come.  Even so, it is depressing to think about how much Obama continues to give away, when he could be building a national consensus around the idea that government can and should be a part of the solution to our problems.

In the time that it took me to write this post, I am betting that the media narrative on the Presidential race has already "gone meta" -- circling in upon itself, looking for ways out of the overreaction to Wednesday's debate.  What continues, however, is a depressing story about a President who long ago sold out on being truly transformative, opting instead for economic policy positions that affirm the worst aspects of the Washington consensus.  Almost everyone will be worse off if he loses, but he is unilaterally giving away the store -- and hurting real people in the process.  I said all along that supporting him would require serious nose-holding.  After Wednesday's debate, even on the substance, that is even more true.