I don’t write a gigantic amount about American politics – last time was here really – but last night was the first of three debates between President Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney. I decided, on a whim, to stay up and watch the debate live, and write down some commentary as things went along regards effectiveness of presentation, clarity of answers and whether any of the two can claim to have “won”. I also tend to offer thoughts on how the moderation went, though I am rarely satisfied on that score.
Writing these words at 0045, around 75 minutes before the debate, I want to state my opinions on Presidential debates which is that:
A: Barring a major gaffe or truly stunning moment of brilliance, they do next to nothing when it comes to determining a winner of the election.
B: Both sides always claim a victory in the debate.
But that does not mean the debate is not important. It is a chance for the candidates to actually spar verbally in a direct manner, and to address the American population with their policies and positions.
So, without further ado:
0145: A lot of talk and words have been put together for the 90 minute debate we are about to witness. American news networks really are as dry as they come. The general feeling seems to be that Romney has to pull it out of the fire here if he can, really get his campaign going again. Lower expectations might say that he just has to keep pace with Obama, who is generally viewed as having a much higher rate of charisma and presentability.
0149: Mitt Romney plays Jenga before the debate. Really leaving himself open to numerous “toppling down” jibes there isn’t he?
0152: Oh God, ABC talking about “Meme Moments”. Please start the debate already.
0155: Now talking about candidates “pushing buttons”. If one person is going to look irritable or angry tonight, I would bet right now that it would be Romney (Postscript – Wrong about that).
0157: Just about there now. I really hope this is somewhat notable, and not just a tawdry run through domestic issues.
0159: Obama has won the opening coin toss, so he gets to answer first question. Romney than counters, then next question.
0201: Starting a tad late. I am so unfamiliar with debates in America I don’t even know who the moderator is. Jim Lehrer? Big shrug on that.
0202: “Mitt Romney. The Republican. Nominee.”
0203: And here they are. Big smiles all round. Really hoping they’re trading barbs ala Battlestar Galactica.
0204: First Question: “What are the major difference between the two of you as to how you would create new jobs?”
0205: Holy God, the President opens by wishing his wife a Happy Anniversary. Wow.
0206: Obama talking fast, hitting all of his main points. Reduce deficit, channel war money to new places, “new economic patriotism”. Not too bad, maybe a little nervous.
0208: Romney going for the personal angle, telling stories from the campaign. He has a five point plan, that sure does sound familiar. Very ambitious plan he’s laying out here, but sounds confident. Heavily emphasising his business experience.
0209: Obama responds to the “trickle down approach”: Deflects and starts talking about other Democratic policies, education specifically, how his administration is improving it through hiring teachers. Bit of a shift in subject, but it is a strong answer. Now has twice stated a policy that both he and Romney agree with. Interesting wording, perhaps trying to undermine the Republican? Still sounding a little nervy.
0214: A direct Romney question for Obama turns into a defence of his own tax cut plans. Romney launches a defence of the middle class, keeps saying “crushed” a lot. What is Obama, Godzilla? Romney wants to move from education to job creation. Then moves on to fuel issues, more “crushing”. Heavy approval message for fossil fuels. I suppose he’s appealing to his kind of voter there.
0216: Obama responds by saying that he has promised tax cuts for the middle class, and he delivered. First big attack: Romney can’t be specific about his plans to cut loopholes in the tax system. Romney didn’t like that, doing that “bemused smile” thing.
0217: Romney talks over the moderator, claims that Obama’s accusations aren’t true. Strong here, on the attack, sounds very confident as he refutes the points, though I think he is a bit too dismissive about the “studies” Obama quotes.
0219: Feel like this debate is getting a bit bogged down on this point. Obama back on, and I really liked his very simple counter-point. Essentially “Where is the money going to come from?” Didn’t expect Obama to be the one working in such simple general terms by this point, though he gets a bit more detailed as he goes along. Trails off a little into attacks on the upper-class towards the end though.
0221: Certainly think Romney has been a bit better so far. Moderator finally cuts in and reasserts some control over the proceedings, for a second anyway. Romney going straight back to the personal stuff, talking about campaign stories. I like the way he’s going after Obama’s points here by humanising the upper class.
0223: Obama closes out this section by going back to “Where’s the money?”. I dunno, he does just seem a little off tonight, though I think his points have been a little bit more logical.
0225: Oh, not over actually. Going in circles here, Romney refuting the tax plan assertions, but not actually answering the main point. Hang on, he claims that millions have “stopped looking for work?” That wasn’t good. Still, Romney better on first question.
0226: New question: How to tackle the deficit? Romney up first, and he thinks it’s a moral issue, in that they can’t pass burdens to the next generation. This is all about cuts – targets “Obamacare” specifically. I like his soundbyte about “Is it so important that we have to borrow money from China to run it?”
0228: First instance of “The Republicans left me this mess”. I tend to agree with Obama at that point, the Bush administration did mess up royally. But this will be easy for Romney to attack. Still, Obama does well here in outlining the things that he has cut. And then on effectively to attack Romney’s upper class connections and lack of tax plans for that part of society.
0231: Obama way over time, here’s Romney. Doesn’t support the “Simpson bowls”. Oh, mistake, says Obama should have brought it to Congress, turns out he kind of did. Romney now focused on an economy lesson when it comes to tax rates during a recession.
0233: This moderator is not very good, let me tell you. Romney gets to cut in on the President here. Romney tries to compare American to Spain, I wouldn’t do that. His thing is all about “saving jobs”, Obama is back on how Romney’s plan makes no financial sense. Obama’s point is simple: Exxon Mobile needs no breaks or tax cuts. Good answer, clear, stronger than before. Making corporations the bad guy here reflects baldy on Romney, who is spending his time defending them. Also first story from the campaign for Obama, one about teachers in Nevada. I half thing that kind of thing might look bad for him, not Romney.
0237: Not good, Obama suddenly stumbling over words a bit when talking about Medicaid. This debate has gotten really rambly. Romney attacks Obama for giving tax cuts to green energy. That’s an actual dealbreaker for me, personally, but I know it will work well with some Americans. Now Romney goes for another of his main talking points, tearing down “big government”. Bit of a draw in that whole segment I think.
0240: Is there a big difference between the two candidates on social security? Obama says, basically, a slight one. He thinks the structure of the social security system is sound, then veers into discussing why those things are important. Second time he has changed the nature of a question. Goes on about his grandmother, some cheap heart tugging stuff. Don’t like to see that.
0242: Romney emphasis his lack of planned changes for the elderly in terms of social security. Attacks Obama for cutting Medicare rates. Not sure how Romney can be hell bent for cuts earlier and then get so indignant here. Still, he’s strong in his condemnation, is able to frame himself as a defender of the elderly.
0244: Obama straight on the attack, disdaining Romney’s “voucher program” for Medicare. Obama speaking very slowly, hesitantly at some points. He’s missing something tonight. This segment is about painting insurance companies as the bad guy, which must be considered fish in a barrel territory. He’s defending Obamacare and the protections it brings.
0248: Romney defends the right to have a private plan. Thought the issue was that people can’t afford private plans Mitt? You can definitely see how Romney speaks with more of a flow, he just seems that bit better rehearsed.
0249: Obama further defends Medicare. I really like his points here, trying to defend the rights of the elderly against profit-obsessed insurance companies. Think Romney’s response was really weak.
0250: What is your view about federal regulation of the economy? Romney says he believes in regulation, then goes on about all the regulation he doesn’t like. It must take some balls to attack regulation after the last eight years.
0253: And, predictably, Obama goes straight for that point, how regulation is only in response to the awful behaviour of the banks. Strong here, think this is his best part so far.
0255: Yeah, and Romney is basically defending banks here, tying it into making and defending jobs, I think he’s weak on this point, too defensive, really reaching for reality.
0256: Right, onto Obamacare. Romney doesn’t like the expense and the financial “hurt” for families. Wants to funnel the money back into Medicare. I really don’t like the way Romney frames some of the stuff here, talking about how Obamacare “killed jobs”. It’s all so much defection from the fact that American healthcare is one of the worst in the free world.
0258: Obama straight on the attack, on insurance companies again, on the weaknesses of the old system. Defends his policy as simply offering greater rights to patients over insurance companies. Simple, straightforward stuff here, this is the kind of debate that has been played out over and over again in the last few years. Still, Obama is just struggling too much. Job has definitely effected him over the last four years.
0300: Romney “elaborates”. Accuses the President of being partisan. That’s rich eh? Now he has to address his own governorship’s support for a similar policy, points out the differences well enough. Still can’t help but laugh at the “non-partisan” approaches though.
0303: Oh, and you better believe Obama is going to go after that. Says Obamacare is the same plan that Romney had, a very good point to emphasise. Goes a bit more positive than I would have expected, talking about individual examples of Obamacare’s success, sounded good. This is his new best answer. Bottom line: People lose insurance in the event of repeal.
0306: Romney has his responses ready, going back after “big government” and defending “free enterprise”. Romney is all about encouraging competition isn’t he? Strange brief bit where he seems to be praising some Obamacare stuff.
0308: Obama defends the “board” which Romney is trying to pant as something sinister. Just says “They can’t do that by law”. Now there’s an effective answer. Back on the attack after that, but really this part of the debate has gotten circular fast.
0311: Obama looking downhearted out there. This debate has slipped away from him. Romney just seems way more focused and up for it.
0313: New question: How do you view the mission of the federal government? Obama says it exists to protect the American people. Free enterprise is great, but we need to “work together” sometimes for good things. Quotes historical examples, not too bad. Maybe a little vague towards the end.
0315: The role of government is to protect the constitution says Romney. He’s using this as a way to talk about lack of cuts to education and the military. Romney turning this into a constitutional interpretation speech, which is obviously a well-prepared answer. It was good though.
0318: Does the federal government have a role to play in education? Sort of is the general answer from Romney, he’s banging heavy on the “states rights” drum. Seems to relegate federal funds to a sort of “special needs” thing.
0319: Budgets matter, says Obama. Man, he is just talking ages to get to any sort of point whenever he answers. He eventually gets round to his main attack of the evening, questioning the lack of revenue in Romney’s financial plan. That’s just sounding very tired at this point. Criticises banks in terms of student loans.
0321: Romney defends his own education plan while Obama stares downwards. Only one winner in terms of body language anyway. This question has gone all over the place, finally Romney starts talking about grading schools.
0324: Moderator admits he’s done a bad job. I agree totally. Part of the debate has to be skipped due to answers being too long.
0325: What to do about partisan politics? Romney talks about his experience in a heavily democratic state. Says’ he’ll sit down with Democrats, and starts emphasising leadership. I’ve heard this answer a lot over the whole span of my life, but he has a point with his governorship experience.
0326: Obama reacts with some well-timed scorned and talks about his own cross-party initiatives and as he lists them out there actually are a lot of them. First mention of Bin Laden, expect that to come up again next time. Then he says “You have to say “No” sometimes” whether it’s the President to the opposition, or Romney to “extreme” elements. Love that answer. Strong finish from the President here.
0328: Closing statements. Obama first. He has faith in the American “future”. Namedrops the auto bailout. That’s a lot of positives he mentioned in the last few minutes he should have mentioned earlier. Lots of quick mentions of stuff from earlier. Obama finishing very strongly, speaking much more confidently now. He promised he’d “fight every single day” and he’s “kept that promise”. Good.
0330: Romney is “concerned”. He see’s “two paths”. Warns against a “middle income squeeze”, “chronic unemployment”, and the dangers of Obamacare. He spends a lot of his last few minutes on Obamacare actually, spelling out the horrors of it. Military is his last point. Gotta be careful talking about that with this President.
0332: And we’re done. Obama walked off the stage fast. Ceding the floor as it were.
First point: I would bet that somewhere in the region of 95% of Americans knew how they were voting before this debate, and haven’t changed. The effect of debates on polling patters is generally overstated beforehand.
Second point: From a policy perspective, Obama won. I generally agreed with what he was saying, thought he defended his record well, and I liked his ideas over those of Romney. But from a “vote gaining” perspective, Romney won. He was strong in his answers, appealed to the right people, exuded the kind of confidence he badly needed to show off. He rehearsed better, clearly.
Third point: Obama looked unhappy, stuttered, talked slowly. He finished well, but presentation and body language wise, it was Romney’s night.
Fourth point: It was dull. Poorly moderated and circular in most respects. Very few “fireworks” and zero stand out moments.
It is a Romney winner, but early days yet. This will help him get back in the race, but it’s going to need a hell of a lot more than the last 90 minutes to make him President. There is a jobs report being published on Friday I believe, so that’s the next big campaigning milestone.