The only thing worse than watching the first presidential debate was watching the coverage afterwards.
The mainstream media immediately decided on a narrative: Mitt Romney’s performance was a massive step up, a “big win,” and Barack Obama was unsure and did not assert himself enough in his crushing debate defeat. Listening to everyone from FOX News to MSNBC pan the president and praise the governor made me wonder if I had watched an entirely different debate. Unfortunately, the mainstream media has become more content in its role as a narrative storyteller than as an arbiter of facts or analysis.
This wasn’t a blowout for President Obama or even a win, far from it. The president wasn’t charismatic or concise enough in his points, not by a long shot. But to claim a “big win” for someone who changed his positions during the debate, was openly rude to the moderator, and repeated lie after lie seems downright absurd. For those of you who didn’t watch the debates, here are the lowlights.
What were two things “big winner” Mitt Romney did over and over last night? He lied and interrupted.
Romney’s lies were in two major realms: his policies and Obama’s policies. Romney started off the night with anecdote after anecdote about people who cling to his sleeves and beg him to give him jobs at campaign rallies. To hear him tell it, he’s economic Jesus. And to combat the president’s distinction that Romney does not fight for the middle class and wants to give the wealthy a tax break, Romney apparently changed his entire economic philosophy. Not only did Romney claim that he wouldn’t dare decrease the tax rate on the wealthiest members of society, he lambasted “trickle-down government,” a strange, undefined term that sounds more closely related to Saint Reagan than Obama. Romney lied about Obama’s green energy policy, falsely claiming that the president gave $90 billion to green energy alone. Romney repeated the lie that Obama was raiding Medicare to give everyone health care – a lie that has been debunked what feels like hundreds of times in the nearly two months it’s been repeated. And it’s a particularly bold lie considering that the $716 in Medicare savings the Affordable Care Act includes is the exact same amount VP Paul Ryan proposed eliminating from the program in his budget plan. And on top of that, Romney cited a study by a right-leaning “pro-business” coalition that has been solidly debunked by independent agencies that claims the Affordable Care Act will cost the country 700,000 jobs, even though Romney’s nearly identical plan did no such thing when it was implemented in Massachusetts. And even though Obama corrected him no fewer than three times, Romney insisted that the ACA allowed the government to determine the treatment patients can get.
Romney also made a transparent bid for the Ron Paul voters with his eleventh hour appeal to states’ rights. In what one can only assume is a bizarre campaign reboot, Romney claimed that when he said his plan in Massachusetts should be used as a model for the entire country, what he meant was that each state should independently decide to do just that, not that the federal government should implement an identical plan. And if that weren’t nonsense enough, he then advocated multiple times for taking Medicare/Medicaid “back to the states.” What does that mean, exactly? Does Romney want the states to fund the program themselves, or keep receiving government money with no strings attached? And how are either of those options a comprehensive solution for the nation’s health care crises? Forget comprehensive, how are any of these proposals even a remote improvement over Obamacare, which Romney will either repeal on day one or simply tweak depending what time of day you talk to him?
Another major selling point of Mitt Romney’s performance was how “natural” and un-robotic the candidate was on Wednesday night. And it’s true; Romney seemed to be much more in his element. Of course, his element was pretty obviously the bully element.
Romney was relentless in his steamrolling. He talked over moderator Jim Lehrer, interrupted the president multiple times. He snarkily demanded the last word on the first question since the president won the coin toss to speak first. He refused to acknowledge that he had ever held any positions that have since polled negatively, even when the president specifically called him out on them. (And for those of you at home who wished the president had been more aggressive at calling out Romney’s lies – how should one continue a discussion with someone who flat out denies that the sky is blue, not green?) Romney’s assertiveness may have impressed conservatives, but more than anything, it seemed like politics as usual for the Tea Party bullies that have taken over Congress with their hard-headed brand of tantrum politics.
And while Romney’s weeks of intensive human programming may have made him seem much more likable to conservatives, his damning self-satisfied smirk didn’t leave his face once the entire time. Again, this isn’t something that bothers Romney supporters, and it may not even bother undecided voters. But to progressives, this smirk is just another appearance of the bully Romney that held down a gay classmate and cut off his hair. As former Obama speechwriter Jon Lovett wrote in his liveblog on The Atlantic, “[Romney] came off as testy and officious at times, especially when dealing with Lehrer. Rude, like a guy who cuts you online at the DMV and acts like you’re out of order for being bothered.”
Welcome to Snoozeville
Yes, Romney seemed like a rude liar, because he lied and was rude. But President Obama isn’t off the hook for what was an absolutely atrocious debate. I’ll grant that the president was working at a disadvantage – he was constrained by facts while Romney just freestyled – but that didn’t change the fact that he didn’t trumpet his accomplishments or his vision. Part of this was undoubtedly an attempt to avoid coming off as elitist, but the president’s performance swung too far in the other direction. What was meant to come off as measured constraint was instead viewed as defensive uncertainty.
Some pundits have argued that part of Obama’s performance was a calculated, race-based strategy. That’s certainly part of it. Had Obama been as aggressive as Mitt Romney during the debates, the cries of “Angry Black Man” would have been echoed from coast to coast. And yes, Obama calling out Romney for every lie – which would have been nearly every sentence – would have made for some truly terrible television. But so did this decided lack of passion for his policies, which by and large have majority support from the American people and seem, in general, to be working.
It’s not easy for Obama to stand up and be proud of his record, because his own party has spent the last four years hiding from their own shadow and running from their president’s greatest accomplishments. But in the next two debates, the president needs to step it up. He shouldn’t amp up his side of the debate to Romney levels of rude, but something has to change for sure. Imani Gandy put it best when she wrote, “Obama was as exciting as boiled ham” – and a five point lead just isn’t enough to rest on boiled ham laurels.
The Important Things No One Mentioned
President Obama’s biggest failure wasn’t even being heinously boring, but all of the crucial issues he failed to mention. The three most important issues of domestic policy that no one so much as mentioned once? Reproductive rights, immigration, and LGBT rights.
These are incredibly important issues, and their omission in a domestic policy debate of all things is a complete travesty. Republicans across the country have introduced no fewer than 1100 anti-choice measures since 2011, the GOP platform has been amended to include a constitutional ban on abortion as a key tenet, and Romney’s own running mate has co-sponsored a stunning number of extreme anti-choice bills. The president signed into law the legislation that finally eliminates gender discrimination in both insurance premiums and employee compensation. Mitt Romney wants to repeal both of those, and should have been made to answer for those positions. But he never had to, because the crucial issues were never discussed. The president wins on these issues, unequivocally, so why wouldn’t he bring them up?
Obama has also made more strides than any other president when it comes to LGBT rights. He is the first sitting president to announce his support of marriage equality, and ended the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. For the first time, openly gay Americans can serve in the military. But again, silence.
The president leads Romney by thirty points among Hispanic voters, but chose not to bring up the DREAM act. Also not mentioned? The ridiculous “self-deportation” plan that Romney has stumbled over in the past. With racist laws targeting Hispanic Americans – and even Obama himself – immigration should be a hot button issues for the president’s base.
Obama bears some of the blame for these glaring omissions, but so does moderator Jim Lehrer. Lehrer’s vague questions, which were all basically iterations of one question, didn’t force either candidate to answer difficult questions about real issues. Lehrer dropped the ball, and Obama left it on the floor for Romney to gleeful kick out of bounds and claim it was a goal.
A Victory For None
MSNBC can mope and call this a Romney victory all they want, but just think for a moment of that definition of victory. Is our political system so broken, such a hollow and transparent circus that a candidate can abandon his past policy ideas, refuse to reveal his new policy ideas, and lie on every issue and call it a victory? Why is anyone not on the Romney payroll willing to accept this?
There is no victory in lying. There is no victory in deflecting. There is no victory in avoiding the issues that affect millions of Americans daily, or smirking during what should be a serious discussion. President Obama didn’t win the debate last night, but neither did Mitt Romney if a debate is still supposed to be interactive argument based on facts. And the Americans who tuned in last night expecting answers, and to maybe be told the truth for the first time in a campaign season that feels eternal?
We didn’t win either.