By the time the fact checkers have been rounded up and have leveled the playing field, spectators have already headed home from the game – some cheering; some shrugging. Debates are about perception; the truth rarely matters. Our poet laureate, Maya Angelou, could have been writing about presidential debates when she said:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
And the left woke up today feeling decidedly deflated.
Last night began with Twitter streams and Facebook feeds filled with confident Democrats ravenous for political red meat, and posting graphics crowing that the president, as most polls predicted, would win the night. Glittersnipe got in the game as well with our “Bring It!” meme that spread like wildfire. And across the nation, we ordered our pizzas, sat on the edge of our sofas and well — we’re still waiting for it to be brung.
President Obama last night, according to his own party, appeared “listless,” “rusty,” and as though he simply “didn’t want to be there.” He was “ill-prepared” and others wondered if the president had taken the debate preparation seriously at all.
Governor Romney, conversely, barreled his way through the debate, bulldozing past PBS moderator Jim Lehrer and steering his own course. And when Romney mentioned that one of his cuts would be PBS, which was actually moderating the event, many on the left prayed for an immediate (if temporary) pulling of the plug.
While polls show that the economy is American’s primary concern in this election, understanding the hail of statistics and theoretical economic polices reduced to soundbites was like a game of five-card factual pick-up. Most viewers couldn’t verify the numbers or process fast enough all the caveats and “but’s” and “what if’s,” to gauge their own best interests. And so the audience was left to rely on the apparent conviction of the speaker. And the governor had that in spades.
Though Igor Volsky of ThinkProgress.org uncovered twenty-seven factual errors in Romney’s rapid-fire monologues, it simply doesn’t matter: it’s like lobbing a grenade in an empty foxhole. In order for the truth to have an effect, the lies and half-truths must be diffused with immediate and equal force.
Romney’s bombastic numbers-spouting was buttressed with so much “conviction” he even seemed to convince the president, who appeared to nod in agreement while the governor spoke in a confident, if bullying, tone. Other times the president stared as though he was being scolded, and worse: he clenched his jaw and looked in the opposite direction while Romney spoke directly to him.
But how important are the debates? Expectations are everything and heading into every debate the incumbent is already set to lose. The challenger begins with the advantage of being untested and this is highly effective in first presidential debates. In 2004, Senator John Kerry defeated President George W. Bush in their first toe-to-toe in a debate that left conservative pundits licking their wounds. Kerry was also arguably the winner of the subsequent debates with Bush. When Vice President Mondale verbally lacerated President Reagan in 1984, the Gipper seemed so caught off-guard that the media questioned if he was actually too old and out-of-touch to be re-elected.
It should also be noted that historically the debates have a modest, if any, effect on poll numbers. Just prior to the face-off, conservative-leaning Rasmussen Reports noted that the last time a presidential debate shifted the polls dramatically was in 1980 when then-Governor Reagan resoundingly defeated President Carter. Four years ago, though Obama’s poll numbers rose after each debate against Senator McCain, on Election Day Obama had increased his overall lead by only two points.
Four years spent in the obsequious atmosphere of the Oval Office dulls a president’s ability to fight mano-a-mano. Furthermore, presidents enter the election ring again as though answering to the new whippersnapper is beneath them. Reagan did it, both Bushes did it, and Obama is now guilty of it, as well.
Debating aside, Romney’s consistent tight-lipped smirk showed he was unwilling to consider any other options other than his own. He looked like a man who was accustomed to making executive decisions without considering the opinions of others. Obama, conversely — to his performance’s detriment — seemed to give too much weight, at times, to his opponent’s commentary. While Romney won the fight, his temperament kept him from appearing presidential. Then again, if you’d just tuned in after a four-year coma you’d be hard-pressed to figure out which of the two men was actually the president.
The fact that every poll in every swing state has been favoring the president lulled the Democrats into a place where just poking fun at Romney seemed good enough to win the fight.