President Barack Obama and presidential nominee Mitt Romney during the first presidential debate at the University of Denver on October 3rd, 2012.
Charlie Neibergall/API didn't watch the debate – I just couldn't. I read it in transcript form afterwards. I know it is widely believed that Mitt Romney won, but I don't agree. I think both candidates lost. I think they both sucked. Romney told a series of outright lies – the bit about the pre-existing conditions was incredible – while Barack Obama seemed unaccountably disinterested in the intellectual challenge of the exercise, repeatedly leaving the gross absurdities hurled his way by Romney unchallenged.
Romney's performance was better than Obama's, but only if you throw out criteria like "wasn't 100% full of shit from the opening bell" and "made an actual attempt to explain who he is and what his plans are." Unfortunately, that is good enough for our news media, which drools over the gamesmanship aspects of these debates, because it loves candidates who sink their teeth into the horse-race nonsense that they think validates their professional lives.
For instance: in my local paper, the Star-Ledger in New Jersey, I read an analysis entitled, "Romney's debate performance was presidential game changer, analysts say."
The unnamed authors of this analysis delivered a blizzard of sports metaphors about Romney's performance. "It's a new race for the White House," they said, after Romney "changed the game with an aggressive, confident performance" – needed, because "Obama's forces had hinted earlier that all they needed from the debate was one good punch to knock Romney out," after the challenger "spent the summer and early fall stumbling."
On the internet, they complemented this keen analysis with a cartoon picture of the two candidates as superheroes punching each other, complete with "Pow!" and "Bam!" Batman-style effects.
Why was Romney so effective, according to the Star-Ledger? Because "the Romney viewers saw during the nationally televised debate from Denver was the one his friends have long known: a conversational, smart, decent-on-his-feet guy, eager to defend his plans to cut taxes and change government health insurance for future generations."
Obama, meanwhile, came off as "wonky and lacking punch," because he was "so intent on answering questions."
The piece literally had nothing to say about the substance or accuracy of the two arguments. Like, not one thing. It did, however, speculate that Obama might be in trouble if his performance ended up getting parodied on the Daily Show, because he might end up with a reputation for being "too academic, too cold and uneasy with being challenged."
What the hell does any of this have to do with being president? It's one thing for reporters to talk shop behind the scenes about which candidate they think is doing a better job of slinging bull. But to legitimize it as real is just nuts.
Analysts like this were, however, right in a way. Romney did come across as the more confident and aggressive candidate, and Obama did come across as "wonky" and "lacking punch." Just visually and dramatically, Romney met the spectacle on its terms better than Obama did, much the way John F. Kennedy did in his celebrated debate with Richard Nixon. In that legendary meeting, radio viewers thought Nixon won, but TV viewers, blown away by Kennedy's smile and tan, thought was a landslide for the Democrat.
Journalists who cite that Nixon-Kennedy debate always forget that the lesson of that night is that the new broadcast media technology made superficiality and nonsense more important – that thanks to the press, it was now possible to get someone elected to the most powerful office on earth because he had a superior tan. Reporters love this story because it reminds everyone that the medium they work in has the power to overcome substance and decide elections all by itself. What's amazing is that they don't have the good sense to be ashamed of this.
I read the transcript of the debate and all I got from Romney was either outright factual lies, or total rhetorical dishonesty. He even tried out a version of the for-years-debunked death panel business:
In order to bring the cost of health care down, we don't need to have a -- an -- a board of 15 people telling us what kinds of treatments we should have.Really? Hey, Mitt – what do you think health insurance is? It is, by definition, a bunch of people deciding what kinds of treatments we should have.
Of course, Romney's point is that there's allegedly going to be a bloodless government board somewhere deciding upon treatment options, as opposed to some bloodless corporate board making those decisions, but even that's not true at all. Romney was talking about the Independent Payment Advisory Board, which exists solely to make cuts in Medicare if its costs rise beyond a certain level and congress doesn't do anything about them.
That board is specifically barred by law from making the kinds of care decisions Romney is talking about. Obama did at least point this out, but weakly, and that's not even the point. I mean, practically in the same breath of his "unelected board" attack, Romney criticized Obama's plan because it cut Medicare. So he's clearly not against government bureaucrats making decisions about treatment, because what the hell does Romney think Medicare does? He should try getting an eye job and billing Medicare for it. The whole thing was a non-sequitur, insincere and substantively meaningless – but if you had no clue what you were watching, it looked like Romney was confidently attacking and Obama was backtracking.
Romney's entire debate performance was like this. He said absolutely nothing, but got lots of credit for style points. Here's Romney's answer on what budget cuts he would make, addressing perhaps-soon-to-be-ex-PBS employee, Jim Lehrer:
I'm sorry, Jim. I'm going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I'm going to stop other things. I like PBS. I love Big Bird. I actually like you too. But I'm not going to -- I'm not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for it. That's number one.So the answer to the question, "What will you do to rein in the biggest budget deficit in history?" comes down to, "I'll cut PBS, which is about one millionth of the federal budget, and some other stuff."
Number two, I'll take programs that are currently good programs but I think could be run more efficiently at the state level and send them to state.
Number three, I'll make government more efficient, and to cut back the number of employees, combine some agencies and departments. My cutbacks will be done through attrition, by the way.
For God's sake – "I'll take programs that could be run more efficiently at state and send them to state"? Is that a joke? That's worse than a Bill Belichick answer: "What's our plan against the Broncos? We're going to watch the film and do what's best for our football team."
Reporters should have instantly pelted Romney with bags of dogshit for insulting the American people with this ridiculous non-answer, but he was instead praised for the canny "strategy" hidden in the response. Despite the fact that Romney is running as a budget hawk and yet has refused to name any actual programs (except Obamacare and PBS) he will cut, reporters gave him credit in the debate for being willing to be the bearer of bad budgetary news, because he essentially advance-fired Jim Lehrer on TV. Many also complimented the "humor" of the line about Big Bird.
Typically, Obama is the recipient of the breathless media plaudits for meaningless imageering and iconography, but Romney scooped it all up this time. Ugh. At least there are only two more!