Romney wins debate by ignoring much larger one

Mitt Romney

By Dana Allin, Senior Fellow for US Foreign Policy and Transatlantic Affairs

The collective punditry has rendered a near-unanimous verdict on the presidential debate in Denver last night: Mitt Romney won it. Romney was sharp, engaged and composed – maybe a tad over-aggressive at times but clearly comfortable in his own skin. President Obama looked – to many of us, anyway – like he would have much preferred to be somewhere else.

This was no real surprise, except perhaps in the magnitude of Romney’s advantage. Despite many other flaws as a candidate, Romney had proved himself a strong debater against his Republican primary opponents. Set debates have never been Obama’s strength; he tends to behave like a professor in a seminar, rather than a debater prepared for battle.

How much it matters is another question. The narrative of September had been harsh for the Romney campaign. The Republican had a flat nominating convention; Obama’s was judged a resounding success (notwithstanding the president’s own rather flat acceptance speech). In the weeks that followed, Romney stumbled through a knee-jerk attack on the White House in the very hours that US diplomats were under attack and dying in the Middle East. Then surfaced the secretly recorded video of Romney telling wealthy supporters that

There are 47% of the people who will vote for the President no matter what … who are dependent on government, who believe they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it … [M]y job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

Attacking almost half of Americans was unlikely to win him new supporters, and polling evidence shows that it didn’t. Moreover, though the margins have remained close, Romney had not pulled ahead in polling averages since the beginning of the year, a highly unusual problem for a challenger. In key swing states like Ohio, meanwhile, Obama has built what look like insurmountable leads.

Romney’s supporters will be heartened by last night’s performance, which may well resuscitate his campaign. Historical evidence speaks against turning a debate win into an electoral win, however. To take one of many examples: former vice president Walter Mondale was widely viewed as the winner against an apparently distracted Ronald Reagan in their first 1984 debate; Reagan went on to take 49 out of 50 states. (It is true that 73-year-old Reagan in a second debate delivered a decisive blow with the joke: ‘I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.’ But this only reinforced the truth that substantial mastery of issues in a formal debate is rather beside the point).

Romney’s apparent victory carried a certain irony insofar as he probably won this debate by abandoning a very substantial philosophical and policy debate that the 2012 presidential campaign has – against many expectations – actually provided. It concerns genuine and deep-seated disagreements about the relationship of state and society in the United States. Republicans have latched on to an Obama speech of some months ago in which he argued – echoing Harvard law professor and now Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren – that individuals’ economic success rests on a broader community effort. Businesses are possible because of the infrastructure, the education, the regulation and the social safety net that only government can provide. Such an argument only restated the consensus philosophy that emerged from FDR’s New Deal response to the economic crisis of the 1930s. Obama in this particular speech had slightly garbled the message – so he could be represented, tendentiously and out of context, as denying all credit to businessmen and -women for their own success. But leaving this misrepresentation aside, there remains a real philosophical divide. Conservatives seem genuinely offended by the (in historical terms rather mild) communitarian instincts of the president and his party. Romney’s ‘47%’ riff was an extreme expression of this underlying belief that real freedom is a matter of economic freedom and economic success, and that both are threatened by Obama’s commitment to the welfare state and progressive taxation.

One reason that Romney won last night’s staged debate is that he left this underlying debate aside. It was the ‘Return of Massachusetts Mitt,’ as Jonathan Chait put it: a return of the former Governor’s at-least-temperamental moderation for which Obama and his team were arguably unprepared. Romney is still unlikely to win on 6 November, but if he does win it will be by successfully burying that larger debate – a debate that he was losing.


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