Maiello: Defeat the Press
Miami Fans Mistakenly Chant "Let's Go Eat" During Playoff Game
I knew Barack Obama was in trouble when he took time off from debate preparation to visit Hoover Dam. Don’t get me wrong, I love Hoover Dam. I read a whole book about its history, and have written about it myself. But I had a big professional event the other day in Nevada, and I stayed up until 2 a.m. getting ready to perform. I got four hours sleep. And I didn’t visit Hoover Dam. That debate wasn’t quite Bush-Kerry I in 2004 – the worst performance by an incumbent President in a Presidential debate in my lifetime. It wasn’t even quite Reagan-Mondale I in 1984, when President Reagan looked tired and out of command of facts, briefly raising questions as to his fitness to serve a second term. But it was bad. Here’s why it was bad, what it means, and what it doesn’t.
The debate was bad. The President, assuming a sort of Rose Garden strategy of seeming above the fray that Romney successfully launched toward him much of the night, declined to mention the 47% comment, Bain Capital, Romneycare, the Ryan budget – pretty much anything that could be construed as offense. It wasn’t so much that President Obama seemed like President Bush in his awful debate with Senator Kerry in 2004 – that President had poor command of facts, and was more disengaged. Combined with his innate lack of speaking skill, W. seemed incompetent that night. President Obama was more channeling the first Gore-Bush debate, when Vice-President Gore was tired and subdued. This was the debate equivalent of taking a knee up by a field goal with seven minutes to go. And with Romney lying and reinventing himself with a crazed energy (In this campaign because people are hurting! Not going to lower taxes for the rich! Going to protect Medicare! After I repeal Obamacare, going to unleash the energy of the states in health care like he did in Massachusetts! Don’t think about what I meant by that, it’s horribly self-contradictory!) President Obama’s lack of punching was a truly awful failing. He was smart enough, and stuffed full of talking points, but passive, disengaged. He didn’t want it. Romney did.
President Obama only performs well, it seems, when his back is to the wall. After the Jeremiah Wright tape-looping started in March 2008, Obama went on MSNBC Friday afternoon to tepidly suggest that the video didn’t mirror his values. Several feeding-frenzy days later, when the polls in Pennsylvania showed Hillary Clinton up by over 20 points, we got the More Perfect Union speech. The ship was righted, but only after considerable damage. And candidate Obama lost Pennsylvania by a mere 8, cruising to the nomination. The rest was history.
Fast-forward ahead to 2009. With the economy dissipating the new President’s public standing more quickly than otherwise would have been, he waited for the Gang of Six in the Senate to devise a health care compromise that never happened. After Scott Brown happened, he regrouped, pushed hard with his team, and Obamacare was born. That victory took eight months longer than it should have, and left less time and political capital for accomplishing other things in the critical two-year window for Democratic change.
So it is now. The President will realize, as he admitted to his staff in 2007 at times, that this debate performance stunk. His modest national lead of 4-5 points, exaggerated in our collective view by his incumbency, the lack of motion in the polls all year, and the solidity of certain key states like Ohio, will now shrink. The President will have two weeks to think about this, and to hear lectures about counterpunching. He will practice counterpunching. In the next debate, with his lead reduced, he will counterpunch. He will have to suffer through two weeks during which the right will be invigorated, and the persuadable low-information voters will hear how Romney won. He will perform better, but as Barack Obama works, he will perform better because he will wait until it is the eleventh hour and the pressure is really on, like a smart kid in college who starts writing his term paper at midnight the night before it’s due. This, for those of us who have parented the candidacy that is our kid, is pretty exasperating.
Speaking of college, when we apply the lessons of history to tonight, we can see that Romney will get a bounce from this performance. Debate bounces are not made from the debate, historically, but rather, from the media amplification of conventional wisdom about the debate. This was true when the media made a big loser of sweaty Nixon, when immediate reactions showed the cooler Kennedy perhaps only edging him in the electorate’s eyes. President Ford’s free Poland gaffe didn’t manifest in bad polling immediately, but only after several days of media pounding on its incorrectness. The Bernie Shaw-Kitty Dukakis moment grew in power as the media amplified it as a narrative of Governor Dukakis’ failure to connect. And tonight’s narrative is Romney winning, because he won. That spin cycle will bounce forward through the weekend, and the polls will shift, the question being how much.
Romney’s advantage feels to me like a two point shift in the making, from a 51-46 result to a 50-48 world. Nate Silver chronicled how vote-shares break toward a challenger modestly after debates (though Nate didn’t trust himself enough to state the deeper truth that most of those incumbents lost the debates in any objective view of things), more by the challenger picking up undecideds than by the incumbent losing pre-existing vote share. This will invigorate the Romney team, and the Obama team is either lucky (or three-dimensional chess skilled if they caused this) that the change comes so late on the calendar, with 33 days before Election Day.
There are some structural realities that should constrain the freakout starting on MSNBC afterward, as Ed Schultz and Chris Matthews took turns hyperventilating. It is still worth remembering that no challenger has overcome a deficit of this size that existed before a first Presidential debate. And it is more worth remembering that Mitt Romney trails decisively in the Kerry states and New Mexico. Together they comprise 251 electoral votes (270 being a win). Romney is getting slaughtered in Ohio, where polls have showed undecided voters breaking hard against him, as Obama rides on a tide of Democratic enthusiasm for the repeal of Ohio’s antiunion law, for the auto bailout, and an Obama ad blitz of negative definition of Romney. If the Kerry states, New Mexico, and Ohio hold, Romney has to flip polls in Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, Virginia, and Florida. I just don’t see it. Nevada and Virginia in particular seem like heavy lifts, as Romney basically never leads in polls there. Iowa will also be tough. A two point shift, roughly the size of Kerry’s inroads against W. after their first debate, likely could cost Obama Florida and Colorado. That would make the election hinge on Virginia, Ohio, Iowa, and Nevada, with Romney being able to cede Ohio alone.
First debates have a way of not mattering so much in history. Ask President Kerry. President Reagan looked awful in 1984’s first debate, and cruised to re-election with a vastly larger lead. President George W. Bush looked unPresidential in his first debate, and turned a five point lead into a one-and-a-half point lead he would not relinquish en route to a two-and-one-half point victory. On the other hand, President Ford’s unsteady performance against Jimmy Carter may have been just enough to make the difference in that razor-close election.
Tonight was Mitt Romney’s best night in years, but mostly because an incumbent President channeled the first ineffective Gore performance. Remember how soporific Gore gave way to angry, patronizing eye-rolling Gore? I don’t think Barack Obama has that in him, so hopefully a more combative and assertive President will show up – the one who fenced so adroitly with the House Republican caucus that Prime Minister’s questions was permanently canceled. This electorate is so polarized, motion so slow, that it may not matter. But President Obama has left a path for victory before Mitt Romney. What direction the nation will follow now hinges on whether, back closer to the wall, the President shows he wants it badly, and closes the deal. The low point of his Presidency was the debt deal. The American people, and the 47% who are with him at all times, want more fight. I predict with some confidence that we’ll see that. So please don’t freak out, Obama supporters. But President Obama? It’s ok if you freak out a little. In fact, we’d kind of like that.