Friday, October 5, 2012

A Brand New Ball Game?

I've heard the question asked by several people in the last 24 hours.

Is this a new race now?

The subject, obviously, is Wednesday night's debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. The Los Angeles Times reports that more than 67 million Americans watched it.

And I am — as the Batman character Two–Face said — of two minds on the question of whether things have changed. At least in a long–term sense.

On the one hand, of course, there is that election campaign.

If the polls have been correct (and I'm not convinced that they have been) and Obama's lead has been growing in recent weeks, then my answer would be "yes, it probably is a new race now" because Romney clearly and decisively won the debate. Virtually everyone is saying so. Even the president's staunchest defenders have conceded that point.

In the short term — and, with fewer than five weeks to go, short term is really all there is in this presidential election campaign — will it be enough?

To truly win the hearts and minds of the voters takes more than a single debate and longer than five weeks — but, if the viewership of this year's conventions is any indication (and I believe it is), way more than half of the electorate doesn't pay close attention to the campaign until only a few weeks remain.

And many, many more people are undecided — or at least willing to reconsider voting to re–elect the president — than we have been led to believe.

Candidates don't have much choice. They must first be elected before they can start doing the work of governing that will ultimately define them so they must go for the quick scores and hope that will be sufficient to win enough votes.

It's different for incumbents. They already hold the office they seek, and voters want reasons to justify re–electing incumbents.

There will be three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate before they count the votes on Nov. 6. Winning the election is what matters at this point, and Romney almost certainly could not have been seen as the debate's winner if the general perception had been that he had had a bad night.

Winning the debates — especially the first one — and winning the election are the immediate tasks. The hearts and minds can be won later.

Wednesday night's debate was indisputably more important for Romney than Obama. The polls, whether they are accurate or not, were showing Romney behind Obama nationally and in nearly every so–called "swing state;" if he had been seen as the loser of this debate, I think it would have been almost impossible for him to bounce back and win the election — even if he won the last two debates.

But Romney wasn't seen as the loser in the immediate assessments of Americans who watched the debate.

Now, I am curious to see what the post–debate surveys, which are being conducted as I write this (and sampling probably will continue for a few more days), reveal about the voters' impression.

My gut tells me that, by Sunday or Monday, the overwhelming perception still will be that Romney won the debate with a president who was widely expected to win. I say that because Romney (who had been criticized for being too vague) provided as much detail as a 90–minute debate would allow, he was relaxed and smiling and he even managed to work in a few humorous comments (who woulda guessed that Mitt Romney had a pretty decent sense of humor?).

He made a favorable impression on many voters who had believed much of the negative stuff that was spread about Romney by Obama's campaign.

That may have been the thing that irked Democrats the most — that Obama never really used their favorite (albeit faulty) talking points about who Romney is. Those talking points were completely at odds with what viewers saw and heard.

And, in my experience, when people conclude that they have been deceived about one thing, they become suspicious of other things that are said by that person or whoever is authorized to speak on that person's behalf.

Now, that's largely what I believe happened last night. Conservative commentators had their own interpretations. I share some of their conclusions, and I'm lukewarm on others. Guess that's proof that I really am a centrist.

There have been many theories offered today by Obama's defenders about why the president was "off his game," if he was — and I am not convinced that he was.

Some have suggested that he was simply mindful of the need to uphold the dignity of his office — but, having observed this man in the presidency for more than 3½ years, I simply do not find that plausible.

Others have tried to put the best spin possible on an epically bad debate performance.

Aw, gee, folks, Gail Collins writes in the New York Times. Do debates really matter?

Until last night, my answer would have been "not that much." But, in fact, we don't really have that much to go on. Debates have only been regular parts of presidential elections since 1976.

And I have watched most of them. Believe me, I have seen some pretty bad performances over the years, sometimes by incumbents, but I have never seen an incumbent perform as poorly in a debate as Obama did Wednesday night.

It wasn't really as bad as your eyes and ears told you it was, Jonathan Chait suggests in New York Magazine.

Oh, yes, it was. For viewers who expected to see the scripted, teleprompter–aided president they've watched for the last four years, it was a shock.

Where was Obama, moaned a distraught Chris Matthews.

Former Vice President Al Gore — who knows a few things about presidential debates — theorized that Obama hadn't had enough time to adjust to the altitude of Denver.

I've been to Denver. Yes, the air is thin up there, but I wasn't light–headed or anything like that. It didn't affect my judgment or my coordination. I was able to function normally (of course, I didn't have 67 million people watching me do it, either).

I drove there from Oklahoma, where the altitude is about one–fifth that of Denver. If I suffered any ill effects physically, it probably was from such a long drive.

And I'm pretty certain that Obama didn't have to operate Air Force One when he flew to Denver.

I worked in the newspaper business for many years. I have a lot of experience as a professional journalist, and I know that post mortems on a debate are fun for journalists, especially since one person's theory about why such a gifted speaker as Obama should do so poorly in a debate is as good as another person's.

Frankly, though, I don't really think it was a matter of Obama losing the debate. I think Romney won the debate — substance over style.

No matter what the polls show in the next few days, however, there is still much work to be done by Romney.

But the thing I have been thinking about today is the role of the press in this disaster for the Democrats.

No, I am not going to suggest that there is some sort of liberal conspiracy within the media. I would guess that most of the employees of newspapers or magazines or radio stations or TV networks are liberals — but probably the majority of the owners of those media outlets are conservatives.

And it is the owners who have the real influence.

That leads me to the thing I've been wondering about all day.

When Obama ran for president in 2008, he promised a transparent presidency that would include regular press conferences. But he has delivered precisely the opposite. He seldom answers questions from the White House reporters in a press conference setting, preferring instead to have one–on–one interviews with journalists who could be counted upon to toss him softball questions:
Is the earth round, Mr. President? It is? You are truly wise, blessed with keen insight, Mr. President.

I'm not one of those who wails about media bias because it smacks too much of an allegation of conspiracy, and I don't believe a conspiracy on that kind of scale is possible.

But I do believe a kind of passive acceptance of the progressive narrative of the moment has been going on for the last 3½ years. Many (not all) journalists have treated this president with kid gloves. He has been pampered and has rarely, if ever, been challenged.

I doubt that Obama ever believed he would be challenged within his party for renomination so there was no reason to think he would have to debate anyone the way he had to debate Hillary Clinton. And the debates with John McCain were pretty easy because they were held a few weeks after the economic implosion, and the voters were turning from the party that had been in power for eight years.

The president often complains about the lousy hand he was dealt, but the truth is that the road to the White House would have been a lot rockier for Obama without that implosion. Polls just before the implosion indicated that Obama and McCain were running neck and neck, and there had been symptoms of buyer's remorse among Democrats over the selection of Joe Biden as running mate.

So it had been close to 4½ years since Obama had participated in a debate, and many of his supporters have been pointing that out today. He was simply out of practice, they say.

I think there is some truth in that, but I also believe the give and take of regular presidential press conferences keeps a president on his toes. Apparently, Obama simply decided not to hold press conferences, and the press acquiesced.

The press should have protested this — vigorously. Not because being able to question those in power is essential to a free society — although it is.

And not because regular press conferences would have benefited a president trying to win re–election with a bad economy that was bad when he took office but was made worse when he failed to turn it around in his first term — although they would.

But because many of those in the press have abdicated their responsibility to be the public's watch dog. The press' allegiance is to the citizens of the United States — not to any president, regardless of party affiliation or political ideology.

It is my deep hope that, whoever is elected president, press conferences will become commonplace at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue once again.

The press should insist on it.

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