Neither Candidate at His Best in First Presidential Debate

Eli Rose, Opinions Editor

On the night of the first scheduled presidential debate, Obama opened by addressing Michelle with something like a joke. “And so I just want to wish, Sweetie, you happy anniversary and let you know that a year from now we will not be celebrating it in front of 40 million people.”

On one level this statement is just something a politician would say. It’s just another manifestation of the message that candidates for all public offices try their hardest to send. Look, my family is just like yours; look at how much we love each other. Romney’s biographical video at the RNC was sending this message almost frantically.

On another level, it sounds very tired. The statement is ambiguous about what, exactly, will happen a year from now. Look, Michelle, I might win, or I might lose, but at least I won’t have to do this ever again. Of course, a victory doesn’t mean that the president is going to have a bunch of free time next October. But it was hard to ignore what Obama was implying: I really do not want to be here.

The Wednesday night debate was mostly grey and murky. The New York Times ran an editorial titled “An Unhelpful Debate.” Reuters said that “neither candidate on Wednesday presented voters with a clear idea of how to fix [the U.S healthcare system]”. CNN admitted that “Neither candidate scored dramatic blows that will make future highlight reels,” and the Los Angeles Times also found a lack of “knockout blows.”

The problem might be that the primary points of disagreement between the candidates were, and are, completely quantitative. Obama seemed to be continuously aware of and sometimes frustrated by this fact. “And the fact is that if you are lowering the rates the way you described, Governor, then it is not possible to come up with enough deductions and loopholes that only affect high-income individuals to avoid either raising the deficit or burdening the middle class. It’s —” he paused, “it’s math. It’s arithmetic.” That was another moment of dual meaning. Was “it’s math” a pre-written line calculated to be a “knockout blow”? Or was it just Obama expressing genuine incredulity at how Romney’s plan is supposed to work? Was it both? Romney had his quotable lines — in fact many more than Obama. “You said you get a deduction for getting a [manufacturing] plant overseas. Look, I’ve been in business for 25 years. I have no idea what you’re talking about. I maybe need to get a new accountant,” was a quip that seems too specific to have been canned (did they just guess that Obama would bring up the outsourcing tax credit?). His other big line — “You’re entitled to your own house and your own plane, Mr. President, but not your own facts” — was more generic and could have been written ahead of time. Romney didn’t help it by slightly muffing the delivery and talking over Jim Lehrer. Romney also had a very (perhaps unintentionally) quotable moment about cuts he would make: “I’m sorry Jim, I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS. … I like PBS, I love Big Bird. I actually like you too.”

On the live stream I was watching, selected Tweets were displayed in the bottom left of the screen. I have no idea as to how this worked, but given the lack of time lag, I assume they were chosen randomly and, therefore, were a representative sample of everyone using the #debate tag. Some of the Twitterers were clearly partisan one way or the other (though more likely in Obama’s direction, given that this is the Internet). Others were professional commentators or famous people, who made clever observations in a detached fashion. A few people offered earnest and nonpartisan assessments of what was going on. But after Romney’s gaffe, 95 percent of the Tweets were about Big Bird.

There are three presidential debates, the first and last in a format identical to last night’s and another in a town hall format. This long-traditional and non-negotiable format of the first night was clearly not suited to Obama and Romney. They were talking over Jim Lehrer near-constantly and never stuck to the prescribed statement-response-rebuttal template. Both the Governor and the President seemed to disagree on basic factual matters. If statements equivalent to “my opponent is lying” are so frequent that they become just another way of saying “I disagree,” what are we doing?

Campaigns build narratives, and debates are the only point in the process when the two long-separated narrative freight trains are allowed to slam together. In paradise, the two trains would merge into one train that would proceed to govern the country for the next four years. I doubt that has ever really happened. But the first debate was a painful crash, even for the genre. The emerging train, agree commentators in general, seems to be at least somewhat Romney. Some of Obama’s own staff conceded “style” to the other side (while claiming that Obama won on substance but asserting that, of course, debates have nothing to do with substance). The next question is how much debates matter: Will Romney’s victory raise his standing in the polls, or will its effect be canceled out by the Big Bird joke?

Maybe debates are dying out. When the disagreement is so quantitative, watching candidates stand at a podium talking seems far less helpful than reading a graph.