What the hell went wrong? Why did Barack Obama bring a lollipop to a knife fight?
Obama's poor debate performance bugged me so much that I went for a long walk to mull the problem over. A long
walk. Didn't get home until nearly four in the morning.
Obama let Romney frame him as a Big Gummint Democrat, even though the government has shrunk. Obama allowed Dodd-Frank to seem like onerous regulation, when in fact it is hardly sufficient to keep the Wall Streeters in line. Obama barely attempted to combat the absurd claim that the President (not the GOP) has been responsible for the hyper-partisanship in DC. Obama allowed the $700 billion Medicare canard to stand. Obama couldn't combat his opponent's false claim that the Romney tax plan wouldn't add to the deficit, despite huge tax cuts and a big military build-up.
Obama didn't refer to Mitt's Janus-faced history of saying anything he thinks his audience wants to hear at any given time. I mean, jeez
. That tactic should have been obvious.
As Jeff Greenfield
Most surprising, the whole evening felt as if Obama thought he was back in 2008, needing only to demonstrate a sense of cool, calm collectedness to persuade the voters that they could do what they desperately wanted to do: change course.
There was barely a moment when Obama offered any sense that he was prepared to challenge Romney on his weakest point: who does the Republican presidential nominee speak for? How much (or little) does he understand where the country is, how it got here?
Even on the most basic political points, Obama seemed clueless. When you argue as a Democrat that you and your Republican opponent share wide areas of agreement on Social Security—especially when recipients make up a chunk of Romney’s “47 percent” of indolent spongers—you have thrown in a fistful of high cards.
That last point bugged the hell out of me. Mitt Romney is the guy who picked Paul Ryan, the apostle of Ayn Rand and therefore the sworn enemy of Social Security. The obvious move was to force Romney to distance himself from his own veep. That's what Obama would have done if he had brought the killer instinct to this match.
You may have noticed that the President never mentioned his most important achievement in the most crucial states: the auto bailout. He never said, “That $716 billion in Medicare savings you keep harping on? That was in Paul Ryan’s Republican budget — you know, Mitt, the one that passed the House because all the Republicans voted for it.”
lays out the things that Obama allowed Romney to get away with:
So Romney is a candidate of a 20 percent cut in tax rates, a new plan to cover people with preexisting conditions, and higher defense spending, and he will accomplish it all by eliminating federal funding for PBS. He would not accept that his proposal would result in any trade-offs at all — no lower funding for education, no reductions in Medicare for anybody who is currently retired. He insisted his plan would not cut taxes for the rich, which is false. He described his proposal to allow people with continuous health insurance to keep it — a right that, as Obama already noted, already exists, and is therefore a meaningless promise — as a plan to cover all people with preexisting conditions.
Such thoughts ran through my head as I took that long, long walk across foggy Baltimore. My only consolation came in a Dunkin Donuts shop, where a stout, unhappy woman served me a Boston Kreme which clogged the arteries while soothing the soul. (Bad for the diet, but the walk compensated.) She also wanted one dollar for a cup of water.
How did this happen?
By "this," I mean Obama's exercise in surrealism, not the water policy at Dunkin's. As I sat there looking like Homer Simpson in an Edward Hopper, samsara struck: What if it was that stupid video?
In the days before the debate, the right mounted a coordinated attack based on a "newly discovered" (actually well-known) video from 2007, in which Obama praised his former pastor Jeremiah Wright, the firebrand blowhard who went under the bus half a year later. (I've long suspected that Obama joined that church simply to get ahead in Chicago politics. Obama probably isn't very religious. For many politicians, Christianity is the best image.)
Reactionary pundits used this video to portray Obama as an angry black nationalist. Of course, he is nothing of the kind.
I think that this line of attack unnerved the President. The purpose of the scheme was to stimulate one of Obama's psychological weak points.
Obama knows how to play the role of the non-threatening black man -- how to be the kind of black guy that middle-class white people like. Barack Obama is, I think, very
self-conscious about the need to project this persona. The right's inane misrepresentation of that 2007 video was designed to transform Mr. Nice Guy into an amalgam of Farrakhan and O.J.
And so Obama over-compensated.
He came to this debate determined to show that the Fox Newsers were wrong -- that he wasn't a firebrand, wasn't angry, wasn't scary. That he really was Mr. Nice Guy deep in his heart.
The result? He was a wimp.
No matter how many absurdities Mitt spewed, Obama didn't tell him to cut the crap. Romney re-re-re-re-re-reinvented himself right there on that stage, and not once did Obama say the obvious: "You never know which Mitt is going to show up." Despite being handed many opportunities and ample cause, Obama didn't attack
Why did Barack Obama bring a lollipop to a knife fight? Because he didn't want to be seen as a black guy with a knife.