The Worst Debate Performance Ever, Really?

Twenty minutes into the debate between the president and his challenger last week, I sent a friend an email: “Romney is winning this thing.” So I’m quite literally on the record as agreeing with the consensus view about the debate before I knew there was a consensus. Or rather, I should say that I did agree with the consensus—that Barack Obama didn’t do well—as it existed so long ago (six days) that now it seems like the Dawn of Man. The current conclusion, to the extent I can keep up with it, is that it was the worst debate performance in the history of rhetoric. In a fashion typically frenzied when it comes to politics, the consensus has fed on itself and gotten worse by the moment, helped along in no small part by people who claim to be the president’s partisans. Some of the most bitter language I’ve heard about Obama in five years has been muttered in the last five days by Obama supporters, who you would think might have ire left over for a Republican nominee as audacious as Governor Mitt Romney was in flatly denying what he’s been campaigning on for months. Or perhaps they find offering any critique of this to be useless. In situations like this, conservatives get mad and progressives get hysterical. Seizing on the opportunity to attack the president from the left, the usually reliable New York Times columnist Bob Herbert seethed, “It’s time to stop making excuses … LBJ could launch a war on poverty but not Barack Obama.” 

Can we get this Lyndon Johnson thing out of the way first? Because if I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it 20 times from friends who think health-care reform, financial-regulatory reform, the salvation of the auto business, the aversion of a world-wide depression, equal pay for equal work, the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and the tracking of Osama bin Laden are pretty small potatoes: Johnson was a master; he understood power; he knew how to get things done. In lieu of nostalgia, here’s some history. On the momentum of John Kennedy’s martyrdom and then victory in 1964 over the most controversial Republican nominee of the century, Johnson got the Civil Rights Act and Great Society legislation through a Congress that, by 1965, included in the House the Democratic majority of Obama’s dreams—295 seats—and 68 Democrats in the Senate (not just filibuster proof but veto-proof). And here’s the good part: Three years later, Johnson’s own party drove him from the White House. To paraphrase a long-ago vice presidential candidate: I knew LBJ. LBJ was a president of mine. And Bob? LBJ was no LBJ. Scathe away at Obama all you care to—surely he deserves some of it—but let’s leave the rewriting of the past, in the form of irrelevant presidential comparisons, to those other guys a light year or two to the right of us. They’re good at it. They’ve had practice. 

As far as the Worst Debate Performance in the History of Mammalian Utterances (you see how much worse it’s gotten just in the last three minutes?), I noticed something weird. See if you think it’s weird, too. Almost no one is talking about what was actually said. This worst-debate-ever verdict isn’t based on some goofy no-Soviet-domination-of-Eastern-Europe declaration by Obama or some pithy are-you-better-off-than-four-years-ago barb by Romney. Rather, if we could rewind the tape (well, we can), we would note that the verdict is impressionistic more than anything—a perception of the president’s diffidence (he seemed infuriatingly bemused by it all), a contrast in the two men’s energy levels, and Romney indisputably making himself an acceptable alternative to Obama, at least for the moment. But pulling rank and playing my own Dawn of Man card, as a personal witness I can promise that Ronald Reagan was worse in his first 1984 debate with Walter Mondale, when there were serious questions as to whether age had diminished the incumbent’s mental capacity, and that George W. Bush was worse in his first 2004 debate with John Kerry, when the Texan’s command of basic facts was a shambles. To the extent that any of the commentary about the first 2012 debate has been about its content at all, the attention centers on Romney’s attack on Sesame Street and the Orwellian shapeshifting that has become so familiar we now give it no second thought. An hour into the debate, 40 minutes after realizing Romney was winning, it also occurred to me that in his crisp, impressive fashion he was potentially leaving himself vulnerable to an Obama campaign that ought to be running against not Romney the right-winger, which he’s never been, but Romney the liar, which he’s always been. If the American people don’t figure that out, blaming it all on Obama just lets the rest of us, not to mention Mitt Romney, off the hook. 

Comments

The worst debate overreaction, certainly. Not anywhere near the worst debate performance. The wailing and gnashing of teeth among whiny Democrats is truly of historic proportions -- those folks need to grow a pair and recognize that winning the last debate is far more important than winning the first one.

Ugh, about time someone caught on. Yes, did Romney win that first debate? Of course. But he did it with nothing but lies, and Obama had a firm enough grasp of the facts and policies that I feel he was able to defend his positions well enough that he by no means gave the worst performance ever. It's just sad to see the left self implode like this.

A triumph of style over substance. Romney was more sure of himself than Obama was. Too bad he was peddling bullshit.

It's a little scary to think that the leader of the United States could be picked based on such a performance.

What if.......Obama simply let Mitt talk and talk and talk, so that his campaign could have material (Big Bird) for commercials and upcoming speaking events. What if that whole downplaying their debating skills thing before the debate actually extended into this debate? Is the president setting up Romney to tee off next debate? Watch this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FvTIphPnDM8

I'm inclined to believe that the President held back, knowing the full frontal attack he would be facing, and knowing based on history how much of an advantage he would be in to take his opponents own words to use against him. Is it a surprise 47% wasn't called out? Sure, but this wasn't the time or place. That talking point will be better served closer to election day.

I really dislike the word "win" in this presidential debate context because these debates are not high school/collegiate debates nor an Oxfordian one either. Romney outperform Obama essentially by bullying a pliant Jim Lehrer thus appearing assertive and "in command" while Obama appeared listless, lost and was often left unable to fire back a response because unlike Romney, he played by the rules. And as others mention, Romney lied throughout the event. But let's face Romney has made a career out of bullying and lying and it may yet earn him the Presidency. And it is that fear, because unlike the GOP the Democrats play the role of a loyal opposition all too well, that has many supporters of the President incensed at his performance and apparent lack of preparation because this is an election we can not afford to lose. To be frank until we see a more moderate GOP, we can not afford to lose the Presidency.

Most of this article is correct. However, it misses the point.

The point is that no one wants a President who can be pushed around like that. Right or wrong, we have a democracy, and that's the way it is. Obama should have realized that and prepped to deal with Mitt's attacks. The fact that he didn't is his mistake and no one else's.

October 15, 2012
Hello, my fellow American voters!
I watched the Oct. 3rd presidential and Oct. 11th vice-presidential debates.
Romney-Obama debate covered 7 topics: jobs; budget deficit/debt; social security/entitlements; federal regulation of economy; healthcare; federal government role in economy; partisan gridlock.
Ryan-Biden debate covered 10 topics: Libya; Iran; economy; medicare/social security/entitlements; taxes/tax reform/spending/budget cuts; military policy; Afghanistan; Syria; abortion; negative campaign tactics.
As an INDEPENDENT, I support the Romney/Ryan ticket.
Romney and Ryan won both debates.
Ryan won despite Biden’s consistently rude/disrespectful behavior during the debate.
Biden’s tactics to evade issues/truth were disrespectful to Americans interested in facts, figures, forecasts, and solutions for real people with real problems.
Biden interrupted Ryan often, laughed often while Ryan was talking, and pointed his finger often.
Romney and Ryan won with substance, integrity, respect, clarity, facts, commitment, inspiration, and leadership. But these debates are NOT about who wins but rather about who is the best person in terms of qualifications/character to lead our country to solve problems and make life better for all Americans.
I am inspired by Romney/Ryan, and I hope that you are too!
Best regards,
Cas Lee

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