Paul Waldman

No, Candy Crowley Did Not Show Any Favoritism

Candy Crowley questions President Obama during last night's debate

Before last night's debate, both the Obama and Romney camps expressed their concern that moderator Candy Crowley might go rogue and act like something resembling a journalist, not merely keeping time and introducing questioners but interjecting to get clarifications and ask follow-ups. Once the debate was over, it was only conservatives complaining about her. Some found her biased from start to finish, but all criticized her for her intervention on the somewhat absurd question of what words President Obama used and when to describe the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. But a close look at what went on in the debate reveals that Crowley was actually judiciously even-handed, and if anything, may have done more favors for Romney. Before we discuss how, here are some of the reactions from the right:

In Defense of Paul Ryan's Fake Dishwashing

(AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

In case you haven't heard the story, the other day Paul Ryan's team thought it would be a good idea to show his compassionate side, so they had him show up at a soup kitchen in Youngstown, Ohio to help out. The only problem was that lunch had already been served, the patrons were all gone, and everything had been cleaned up. Undeterred, Ryan and his wife donned aprons and proceeded to wash pots for the cameras, despite the fact that the pots they were washing appeared to have already been washed. The head of the charity that runs the soup kitchen was a bit perturbed about the whole thing, saying later, "Had they asked for permission, it wouldn't have been granted. … But I certainly wouldn't have let him wash clean pans, and then take a picture."

Yes, this came in for plenty of ridicule. But let me rise to Ryan's defense. The fact that the pots did not actually need washing doesn't make this much more phony than the typical candidate photo op, where the candidate pretends to be "helping" for a few minutes but actually does little but create trouble for everyone; as they say on "Free to Be You And Me," some kind of help is the kind of help we all can do without. Everything candidates do, particularly this close to an election, is manufactured and artificial, undertaken only for the purpose of being photographed and written about. If tomorrow Paul Ryan goes to paint a Habitat for Humanity house or deliver Meals on Wheels, it won't be any more genuine. And the truth is, by coming when nobody was there, he did that soup kitchen a favor.

All Due Respect

Find out what it means to me.

As I was going through old presidential debates in writing this piece, I came across a moment in the 2004 town hall debate in which John Kerry got asked by a woman in the audience what he would tell someone who thought abortion was murder and wanted reassurance that their tax money wouldn't be going to abortion. He began his answer in the way we have come to expect Democratic politicians to: "First of all, I cannot tell you how deeply I respect the belief about life and when it begins." He then went on to explain how he was an altar boy, religion is very important to him, but he won't impose his personal beliefs on others. At the end of it, he wrapped up with a discussion of the importance of family planning, and said, "You'll actually do a better job, I think, of passing on the moral responsibility that is expressed in your question. And I truly respect it."

Which got me thinking: When was the last time you heard a Republican express their deep, deep respect for the moral perspective that informs the views of Americans who are pro-choice? The answer is, pretty much never.

Five Fool-Proof Tips for Winning a Town Hall Debate

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Tuesday night, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will meet in a "town hall" debate, which doesn't actually much resemble a town hall, but does provide an opportunity for ordinary voters to ask the candidates questions. So does this kind of forum actually give us any better idea of which candidate would be the superior president? As I noted last week, town hall debates are less predictable and tend to cover a wider range of topics than the format of a moderator and candidates standing behind podiums. That does mean that we could get a bit more insight into the operation of these two men's minds, but it also means that slightly different of skills and preparation are required. A review of past town hall debates—there has been one in every presidential election since 1992—shows what Obama and Romney will have to do in order to succeed. Obama and Romney have, we assume, looked back at how their predecessors handled these events. Here's some of what they might have learned.

Time to Try the "Romney Is Lying" Debate Strategy

You're getting sleepy...

One of the triumphs of Mitt Romney's performance in the first debate was that he told an enormous number of outright falsehoods (see here) with virtually no response from Obama, or at least no effective response. So one of Obama's challenges tomorrow night—perhaps the key challenge—is how to handle it when Romney says things that aren't true. What he can't do is what he did in the first debate, offer a muttering response filled with details and failing to emphasize his central point.

I realize there's at least some chance that the President is too busy to be reading this blog today. But just in case, let me offer a suggestion. What Obama needs is a set of responses that cover the topic at hand, but that all follow a single theme. He needs, to put it bluntly, a single phrase that he will repeat every time he's refuting a Romney falsehood. It could be something slogan-y, like "That's another Romney Reinvention," or could be something simple, like "Once again, Governor Romney thinks he can fool you and get away with it." It almost doesn't matter what it is, so long as he repeats it every time. The repetition acts as a signal to the viewers, linking that particular part of the debate to what they've already heard. This would not only make Romney's deceptions the headline of post-debate analyses, it would also probably freak Romney out a bit during the debate. As long as Romney knows that Obama's reaction to anything he says is going to be some weak, "Well, I'm going to take issue with you there," Romney can forge confidently on ahead, since people watching will have no idea who's telling the truth. But if he's wondering whether what he had planned to say on a particular topic is going to play right into Obama's hands and send him deeper down a hole Obama has dug for him, he won't be nearly so bold.

Friday Music Break

Today's Friday Music Break is for my friends in AC15. Message being: You're old. It's the Talking Heads, with "Psycho Killer." Stop Making Sense came out a remarkable 28 years ago.

Does Mitt Romney Want to Raise Taxes on the Wealthy?

Mitt Romney, not sharing with job creators what he's really proposing to do to them.

At last night's debate, the mathematical impossibility of the Romney tax plan came up, just as it did during the first Obama-Romney debate, and just as it surely will in the second Obama-Romney debate on Tuesday. The real problem with Romney's proposal, though, isn't just that it's mathematically impossible, but that it's logically strange in one important way nobody seems to have noticed yet, namely that Romney seems to be proposing big tax increases for the wealthy. I'll get to why that is in a minute, but before I do let's review the problem. Since Kevin Drum gave a nice explanation, I'll just steal it:

Phew!

Keep talking, buddy. I'm coming for you.

We all know that vice-presidential debates don't matter, or at least that's what we knew until last night. This one, however, may turn out to matter quite a bit, even if it doesn't produce any major movement in the polls, for two reasons. The first is the obvious one: it has already made despondent Democrats feel a lot better. They wanted to see their guy aggressively take on the other side, and that's exactly what they got. Markos Moulitsas of DailyKos probably spokr for most Democrats when he wrote, "Tonight felt great, didn't it?...we base liberals are happy again, which means we'll be productive bees because no matter what some of you claim, no one likes to work hard for the team that is 10 points down (or feels that way)."

Conservatives, on the other hand, are unanimous in their judgment that Biden was overbearing and mean. Last night on Fox, Brit Hume called him "a cranky old man." "Biden Bombed," reads the Fred Barnes piece on the Weekly Standard. "Classless Joe," says the National Review. They aren't completely wrong—Biden certainly interrupted Ryan more than was necessary, and could have dialed back the smiling and head-shaking a bit. But his unrelenting aggressiveness was just what Democrats wanted to see, and will no doubt spur President Obama to try to avoid looking somnolent by comparison.

The second reason the VP debate matters is that it sets the stage for the final two presidential debates in an important substantive way.

White House High Rollers

(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

When George W. Bush ran for president in 2000, he assembled a fundraising effort more effective than any the country had ever seen. During the primary campaign, Bush's fundraising approached $100 million, an unprecedented total many at the time found utterly mind-boggling. Yet just eight years later, Barack Obama's campaign raised $191 million in the month of September alone. This year's September haul for Obama was $181 million.

Could the VP Debate Be a BFD?

(AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

If you find yourself moved to prepare for tonight's debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan by watching the 2008 vice-presidential debate, your first response will be, "Holy cow, I'd almost forgotten what a nincompoop Sarah Palin is." But after that, you'll be reminded that before he became the shirtless, Trans Am-washing guy so hilariously lampooned in The Onion, Biden was known as one of the most eloquent speakers in his party. He was well prepared for his meeting with Palin; not only did he talk fluidly about a range of issues, but he came armed with an array of factoids that he parceled out effectively and he was ready with practiced responses to most of Palin's criticisms of Obama. The verdict at the time may have been that Palin succeeded by being less than the complete disaster the McCain campaign feared she'd be, but Biden showed himself a more than capable debater.

Non-Religious Voters Getting Even More Democratic

Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life it out with a new report on the increasing numbers of people who don't identify with any religion, and while the headline is that the number of such people has maintained its steady growth—now up to 20 percent of the population, and concentrated more heavily among younger adults—there's something else notable, about the political affiliations of this group.

Some people have pointed out that only some of these "nones" will actually say they're atheist, while many define themselves as "spiritual but not religious," which could mean anything and nothing, from "I believe in God but organized religion is corrupt, to "I get a profound sense of our interconnectedness when I look up at the stars." We also shouldn't forget that there are many people who continue to identify with a religion but are actually non-believers. I know too many Jewish atheists to count, and nearly all of them would say their religion is "Jewish" if you asked; I'm sure there are many people who grew up in other religious traditions who feel the same way. But here's the key political graph:

Liberals Need to Get a Grip

Do not let these people make you anxious.

As a liberal who writes about politics for a living, I've spent the last few days talking to increasingly panicked Democrats, who have begun to overreact to the fact that President Obama had a poor debate performance, which then produced a movement in some polls toward Mitt Romney. I think David Weigel put it well yesterday: "The first presidential debate has come to remind me of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Democrats walked out of the theater/turned off the TV saying 'huh, well, I wanted it to be better.' After a few days of talking to friends, it changes from a disappointment into the worst piece of crap in human history." Andrew Sullivan kind of went nuclear after seeing the Pew poll I discussed yesterday, writing a post titled, "Did Obama Just Throw the Entire Election Away?" I can answer that: No.

No, There's No Poll Trutherism On the Left

Ahhh! Panic panic panic!

Today, the Pew Research Center released a poll showing Mitt Romney rocketing ahead of Barack Obama to a 4-point lead among likely voters. Needless to say, this is pretty remarkable. Is it true? Well...maybe, maybe not. Just a few weeks ago Pew showed Obama ahead by 8 points among likely voters, and I'm sure I wasn't the only one who found that unlikely. But referencing the recent "poll truther" insanity on the right, Slate tech writer Farhad Manjoo tweeted, "Watch for liberals to start questioning Pew's methodology/sampling/etc in 3, 2, 1...." Well, you can keep waiting. I have seen some liberals express the belief that these results may be inaccurate, particularly since they show the two candidates tied among women. I don't even think Ann Romney thinks her husband is going to be tied among women. But there aren't any liberals, as far as I can tell, questioning Pew's methodology or intentions.

Why Do the Sunday Shows Suck So Much?

I know you're dying to know what these two have to say.

In the American media landscape, there is no single forum more prestigious than the Sunday shows, particularly the three network programs and to a slightly lesser extent "Fox News Sunday" and CNN's "State of the Union." The Sunday shows are where "newsmakers" face the music, where Washington's most important people are validated for their importance, where issues are probed in depth. So why do they suck so much?

I live and breathe politics, yet I find these programs absolutely unwatchable, and I can't be the only one. On a typical episode, there is absolutely nothing to learn, no insight to be gained, no interesting perspective on offer, nothing but an endless spew of talking points and squabbling. Let's take, for instance, yesterday's installment of "This Week With George Stephanopoulos"...

Romney Versus the People

(AP Photo/Scott Applewhite)

There's no question that Mitt Romney did very well in his first debate with Barack Obama. Indeed, it couldn't have gone much better, so much so that almost any performance in their meeting next week will seem like a let-down. But the second debate poses real dangers for Romney, and an opportunity for Obama to wipe away the memory of his poor performance in the first. Next week's will be a "town hall"-style debate, and that format plays right into Romney's weaknesses. The town hall debate will be challenging for Romney for two reasons, both of which have to do with the fact that it will feature not journalists or a moderator asking questions, but ordinary people.

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