As I get ready along with the rest of TV viewing America to endure the last of these 2012 Presidential debates (please…no more), one recurrent point comes to mind about how this particular exercise works and does not work for the different candidates.
In this election cycle, we have a bit of a disparity between how debates do and do not work for the candidates.
As a super-aggressive, hyperactive, conspiracy theory wielding, make up anything on the spot debater, Mitt Romney has helped his cause immensely. The last remaining stash of undecided voters seem to look at the Republican in that role and it resonates with them in some intangible way.
Even though it makes no sense to me at a personal level, a certain kind of voter has looked at Romney’s interruptions, exaggerations, and his 1950s sounding positions and responded positively.
This doesn’t mean voters agree with what he says. I suspect most voters listen to his views and can actually parse truth from fiction. But they have responded to Romney performance. By inhabiting a certain caricature of the in-your-face upstart candidate, Romney has brought in many voters that he simply was not able to reach with his endless stories about saving the Olympics and so forth on the campaign trail.
Voters wanted a certain figure from the GOP candidate and Romney gave it to them in the debates. The debates worked for him.
The same cannot be said of Barack Obama. Assuming Barack Obama did not squander the first debate by showing up half asleep, deprived of oxygen at high-altitude–whatever–he definitely showed up at the second debate, where he was also aggressive.
Interestingly, the remaining undecided voters do not seem to have responded in the same way to Obama’s performance of aggressiveness as they did to Romney’s performance.
The second debate was very revealing, in this respect, as to what works and what dos not work for the candidates in the eyes of swing voters.
Swing voters want an aggressive Republican in the debates and, while they want the Democrat to be engaged, they do not necessarily want just aggression, but something else–or some combination of other qualities.
President Obama, in this respect, has a much more difficult task heading into the third debate, tonight, than Mitt Romney.
For his part, Romney can just repeat the same performance he has mounted in the first two showings. He can come out swinging, be rude to the President and the moderator, ramble through anachronistic gaffes, and issue forth accusations known to be false. All of it will help him to strengthen his standing with swing voters who have responded to him thus far.
The President, by contrast, needs to show that he has backbone–spine–but also, I suspect, that he has what I think of as a magisterial command of the larger narrative–the big story. This tricky combination of fortitude in the face of Romney’s hail-Mary onslaught and the ability to tie every question to a big story about the country’s future has been hard to figure out for the Obama campaign. It would be hard for anyone.
Obama has been good at tacking the big story on economic issues, less so on education, and even less on taxation and foreign policy.
Romney’s aggression seems to work best on Obama as a way of forcing Obama to spend too much time calling out lies, leaving him without energy or focus enough to stay on message for the big story. On foreign policy, I suspect Romney will use accusations about Libya to try to throw Obama off, yet again.
But what is the larger narrative the President must offer on foreign policy? I think it is something along the lines of: In 2012, the world is crazy dangerous when we go it alone.
The Republican Party talks about foreign policy as if every challenge we face can be met by launching nuclear missiles at it. They fail to realize how interconnected our world has become–how important it is to influence the world community by a part of it.
Democrats, by contrast, see the world as a community we lead by participating. This does not mean our foreign policy should cower in the face of every military challenge. Rather, it means that we see the world as vast network of potential partners and in every situation we ask not just “Can we force our way with weapons?” but “Can we find a solution that strengthens the community to our advantage?”
The result is that foreign policy involves a great deal of diplomacy, not just the movement of troops.
It is a difficult task Obama has, given that the debate on foreign policy is all too often simplified down to a cartoon-like image of world events, and that certain key players on the world stage (Iran and Israel in particular) have taken to bombastic posturing in our election cycles.
Still, I think the President has the ability to pull it off and keep the attention of those swing voters who are leaning towards more as a result of the last debate.