In the debates, showmanship wins
The consensus on the third Presidential debate between President Barack Obama and Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is that Obama won. And the three debates in a country that increasingly views politics as a kind of political professional wrestling could prove to be seen as milestones.
Key truths came from Time’s Mark Halperin, and the University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. Halperin noted that Obama looked like an incumbent who felt he was ahead, believed his challenger was not qualified, and was still compensating for his lethargic and widely-panned first debate. And as soon as the debate was over Sabato wrote this wise Tweet: “Glancing down Twitter. Shocker: All Ds think O won, all Rs think R won.”
Indeed, some new and old media GOPers suggested that Romney - who often looked like he needed binders of Red Bull - was akin to Jake LaMotta, the legendary boxer, portrayed by Robert DeNiro in the 1980 film “The Raging Bull.” LaMotta let himself be beaten up so his opponents felt they were winning, then brutally defeat them in the end. But how did that explain Romney’s almost-Nixonian sweat?
Some insisted Romney was following a clever “Rope a Dope” strategy. A case can be made that by all but fleeing from his previous neoconservative positions Romney’s me-tooisms reassured many voters that he wasn’t offering Bush the Sequel. Sure, Glenn Beck and Ann Coulter could (and they did) squawk, but Team Romney knows conservatives have no place to go.
These three debates were milestones in American politics for several reasons:
Content is not king: The debates proved more than ever that in 21st century America political ideas and policies are less important than important images. Just as a winning sports team “dominates,” and a winning pro-wrestler “dominates,” commentary and analysis focuses on who has the strongest sound bites, zingers, and who showed the most passion. Who puts on the best “performance” trumps who offered more meat-on-the-bones ideas.
Etch-A-Sketch seemingly works: These debates are the first in American history where a major candidate turned on a dime to walk breathtakingly away from his past positions. From his stance on how to capture Osama bin Laden to the auto bailout to his position on some women’s issues, Romney seemingly successfully played a position hide and seek. Conservatives and Tea Party members who insisted that this year the Republicans must have a presidential candidate proudly and unwaveringly articulating conservative positions to prove conservatism’s popularity at the ballot box have gone along with it to win. Implication: they know not enough Americans agree with their views.
Debates do matter: Barack Obama was way ahead until the first debate suggested he was burned out and that Romney was a viable alternative. So Democrats became quickly dispirited. After Obama’s better, second debate, some Democrats on talk radio and online said they felt better and now they could donate to their party. In other words: they were ready to give up on their party due to one debate — which apparently wiped out all of their party’s past efforts and the threat of a conservative Supreme Court if Romney won.
The moderator matters to a point: Moderators had an impact on the debates. But unlike debates in past decades, candidates largely ignored moderators to attack their foe, change the subject, or cram in tiresome, canned talking points.
Debates may or may not shake up the polls: Obama took a hit after the first debate but there are no signs (yet) of a major bounce from his perceived “comeback.”
Now the questions become: what will be the impact of debate three? Will it prove to have propelled Obama in the end? Or will the first debate prove to have been Barack Obama’s political suicide?
Will political historians talk forever about the third debate’s parroting, more tepid Mitt Romney as being the epitome of shrewd, successful Rope a Dope?
Or on Election Day will the debate strategy prove have made Romney the epitome of the only phrase’s third word?
Copyright 2012 Joe Gandelman, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate. This column has been edited by the author. Representations of fact and opinions are solely those of the author.
Joe Gandelman is a veteran journalist who wrote for newspapers overseas and in the United States. He has appeared on cable news show political panels and is editor-in-chief of The Moderate Voice, an Internet hub for independents, centrists and moderates. CNN’s John Avlon named him as one of the top 25 Centrists Columnists and Commentators.