The Bout We're About to Watch
Wednesday night will feature the first of three debates between President Obama and former Governor Mitt Romney. While recent polling shows the President maintaining slim leads in the hotly contested battleground states, a strong debate performance can alter election fortunes. More importantly, the debates offer a glimpse of the candidates under the great pressure. What should the modern man be watching for during the debates? We offer a few suggestions.
The growing concern among political junkies is that these candidates will make for fairly dull debates. During the 2008 election, then-candidate Obama refused to launch a significant offensive attack at either Hillary Clinton or President Bush. He used the debates to solidy his position and maintain his lead through a cautious script. He did not directly challenge his opponents or turn the debate into a battle of wits so much as reinforce his campaign narrative and resume.
Mitt Romney was similarly reluctant to confront his foes during both 2008 and 2012 election primary seasons. Much was made of Romney’s difficulty in rousing the Republican base during the primary and his measured debate style had much to do with the lukewarm emotional response he seems to generate. Romney has not previously shown a willingness to take great risks on these stages and there is no indication yet he plans to do so now.
The consistent Republican message during this election season has been to make this a referendum on the President’s ability to (read: failure to) deliver on his many campaign promises. This is an opportunity for their candidate to hold a public trial of the President’s record and win support among undecided voters for the idea President Obama has failed to improve our economic position. The danger in this tactic will be leaving viewers without a clear sense of what Mitt Romney proposes to do should he win. We have heard the vague attacks on philosophy (Socialist! Fascist! Marxist! Oh my!) before; the most important achievement for Romney would be to advance the conversation from the President’s performance to his vision.
If the President persists in a cautious strategy, his message will likely focus on the areas of improvement he has realized. The arguments laid out during the Democratic National Convention suggest the resurgence of the auto industry will take center stage, operating as both a counter to the narrative of his failures and an attack on Romney for opposing the bailouts. The tried-and-true attacks on the trickle-down approach of taxation and regulation will surely surface, especially with Romney’s latest attacks on the 47%.
With so many challenging Mitt Romney’s ability to connect with the middle class, the tone and mechanics of discourse during this debate will be particularly telling. President Obama has been criticized before for sounding as if he were lecturing a college class during his speeches and if Romney makes an effort to strike a concordant tone with the common people, he may succeed in appearing more relatable. If the debate enters more nuanced policy territory (ok, unlikely, but we can hope) both candidates will be pressed to remain accessible if they want to connect to a broader audience.
This debate will be a rare chance for Romney to restructure the narrative on his relationship to people who are not wealthy and who do not share his privileged background, if he fails, he may well be doomed.
Finally, the debates are about selling us on America’s future. Crisis rhetoric will likely be employed by both sides – from the President describing the situation he assumed in 2008 and the challenger in characterizing our present state – but fear can only accomplish so much. The choice before us should ultimately be colored as divergent visions of American prosperity, from which we choose the one most closely aligned with our values. If either fails to clearly describe a way forward, they will have gained nothing of lasting value from their efforts, and we will be worse off for it.