Gentlemen, We Have a Presidential Race
Leading up to last week’s Presidential debate, the polls were trending towards a decisive victory for President Obama in the upcoming election. Much to everyone not named ‘Romney’, the debate proved a dramatic win for the Republican candidate. With a listless President refusing to press Mitt Romney on the veracity of his unsubstantiated claims, appearing more disinterested than engaged, Romney was free to rewrite the narrative. The polls show a sharp tightening of the race, Romney’s campaign is gaining positive media momentum, and the President is scrambling to limit the damage. Brace yourselves, America; this election is now within the dreaded ‘margin of error’.
Anyone over the age of 20 will remember the horror that was the fallout from the 2000 Presidential Election. A too-close-to-call race came down to re-re-recounts of ballots in Florida, thrusting the ‘hanging chad’ into our national lexicon, and giving us a President who did not carry the popular vote (all hail the Electoral College). The possibility of a replay of this scene playing out in Ohio or Nevada or Pennsylvania or Michigan is now upon us.
President Obama, the excessively polite man he is, fulfilled fears during the first presidential debate, apparently weary of refuting Mitt Romney’s highly questionable claims, and refused to get into a serious altercation. He came across aloof and overmatched as Romney repeatedly corrected the President and cast him as overwhelmed by the job. The lack of vigor and energy only further supported the narrative Romney was writing.
Post-debate polls showed a predictable, immediate bump for Romney, but those gains have held through the week, suggesting undecided voters were persuaded by the outcome. The shame in President Obama’s performance is that we missed out on a more thorough discussion of Romney’s economic plan. The President repeatedly asserted Romney’s plan to curb deficit growth ($5 trillion reduction achieved by closing tax loopholes…) was mathematically impossible, but he did so passively, referring to independent studies and never confronting Romney about which loopholes he was closing and how they could possibly add up to such a magnificent sum. He also failed to challenge Romney’s new assertions his plans for healthcare would not punish people with pre-existing conditions (a brand-sparkling-new revelation). He put up a lackluster fight over Romney’s skeptical claims for his plans for Medicare.
In the end, the debates were controlled by Romney’s bullet points and the President’s uh, um, stuttering rebuttals. The result has been a national turning point. The President can now be lampooned in significant ways. His ability to play the role of tough leader, willing to hold people to account, once quietly questioned, is now loudly being mocked. The biggest threat to Romney at the moment seems to be the legion of Big Bird (NSFW) supporters who have taken to social media to fight back.
With less than four weeks away, we are nearing a dead heat, an unthinkable position just a week ago. Tomorrow night the Vice Presidential candidates take the stage with much more at stake than previous VP debates. If Paul Ryan can capitalize on Romney’s recent gains, next week’s town hall debate between the President and Mitt Romney could become the moment of reckoning for this election and President Obama’s legacy. The President has not fared well in town hall formats in the past (he refused such an arrangement during the 2008 election against Senator McCain). We may well be headed for another election determined by the courts.