Opinion state of the race

President Obama and the terrible, no good, very bad debate

How did President Obama lose the debate with Mitt Romney so badly?

Some of the damage done by Obama in the recent presidential debate has likely been mitigated by good numbers for current employment from the Department of Labor, but the polling still tells a dismal verdict for Obama’s performance. A strong debate for a presidential challenger normally turns around polls by about three points; Romney’s win turned around the polls by a whopping 4.6 points, turning a 3.1 deficit versus Obama into a 1.5 point lead in RealClearPolitics’ aggregation of polls. On Intrade, Romney’s odds have climbed 15 points, from 25 percent to 40 percent, while Nate Silver, who runs The New York Times’ prediction model, has Romney improving by 18.2 points, more than doubling to a 32.1 percent chance of victory.

Of course, we didn’t need to wait a week to see that Romney had won a decisive victory. Polls of debate watchers scored Romney well ahead of Obama, as did most pundits. However, a week of time puts to rest much of the Democratic spin on Obama’s debacle. In the immediate aftermath, many of Obama’s spokesmen put forth the claim that Romney only won because of massive lies about his own policies. But independent fact checkers have not backed up these claims, dinging the president for lying during the debate just as often that they dinged Romney. And on the big points of contention between Romney and the president, the fact checking has gone Romney’s way.

For example, in the opening third of the debate, the president spent a great deal of time claiming that Romney’s tax plan would either raise taxes on the middle class or add five trillion dollars to the national debt over 10 years. His logic rested on a September study that found that Romney’s plan to cut tax rates for all income levels and recover the revenue by reducing deductions and tax expenditures would necessarily lower the total tax burden of those making more than $200,000, because there would not be enough deductions to make up the difference in that income category. But the study came to its conclusions by assuming that Romney would not touch one third of the deductions available to cut; prior to the debate, and multiple times during the debate, Romney responded by saying he would cap annual deductions as low as $17,000, in essence putting more than 90 percent of the deductions that the top one percent uses on the table. It’s as if, in preparing for the debate, Obama had failed to pay attention to any of the policy details being released by Romney and went in expecting an easy time picking at the undefined parts of Romney’s agenda.

In fact, the spin itself, claiming that the Romney that Obama faced was radically different than the Romney that has been campaigning over the past year, belies a greater truth for why Obama lost the debate. Obama came to deliver a series of short prepared statements, as the format of most presidential “debates” has been. Romney came to actually debate. Had Obama been prepared for a real discussion, he would have had no problems responding to the supposedly “new” Romney. Yes, the debate would have gone more easily if Romney’s policies were mathematically impossible to implement. But it still remains that his plan is essentially to enact several deficit-cutting measures and use almost all of the proceeds to fund an across-the-board tax cut. If you don’t like the deficit-cutting measures, then explain why. And even if you do, who says the gains from these moves have to go to tax cuts? Why not cut the deficit, or implement new spending? There is no position that cannot be attacked, if the debater is ready to discuss the meat of the issue. Obama was not.

During the night, Romney sparred with the moderator, Jim Lehrer, and perhaps for good reason — Lehrer gave the president significantly more time to speak than the challenger. But in reality, Romney should have been thanking Lehrer for moderating one of the most free-flowing debate formats ever witnessed in a modern election. Romney embraced the back-and-forth, spending most of his time responding directly to the president’s claims. Obama, in contrast, spent little time addressing his opponent’s points — when it was his turn to speak, he usually changed the subject so that he could deliver another prepared, 30-second segment. In the usual presidential debate format, having a string of 30-second statements plays just fine, with interruptions by the moderator offering the necessary transition from segment to segment. But the open mike night put on by Lehrer made the 30-second nuggets look terrible. Without a moderator to force the discussion between points, Obama had to provide his own transitions; every time he changed the subject, he was implicitly asserting that his change of subject was necessary to answer the question — if the audience didn’t accept the assertion, then it looked as if changing the subject was instead forfeiting the point to his opponent in order to open a new topic. One or two such transitions are an acceptable risk. But if the back and forth of the entire night is Romney giving impromptu responses and the president constantly shifting to a new topic, even an audience giving significant benefit of the doubt to the president would interpret his failure to address Romney’s rebuttals as a loss. For example, about halfway through the debate, Romney challenged Obama’s claim that American companies were subsidized to ship jobs overseas. He told the president flat out, “I have no idea what you are talking about.” Obama smiled, and looked as if he was about to say something clever. And then he changed the subject. If the president had anything to back up his statement at all, anything that would at least have indicated “Romney should have some idea what I’m talking about,” he would have come out ahead. Instead, the point went to Romney.

The real problem coming into a debate with a series of prepared statements is that eventually one gets boxed in. Eventually, one of your opponent’s rebuttals to a statement you’ve made doubles as a preemptive rebuttal to a yet-unused statement, and the second statement can’t be used with a straight face until something has been done to address the points brought up. Against the sort of full court press that Romney put on, Obama became visibly flustered and struggled to adjust on the fly. And when eventually he had nowhere to go and had to turn and fight, he found himself deeply out of his element.

The turn and fight moment came about two-thirds of the way through the debate, when the topic shifted to healthcare. Here was a moment for Obama to shine — healthcare is a glaring vulnerability for Mitt Romney and represents the president’s best shot at claiming a major legislative achievement. But the segment could not have gone worse for Obama. Romney deflected the conversation from a discussion of policy into a discussion of how policy is made, emphasizing that when he was governor, he worked hand in hand with his political opposition to craft policy, and that as president he would bring back bipartisanship in a way that Obama’s healthcare reform proved the president patently incapable of. When Obama broke from his cue card reading to press home his advantage in healthcare, he flopped horribly, and found himself arguing in favor of partisanship while Romney preached the virtues of bipartisanship. Romney didn’t just get away with the dodge, he came out ahead — the president might as well have been arguing against baseball and apple pie.

As the next presidential debate nears, Obama needs to radically change his debate preparation. There is a very real possibility that Jim Lehrer’s excellent moderation was no fluke and that 2012’s debates are going to mark a departure from the stifled formats of yesteryear. Second debates, historically, are not as impactful as the first debate, but Obama’s campaign cannot withstand a loss even half as large — if he comes to another gunfight armed with a knife, he could very well lose the election.

What does this change in preparation mean, in real terms? It means reading up on the issues, rather than the opponent; Obama should be just as ready to debate Joe Biden as he is Mitt Romney. It means memorizing facts and structuring points around them; either Obama has an answer ready when Romney says he can’t think of any tax subsidies for offshoring companies, or he shouldn’t bring up the point to begin with. It means spending more time coming up with smooth transitions and deflections from one issue to another rather than smooth 30-second bites; in the new debate format, you can’t run out the clock on a bad issue and wait for the moderator to intervene.

If Obama can avoid any more losses, then as the final weeks of this campaign play out, the fundamentals of the race will have a good chance of swinging things back in his favor. Good favorability ratings and economic improvement bode well for the president, and if Obama doesn’t give voters a reason to dislike him, they might just remember the reasons they prefer him to Romney. He does not have to win the remaining debates, but he does have to come ready to debate.