POLITICAL REFLECTIONS: THE MEDIA DEBATE

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By Mark Gabrish Conlan

I’m writing this article — both a review of the latest Presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney at Hofstra University in New York State October 16 and an overview of how all three of the debates so far have been covered by the media — starting 10 minutes after the October 16 debate ended. It’s important that you know that, and that you know my article about the first Obama/Romney debate 10 days earlier was likewise written just minutes after it was over, because I’ve wanted whatever I had to say about the debates to be uncontaminated. I’ve wanted to write about these events solely from the debates themselves as I watched them on TV and filtered them through my perceptions, unaffected by the media “groupthink” that surrounds these events and, quite frankly, colors how ordinary voters perceive them and use them to guide their decisions.

Just before the first Obama/Romney debate October 3, a Los Angeles Times commentator said that who really “wins” a Presidential debate is determined less by what actually happens on stage between the candidates than by what media pundits say about it afterwards. Few of the millions of words written about the 2012 Presidential campaign have been more true. In those first few minutes after the first debate I would have scored it as a victory on points for Romney but by no means the catastrophic rout of Obama the media consensus almost immediately decided it had been. It’s true that Obama missed a number of points on which he could easily have attacked Romney, and it’s true that in the split-screen shots while Romney was speaking Obama hung his head low and did this weird pursing of his lips. But it’s equally true that Obama scored points, notably by saying over and over again that Romney may have been blasting him over the country’s economic performance but he was atrociously unspecific about what he would do differently.

But the media gods told me I was wrong. Indeed, two writers I ordinarily respect — Michael Tomasky of Democracy magazine and Maureen Dowd of the New York Times — said Obama’s performance was so awful they wondered whether he still wanted to be President. You can check out their articles at http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/10/07/does-obama-even-want-to... (Tomasky) and http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/10/opinion/dowd-barry-trails-off.html?hp (Dowd) if you don’t believe me. Their argument was that the Obama they saw October 6 was an Obama who’s tired of fighting, who’s tired of having an estimated 40 million Americans absolutely hate him and root for him to fail, who is so disgusted by the partisan gridlock and the messy business of politics in general that he’s consciously or unconsciously throwing the election.

And the American people — at least the ones who responded to opinion pollsters — obediently followed the Pavlovian bells the media pundits were ringing and answered by shooting Romney’s ratings in the polls up as much as 12 percent. He even closed the gap with Obama among women voters, who had previously been one of the President’s bulwarks of support. As William A. Galston of the Brookings Institution — a former advisor to Bill Clinton and therefore not exactly someone you’d expect to be putting out Republican talking points — told the Los Angeles Times, “The Obama campaign spent six months trying to persuade people that Mitt Romney is an unacceptable extremist, and a lot of people believe, and I’m among them, that that first debate blew up six months of work.”

Romney is such a master of re-invention that sometimes it’s hard to keep up with his constant shakings of his Etch-a-Sketch. According to Romney, he was pro-choice before he was pro-life on abortion. He was a stronger advocate for Gay rights than Ted Kennedy before he signed on to the anti-LGBT agenda of both his party and his church. He was for comprehensive immigration reform before he was against it (and as of October 16 he’s sort-of for it again). He was for massive tax cuts aimed at the wealthiest Americans before he decided that somehow he was going to find enough “loopholes” to close so they would be revenue-neutral. He was for health care reform as governor of Massachusetts before he pledged to repeal what’s essentially the same law nationwide on his first day in office. He’s been denouncing renewable energy as a government rip-off — when he’s accused the Obama administration of practicing “crony capitalism” all the examples he’s given were renewable energy entrepreneurs — only now he’s for it. And he wrote off 47 percent of the American people as parasites and moochers in that once-infamous and now seemingly forgotten little chat among his fellow 0.01 percenters in Boca Raton last May before he proclaimed that if he’s elected, he’s going to be president of 100 percent of the people.

What I underestimated, quite frankly, is how this serial chameleon’s latest re-invention would play both with the media and with the small but crucial pool of “undecided” voters. They fell for it! They bought it hook, line and sinker! One pundit called it the return of “moderate Mitt,” the Massachusetts Republican who gave Ted Kennedy the political scare of his life and then won the governorship by, among other things, demolishing an overconfident Democratic opponent in a televised debate. In doing so, Romney essentially reshaped the election to what he wanted in the first place: not a “choice” election in which he would be the issue, but one in which he could crush Obama the way Franklin Roosevelt crushed Herbert Hoover, and Ronald Reagan … well, the 1980 election has gone down in history as a landslide but Reagan barely got over 50 percent of the popular vote and it only looked like a landslide in retrospect because the anti-Reagan vote was split between two major opponents (Jimmy Carter and John Anderson) and in 1984 Reagan’s re-election was a landslide.

The underlying fact of the 2012 Presidential election is it was the Republicans’ to lose — and they’ve done their level best to lose it. Presidents simply don’t get re-elected when the economic numbers are as piss-poor as Obama’s have been. Forty-three straight months of unemployment over 8 percent, anemic economic growth rates of 1.3 to 1.7 percent, a labor force that’s actually shrinking as millions of people give up hope of ever finding another job, and a sense that the working and middle classes are taking it on the chin while the 1 percent are benefiting, are usually conditions that guarantee an incumbent President’s defeat. But a Republican Party increasingly hostile to internal dissent of any kind, a rising grass-roots tea party movement seeking a radical reduction of all government programs (including ones like Social Security, Medicare and the home-interest and health-insurance deductions that benefit the middle class) and an ever more militant upper class that sees its mission as grabbing all it can short-term at the risk of making everyone else so poor the economy stagnates because nobody can buy anything, hobbled Romney for months.

After the October 6 debate, though, Romney had the election he wanted: one in which he’d made himself seem sufficiently safe and bland that voters disgusted with the nation’s economic slide under Obama would see him as an acceptable alternative. As for the other two debates that have happened since, the one on October 11 between Vice-President Joe Biden and Mr. Paul Ryan (in an illustration of the contempt Republicans in general and the Republican Right in particular have for public service, Ryan specifically asked not to be called “Congressman Ryan”) and the just-concluded second Obama/Romney match-up, they’ve confirmed the result even though Biden did considerably better than Obama had on October 6 — and Obama also visibly improved his performance.

Like actors anxiously reading their first-night reviews, Obama and Biden both read the pundits’ assessments of the October 6 debates and sought to readjust accordingly. They were both considerably more aggressive. They both brought up Romney’s “47 percent” comments in Boca Raton — indeed, Biden mentioned them three times — which Obama hadn’t deigned to do October 6, as though he thought that would be cheating. The town-hall format of the October 16 debate clearly helped Obama; it made the split-screen shots of the two earlier debates impractical and spared him (and us) the audience views of Obama pursing his lips and staring at his lap that had hurt him so much in the media reviews of October 6. It also enabled the candidates seemingly to go on forever, cheerily ignoring the electric signs supposedly limiting them to two minutes per response and leaving moderator Candy Crowley of CNN helpless to end the debate anywhere near schedule. (It was supposed to last 90 minutes; it went eight minutes over.)

What it didn’t do was offer voters much of a vision of what either of these two people are going to do in office. Once again Romney ducked any details about his economic or energy plans. As Obama rightly pointed out October 16, the only government programs Romney has actually said he’s going to defund are Planned Parenthood and public broadcasting — both of which take such minuscule portions of the federal budget it’s clear these are ideological rather than fiscal targets, items Romney is going to zero out because the Republican base hates them. Yet Obama also hasn’t laid out either a vision for his second term or, even more importantly, a road map for how he’s going to get anything done.

Obama’s first term has been a disaster in terms of building bipartisan cooperation or getting bills through a fractious Congress. Even when the Democrats had at least nominal majorities in both houses of Congress, he faced unanimous opposition from Republicans — when Romney upbraids Obama for not being more “bipartisan” he’s in the same position as the legendary child who murders his parents and then begs the court for mercy because he’s an orphan — as well as high-handed demands from Right-wing Democrats. Since the 2010 election Obama has been barely able even to keep the government running, much less get through any programs to help put Americans back to work, ease the burden on college students, solve the immigration problem or do much of anything else.

One can readily imagine those few remaining “undecided” voters breaking en masse to Romney at this point simply because, whatever you think of what he wants to do, at least he’ll be able to get it done — especially if the Republicans keep the house, win the Senate, and do what the Democrats should have done in 2009: end the filibuster so a minority party in the Senate can no longer tie up the majority party’s agenda. It’s not that different from the 2004 election, which George W. Bush won largely because even voters who didn’t like what he stood for at least knew what it was, whereas they couldn’t tell what John Kerry stood for and therefore they didn’t trust him. The problem is that, whatever Romney’s personal beliefs and goals are, he’s likely to govern according to the radical Right-wing agenda of the Tea Party Republicans and their assault on the very idea that we have any social responsibility for each other’s well-being. He’s done a very good job of concealing that agenda in his debates so far — as did Paul Ryan, a major architect of it, in his debate with Biden — but the ruling currents in the Republican Party now are for a radical rewrite of the social contract that will take us back to the corporations and super-rich über alles attitudes and policies of the 1880’s.

In its last weeks the 2012 Presidential election has become a choice between a radical-Right remaking of America and four more years of gridlock. The problem is this country can ill afford either one.

The opinions in the column reflect the views of this author and do not necessarily reflect the views of East County Magazine.