Monday, September 10, 2012


James Fallows thinks we underestimate Mitt Romney's debating skills at our peril:
... debates are and have been his strength. He grew up enjoying "big, boisterous arguments about everything around the dinner table," according to his campaign strategist and main debate-prep specialist, Stuart Stevens. "He loves the dialectic of arguing the different sides, and he's most uncomfortable when no one is disagreeing with him." He will enter this fall's encounters with very recent, successful experience in a very wide range of formats and challenges.

In none of the Republican-primary debates was Romney judged the big loser; in many he was the clear winner, and as the campaign wore on, the dominant image from the debates was of a confident Romney, standing with a slight smile on his face and his hands resting easily in his pockets, looking on with calm amusement as the lesser figures squabbled among themselves and sometimes lashed out at him.
I agree that Romney, in a debate, can seem confident, well informed, and on point. He could do quite well in the debates.

But what Fallows describes as "the dominant image" of Romney as a debater -- Romney "looking on with calm amusement" at "the lesser figures" -- worked in the primary season because Romney was debating a bunch of buffoons. Even the GOP base eventually concluded that about the rest of the field (not that the base likes Romney much). But is it really going to benefit Romney to stare condescendingly at Barack Obama the way he does at about 0:53 of the video that accompanies the Fallows piece?

Fallows, in the video, praises Romney for how he debated Ted Kennedy -- I don't know why, given that the Romney-Kennedy race ended in a landslide win for Kennedy, in what had been a tight race. Starting at 1:38 Fallows actually describes as a masterstroke the way Romney went after Ted Kennedy on gun control No, seriously -- Fallows thinks Romney showed incredible skill in attacking a guy whose two brothers were shot for invoking that personal experience. ("We've heard that before. That's the last resort each time," Romney says, voice dripping contempt.) This is why he might beat Obama? Seriously?

Romney prevailed in Republican debates because his opponents were unlikable and because the Republican voters he was trying to reach didn't want likable -- being nasty and arrogant was a plus. But the public likes Obama. The public (or at least the non-GOP public) doesn't want to see Obama condescended to, or treated with contempt.

Romney ought to be smart enough to adjust his style to reflect how the public feels about his general election opponent. But he's shown no sense of that in the campaign so far, so I question whether he can adjust in the debates. I think he's going to be nasty and unpleasant and try to treat Obama as his inferior. If the electorate were all Republican, that would work. But it isn't.


Tom Hilton said...

But is it really going to benefit Romney to stare condescendingly at Barack Obama the way he does at about 0:53 of the video that accompanies the Fallows piece?

I think that's likely to be a key factor. McCain couldn't disguise his overwhelming disdain for Obama, and it came off very badly. I think Mr. Entitlement is going to have just as much trouble hiding his own disdain for the President.

The other thing I think could be a factor is the President's talent for the subtle needle. If he can goad Romney into losing it, that'll have a huge impact.

Steve M. said...

Yes, I think both of those are going to be huge factors -- especially the latter. I bet Obama is working very hard to figure out how to needle Romney subtly, because it will work (and, admittedly, Fallows does say this is a Romney weakness).

Never Ben Better said...

Oh, yes, how well I recall McCain's feet shuffling with impotently repressed fury in those debates!

My money's on Obama deftly getting under Romney's notoriously thin skin till the Entitlement/Privilege Bubble Boy loses his shit live on TV.

BH said...

I'm further reassured by the conviction that (whatever the rest of us may think of Mitty's debating skills) Obama, Kerry (his Mitty stand-in), Axelrod & Plouffe are NOT underestimating their opponent.

Victor said...

Normally, I love what Fallows writes.

But this time, I think he's dead wrong.
Mitt had to face Newt, Santorum, and the rest of the other clowns like Perry, Bachmann, and Cain.

Not exactly a "Murderer's Row" - except for Newt, who did pretty well against him.

Obama is a good, solid, debator - with the potential to be spectacular.

Mitt may be pretty good - we'll see. But he WILL give the President an opening, and the President will stick the rhetorical shiv in him - deep.

The Democrats aren't looking past the debates. And they're in a pretty good position going into them.
The Republicans, on the other hand, are down by more than a touchdown with less than 2 minutes to go, and are desperate.

Desperate is NOT something you want to be, going into a debate. Obama and Biden can just run the ball and run-out the clock - Romney and Ryan need a "Hail Mary" pass. And then, hope they get the ball back on an onside's kick!

To me, I think Ryan is the weaker one on the ticket - he's NEVER had a national audience in a debate. Biden's been doing that since Paulie was a lad.
Not that Joe can't screw up - it's just that Ryan's more likely to.

Steve M. said...

I agree about Biden and Ryan. Biden may have a verbal slip, but if so, it's not likely to be substantive. Ryan is very likely to just lie shamelessly. And Ryan is not as likable as the Beltway insider think he is.

And yes, Mitt will be desperate, which is likely to make him angry. And he'll still be trying to please the base. The key thing is that Obama will be cool and poised and know his stuff. That counts for a lot.

Unknown said...

And remember, given how dishonest Mitt has been, it's going to be harder to lie. He can't say "He apologized for America" or "Took the work out of welfare" when Obama is there to ram it back down Mitt's throat.

Danp said...

"He loves the dialectic of arguing the different sides, and he's most uncomfortable when no one is disagreeing with him."

I had to laugh at this line. It's true that he likes arguing different sides to different audiences, but what does it say about his leadership qualities that he doesn't like it when people agree with him? And how does he expect people to disagree, when he has no firm convictions?