By now it’s clear the general perception of last night’s debate is that Mitt Romney absolutely cleaned house. By about midnight last night CNN had released a poll finding that 67% of their audience thought Romney had won to 25% for Obama, and CBS tested a group of undecided voters, among whom 46% thought Romney had won compared to 22% for the president.
In short, Romney did exactly what politicians do: he lied convincingly, confidently, and compellingly. And he looked into the camera.
As ABC’s handy fact-check cheat sheet shows, Obama told his fair share of whoppers as well. But in an endless cascade of semantics over “independent studies” whose statistics can be used to “prove” nearly anything, what determined this debate wasn’t the details of arguments put forth but the style. Romney was aggressive, officious, insistent upon getting the last word to the point of being irritating, but in the end that translated to an air of authority.
At the end of the debate when it was announced the president had spoken for over 4 minutes longer than Romney during the debate, everyone near me was unanimously shocked—it seemed like Romney had dominated the debate, even though he had spoken less. Though the president might have spoken longer, he asked moderator Jim Lehrer permission to finish his statement multiple times throughout the night and allowed himself to be interrupted by Lehrer, whereas Romney did neither—he simply bowled over Lehrer, and when he wanted to get the last word on a point, he insisted, and Lehrer conceded.
Chris Hayes from MSNBC suggested last night that the Obama camp’s strategy may have been to make the president appear as a “nice guy,” since Romney’s image as a bloviating, embittered jerk who hurls rash insults and then throws press conferences to address them (at which he grows red-faced and throws more insults) has not been polling well over the last month.
But they made a critical error in this calculation: In a debate setting where you have two guys vying for leverage, appearing aggressive—even rude—if the other guy backs down creates the illusion of power. And Americans love power more than they love nice guys (even more than they hate assholes).
By his closing remarks, the president wasn’t even looking into the camera anymore. He looked down at Jim Lehrer, the man whom he’d allowed to interrupt him throughout the debate, declared he wasn’t a “perfect president” and vowed to keep on working just as he had been. That’s not exactly how you bring it home.
As a last observation, I know everyone is obsessed with the economy right now and debates are totally divorced from real policy positions anyway, but to hold a debate on domestic policy 9 miles from the Aurora massacre and spend an hour debating the fine points of the tax code without even touching on guns seems insulting. Not to mention climate policy, reproductive rights, marriage rights, and a whole host of other issues that impact domestic life.
Total debate fail.