Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Last Presidential Debate: Won't Change Anything

Yes, the president was aggressive and learned to look intently at Romney for those split-screen shots. Yes, Romney knew his strong suit was calling the president on his less-than-stellar domestic record. There were some tense, uncomfortable moments, and a few zingers, but in the end, the only question is "what does it mean?" and the answer is, "Not much."

First off, lots of potential viewers were already "debated out" after the first confrontation where Romney showed himself presidential and the president "had a nice, long nap," as he quipped to the Al Smith dinner last week, plus the Biden-Ryan chuckle-fest and the Town Hall Candy Crowley confrontation. Second off, people care about the economy and care far less about the complicated, bloody ins-and-outs of foreign relations.

That left the real die-hards to sit through this last debate and root for their favorites, because barring some jaw-dropping blooper, the real undecideds are not likely to vote based on what was or was not said this late in the game.

Even we who are invested in this campaign took a little snooze in the middle of this debate, when both guys reiterated their points and sounded confusing and boring. At the beginning, a combative president tried to nab the governor on changing positions, saying aptly given the topic, he was "all over the map," but after lots of verbiage, it seemed they had few differences. Both want out of Afghanistan by 2014; both say Assad of Syria has "got to go" (Obama) or "must go" (Romney). Neither supported Mubarak in Egypt, and both want America to be strong, "the one indispensable nation" (Obama) and "the mantle of leadership for promoting the principles of peace" (Romney).

So the meat of the debate covered the American economy, and focus groups on TV afterward said that was the issue that would determine their votes, anyway. Romney again, as in previous debates, enumerated his five-point plan for returning the nation to prosperity. This is where the interchange got good, because then Obama went on the offensive, answering Romney's plan with accusations rather than plans of his own. "First of all, Governor Romney talks about small businesses, but Governor, when you were in Massachusetts, small businesses' development ranked about 48, I think, out of 50 states" He went on to jab his opponent on hiring teachers, forcing Romney on the defensive, reminding Obama that his state's students rank first in the nation.

The two got into a redeux of their previous debate on balancing the budget and military spending, with Romney's zap about sequestration as the source of problems met with Obama's surprising assertion that it "will not happen," which after the debate was the subject of back-pedaling by Spin-Room advisors. He followed that up with a sarcastic jab at Romney's comment that "the Navy budget is smaller now than any time since 1917": "Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets — (laughter) — because the nature of our military's changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines."

And we have this thing called respect, which the President provided mighty frugally.

Israel was an important issue where Romney could have been more aggressive. He mentioned Obama's campaign swing through the middle East four years ago, "skipping" Israel, but he never mentioned the meeting Prime Minister Netanyahu requested this August that Obama "skipped" in favor of a TV gig on The Late Show with David Letterman. Romney did remind us of the Obama desire to "put daylight" between the US and Israel, but both men assured viewers they'd "stand with" Israel, or "have Israel's back" should Iran attack. It was a spirited interchange, but very little new came out of it.

More memorable was the number of times each candidate discredited the other. When they both got frustrated, they devolved into "check the record." Listening to TV post-debate fact-checkers, it seems Romney was more accurate, but at the time, viewers' reward was a  little wake-up jolt.

China got some play, with Romney's intention to immediately declare the nation a "currency manipulator" spurring a follow-up from moderator Bob Scheiffer as to how that would affect the relationship. Notable, though, was Romney's mention that trade with Latin American was ripe for development, as its economy "is almost as big as the economy of China." The discussion of China, though, seemed pretty redundant, both candidates noting that the nation needs to "play by the rules" regarding counterfeit goods and currency. Yawn.

If you waited out the conversation to its end, you heard two well-delivered final statements, neither surprising. What I learned later, though, was that apparently Gov. Romney, suffering from a debilitating flu, refused suggestions to postpone the debate. Someone in the campaign called it "a 10 on the sick scale." Knowing that, I give the guy kudos.

I'm sure he's glad it's over with, as are we all. I could almost hear the TV remotes clicking off as the tense minutes ticked on, and at the beginning, I fathomed lots of them clicking to other channels. Flicking around TV commentary afterward, I found conservatives calling the debate for Romney and liberals for Obama. Those who saw the entire hour and a half probably shmushed it all together and proclaimed it a draw.

The good news from my perspective is that the evening's tete-a-tete likely won't affect the trajectory of a campaign that seems to be favoring Romney more and more. The debates have served to humanize the governor, and prove him to have presidential knowledge and demeanor (despite an annoying mini-stutter), and to allow the public to picture him in the role of POTUS. Obama didn't need or gain any of that, and in fact his first-debate flub, witnessed by 67 million people, was the harbinger of his demise.

The election is already underway. We in Washington State received our ballots last week for our all-mail-in voting. These last few days, with its media bombardments, are enough to deter folks from turning on radio or TV or answering the phone to robo calls. Even my email is accompanied by those obnoxious moving banner ads. I think everyone including the undecideds have made up their minds, and the ones who vote (many won't) will stick to old allegiances or confirm that, as James Carville coined for a successful Bill Clinton, "it's the economy, stupid," and give Romney the nod.

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