As readers know already, I’m no fan of staged political debates. In primaries, there are so many candidates on the same stage that nothing of substance gets truly debated. Even during general elections, with two or at most three people on stage for 90 minutes, both the candidates and the media focus on stage presence, aggressiveness, and zingers over substance in the debate.
The post-debate analyses of all three events this month have discussed almost nothing else. Even when something of substance does come up in the conversation – such as Paul Ryan’s reforms on the budget and Medicare, which got a significant amount of time in the Vice Presidential debate – the post-debate focus fell on whether Joe Biden’s interruptions and laughter successfully derailed the conversation rather than on the issue itself.
In fact, the analysis of the debate on Tuesday evening may have gone farther to prove this point than perhaps any other. Remarkably, the debate over future policy, which should be the substance of any political campaign, centered entirely on one candidate’s agenda: Mitt Romney’s. Barack Obama offered no hint of any future policies, not even to the extent he planned to continue policies already in place.
Few in the media seemed aware of this. Mark Halperin of Time Magazine mentioned it the next morning on MSNBC’s "Morning Joe." “The President did not lay out a second term agenda,” Halperin said, calling the point “incredibly important. … That is where he’s weakest, and he didn’t address it, I thought, at all.” Yahoo News’ Walter Shapiro quipped that Obama’s avoidance of even conceptual specifics pointed to a strategy of “Keep On Truckin’.”
National Journal’s political analyst Ron Fournier wrote that “Obama failed to spell out even an opaque vision of a second-term agenda,” even while scoring points on Romney’s agenda. The lack of an explicit plan is “a major omission,” Fournier continued, “for an incumbent seeking reelection when a majority of voters believes the country is on the wrong track.”
One would think so, and certainly we’d hope that more people would notice than did the professional analysts; other than the three above, it got almost no mention at all until Mitt Romney pointed it out on the campaign trail Wednesday. Spot polls conducted by the media suggests that viewers may have been more attuned to the lack of substance from the incumbent. While the polls showed Obama narrowly winning the debate, Romney scored much better on the issues with the same voters National Journal aggregated the results, which had CNN respondents giving Romney an 18-point edge on the economy and a 23-point advantage on deficits, and CBS respondents giving Romney a 31-point lead.
Presumably, Obama didn’t speak about a second term agenda on purpose. After a very poor debate performance two weeks earlier, he needed to be more aggressive and participative – a strategy at which he undeniably succeeded. Rather than assert his own vision of the future, though, Obama focused entirely on Romney’s agenda, his wealth, and his tax rate.
Obama had to defend his record when Romney attacked it, but often just claimed that Romney’s arguments were just untrue to play defense by going on offense. At all of these points, Obama had plenty of time and opportunity to outline a positive vision for the future with specific policies for a second term. Despite getting a few more minutes of time in the debate, Obama never took that opportunity.
This strategy attempts to reverse the dynamic of incumbency. Normally, the incumbent President has an advantage in gravitas and detail comprehension. The challenger, after all, has not spent the last four years as President. Challengers therefore focus more on picking apart the incumbent’s record, although even they have to present an alternative agenda to have any hope of being taken seriously. Incumbents use the power of their office and experience to show that they have a better grasp of not just the present, but also the future.
Without any agenda at all, Obama puts himself at a lower level of gravitas than even a normal challenger. His entire strategy appears to be not “Keep on Truckin’,” but relying on fear of Mitt Romney to give himself a pass on proposing any agenda at all. That has been the strategy from the Obama campaign since Romney became the presumptive nominee in late April.
The campaign spent more than $100 million in advertising over the summer attempting to paint Romney as a vampire capitalist, a conservative extremist, and an awkward Mad Men-style throwback to the 1950s. Clearly, Team Obama doesn’t want to change strategies now.
Will it work? Can an incumbent run a substance-free, negative campaign to victory? Two trends suggest that the answer is no. First, the campaign never did do that much damage to Romney over the summer. On occasions, Romney did some damage to himself, but with fleeting impact. Since the beginning of this campaign until the end of September, polling in this campaign has remained tight, usually within the margin of error, even if Obama edged Romney for most of that period.
Second, the strategy hit an iceberg in the first debate. Far from the caricature of Romney on which the Obama strategy relied, Romney demonstrated presidential mien and a clear grasp of data in the Denver match-up. Obama spent most of the evening on his heels, unable to effectively parry Romney’s attacks on his record or match Romney’s vision for the next four years. Obama and his team fixed the performance issue without addressing the structural flaw of having no real positive argument for voters to support him.
It is still certainly possible that Obama can win this election using this strategy, but it has some unnerving implications for politics in the future. While negative campaigning has a long history in the US – all the way back to the poisonous atmosphere of the 1800 election – voters have always had significant substance to consider when choosing candidates.
If they reward a substance-free campaign like Obama’s, we’ll be seeing a lot more of them in the future, as politicians weigh the risk-reward ratio of having substantive proposals against the easy path of namecalling and scare-mongering. If that does come to pass, we can thank our zinger-obsessed media for helping us along the way.