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October 23, 2012 9:34 AM Romney Stands Pat

By Ed Kilgore

Having read much of the spin and post-debate assessment, it seems reasonably clear that Mitt Romney basically took a pass on directly challenging the president’s foreign policy record and views in last night’s debate. It almost had to be deliberate. Yes, he got occasionally unlucky in how and when and to whom questions were framed (Obama preempted his entire danger-of-Iranian-nukes rap, which Romney later identified as the most important security challenge facing America). He may have been trying a bit too hard not to interrupt Obama or argue with the moderator. But time and again, on the original Libya intervention, on the Arab Spring generally, on Iran, on Pakistan, on use of drones—he went out of his way to explicitly, not just implicitly, agree with Obama. About the only time he really got animated was in describing Obama’s Cairo speech in the context of defending his “apology tour” smear. And he dodged his big opportunity to re-address Benghazi.

Since Romney’s approach to the debate was clearly strategic, the question is what strategy was he promoting? To hear the GOP spinners after the debate (who all seemed very well briefed), Mitt has already “crossed the threshold of acceptability” as an alternative to a failed president “the American people” have decided to “fire,” and just needed to burnish his credentials as a plausible commander-in-chief. In other words, forget those tied general election polls and the Obama leads in Ohio and Iowa and Nevada, Romney’s upward trend in support is going to continue so long as he continues to remind voters they are unhappy with the economy and Obama’s alleged lack of leadership, and reassures them he’s not an extremist.

Romney did, in fact, repeat his well-honed “Obama’s failed economic leadership” rap two or three times last night—just as he did two or three times in the last debate—and most of us have heard it so many times that we may not realize its effect with low-information undecided voters (or LIUVs, as I’m going to start calling them). And he did sort of a foreign-policy version of it—a “do you think the country’s safer” routine—as well. It does all seem calculated to keep his message focused on the economy and avoid saying anything upsetting to LIUVs. There was enough understated heat on Iran and Palestine to keep the baying hounds of neoconservatism happy through election day; they will presumably get their chance to lobby for immediate war on November 7.

Obama was hardly perfect last night, but certainly “won” by any conventional measure (aside from the implicit victory of having your opponent agree with you so often), and made no mistakes. He stared intently at Romney every time Mitt was talking, never looking down. He was animated and aggressive. He did his own “reassurance” raps aimed at anxious pro-Israel voters and people dependent on defense spending. And he obviously got off both of the memorable zingers of the debate, both shrewdly aimed at showing Romney’s preoccupation with outdated conservative ideological totems—the “horses and bayonets” bit about Romney’s monomania towards maintaining Navy ship levels, and the suggestion that “the 1980s called; they want their foreign policy back.” Indeed, his litany on how Romney wanted to bring back “the foreign policy of the 80s, the social policies of the 50s, and the economic policies of the 20s” may have been his best overall line of the whole general election campaign, certainly worthy of an ad.

But again, whether it matters depends on your sense of where the contest stands. We don’t have the numbers yet on estimated viewership of the debate, but it was bound to be down from previous debates (that’s generally the pattern, and last night the candidates were also competing with both Monday Night Football and Game Seven for the National League Championship). I’m not a big believer in “momentum” in either politics or sports, so I don’t think Romney is going to lose votes because he lost this (or the last) debate. But nor do I find much evidence that Romney is in the lead in any durable way (if there is at present a partisan “enthusiasm gap,” it’s likely to close when the campaign reaches its frenzied ending), and was thus in any position to stand pat in a presidential debate.

So it could be Team Mitt is betting everything on the “economic referendum,” on projecting “Moderate Mitt” as a reassuring figure, and on its campaign’s closing stage of paid ads and GOTV. We’ll know pretty soon if the second and third debates moved Obama back into a clearer lead, and soon after that how the whole deal goes down.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • Hedda Peraz on October 23, 2012 9:46 AM:

    Well, it ain't over until the Fat Lady Sings, but she is clearing her throat as I type, and Der Mittster is about to roll out his Final Two Week Plan:

    From now until Nov 6th he will use the phrase, "FORMER President Obama."

  • sjw on October 23, 2012 9:48 AM:

    Very well said; a fine analysis.

    What I am perturbed by is some of the punditry's take on Obama's decisive debate win: good but not enough because it doesn't stop Romney's momentum; Obama debated as if he knew going in that he were losing; Romney won by not losing (with full awareness by the pundit that Romney was lying about his policy positions). The MSM really sucks. I know this isn't new news, but it's hit me again with particular force this morning.

  • T2 on October 23, 2012 9:51 AM:

    Correctly assuming that the Right would declare Romney either won, tied or "didn't hurt himself" and the Left would declare Obama a "victor" by varying degrees, I didn't bother to watch. I didn't watch the boring Bears either. Or baseball. But from what I've read, Mitt either feels he has this thing wrapped up, or, realizing that he has no actual policy to present, just decided to play it safe and not hyper-ventilate like he's done the first two times. The result was that he appears to agree with Obama's foreign policies.
    Don't worry though, you won't hear an outcry from the TeaParty wing of the GOP. Mitt's all they've got and they know it. They also know he can pivot to the NeoCon policy of Dick Cheney in a heartbeat if he's elected. Which is the real reason I didn't watch - Romney doesn't mean a word he says, so why listen.

  • Peter C on October 23, 2012 9:55 AM:

    Personally, I don't think the word 'tumult' is as effective a word as Romney thinks it is.

  • Ron Byers on October 23, 2012 9:56 AM:

    I don't think the race is as close as the MSM suggests. Obama is going to win the electorial college pretty handily unless the Romney owned voting machines are stuffed.

    Of course, I do read Nate Silver pretty regularly and I am smart enough to know that the national polls don't mean jack.

    GOTV, GOTV. Elect downstream Democrats. Vote for Obama.

  • c u n d gulag on October 23, 2012 9:57 AM:

    Mitt:
    "Yes, I agree with a lot of President's foreign policies. But trust me, you'll like them a lot better when you hear them from a Caucasian!"

    The only reason Romney's even close, is that Obama is a black man.

    And too many ignorant and stupid people think that we'd be better off with a Caucasion in the WHITEY'S House. Any Caucasion.
    Even a rich sociopathic d*ck like Mitt.

  • Ronald on October 23, 2012 9:58 AM:

    Don't know what much to say- Romney looked and sounded terrible.
    Of course, he'll just go ahead and start lying and attacking the very same positions he just advocated because, well, with two weeks left in the game, lying just won't matter.
    And Ann Coulter had the temerity to call Mr. Obama a "retard"?
    Oi.

  • gelfling545 on October 23, 2012 10:04 AM:

    "Obama was hardly perfect last night, but certainly “won” by any conventional measure"

    Not "perfect"? Is this the standard now? Romney is pathetic but doesn't actually fall on his face so that's ok. Sure, Obama wasn't perfect so he only "won" as opposed to really winning? Why is he expected to be "perfect"(an expectation that is sure to be disappointed no matter who the candidate may be)?

  • Truflo on October 23, 2012 10:08 AM:

    Clever enough strategy on Romney's part. Avoid a fight, praise Obama on issues where attacking him would look ridiculous, pivot back to the economy whenever possible and reiterate previous talking points that have already worked.

    His campaign seems to have made a good tactical decision. They've calculated, correctly I think, that this debate will have little to no effect on the polls, and as the polls are tending his way, all Romney had to ensure was seem credible and reassure voters that for the most part he will continue Obama's policies. He succeeded.

    More than that, when the debate did veer back to economic policies, Obama's arguments, while sound, were weak water compared to Romney's list of what he'll do- lower taxes, create employment, grow small businesses and increase the take home pay for the middle class. Instead of hitting this as fantasy and explaining again that Romney's tax plan is a tax cut for the 1% and a tax increase for everyone else, Obama talked about education, hiring more teachers, lowering class sizes, investing in the future. Wonderful ideas but didn't the Obama team learn anything from the first debate? The future is not as important as the now, and as the 'now' is in such bad shape, the country is only interested in who has the best plan to improve it.

  • Ron Byers on October 23, 2012 10:08 AM:

    Obama is expected to be perfect because he is a black man even to liberal pundits like Ed. To regular mainstream media pundits he is a scary black man.

    Sorry Ed, but your Georgia roots are showing.

  • jjm on October 23, 2012 10:10 AM:

    Romney DID fall on his face! He claimed Syria was Iran's route to the sea -- for pete's sake! (Knows nothing of the Persian Gulf or the Straits of Hormuz??!! What kind of idiot is that?).

    What he did show us was that being a successful businessman doesn't take much in the way of knowledge of world affairs in any serious way.

    He sounded absolutely like an hysteric screaming "the Middle East is in flames!" over and over again. (??!!)


    He had less than nothing and its showed up big time. And Obama coolly took him down on each of his ludicrous 'talking points.' How anyone could think he was a winner was beyond me.

  • Bokonon on October 23, 2012 10:14 AM:

    It is interesting the way the media is trying to spin this debate in the aftermath - essentially, "yeah, Obama won, but not by enough ... Romney showed up and that was enough to continue his momentum."

    Flipping hell. So the story is "momentum", not "monumental beat down."

  • KK on October 23, 2012 10:15 AM:

    Romney lost handily. Not a peep from the right wing freaks I work with which is a very bad sign for Mr. Me Too Mittens. He looked like petulant fool and sounded like an ignorant toad who wasn't clever enough to not repeat almost verbatim Obama's answers. My mouth was agape a lot of the time and I slept very soundly last night, a great sign for Ob. How could anyone agree with the worst Prez eva? Their minds are reeling...

  • T2 on October 23, 2012 10:17 AM:

    I was reading the Business section today, where a WSJ guy was opining that the Market would probably go bullish if Romney is elected, not so much with Obama. Yet the Market has gone a bunch under Obama and everyone connected with it understands that. So, why would the guy make such a statement? For your answer...see Gulag above.

  • max on October 23, 2012 10:23 AM:

    So it could be Team Mitt is betting everything on the “economic referendum,” on projecting “Moderate Mitt” as a reassuring figure, and on its campaign’s closing stage of paid ads and GOTV.

    That's exactly what they're doing - they think they're winning because they have rallied the base and that will be sufficient to carry the election. So they just have to run out the clock. (After they think this is a center-right country and the only reason Republicans haven't won 59% every year since 1984 is because they don't have someone who can sell conservative ideas. As far as I can tell, this is a center-left country (but not entirely) and the R base has been shrinking since 1988.)

    I think this is wrong, obviously. But they're going to ride that Gallup LV poll until the horse collapses. (FYI: I was curious, so I checked the 2008 polling in VA and OH on RCP, and looked over the Ramussen polling from mid-October, and interestingly enough it showed that Obama had a tie or a slight lead. And in 2012 he has a slight lead in Ohio and is slightly behind in VA. Given that he won VA solidly and he won OH by ~4, it looks an awful lot like the same race. The big difference is in the other polling which had Obama with the same kind of results, but in 2008 McCain was losing big. This time Obama has the same score but it appears that the R numbers are reflecting something like the actual end result. My thing is that the R base is concentrated in demos that turn out regularly in both presidential election years and midterms, and I don't see any sign of an R collapse in turnout in 2008. So I don't see how Romney can improve the R turnout much. So: same race, just less demoralization on the right. Meanwhile D turnout looks to be coming in about the same, albeit with less enthusiasm.)

    So, you know, it's OK with me if Romney wants to run out the clock - he probably (almost certainly I think) *doesn't* have a real lead.

    max
    ['Looks good.']

  • T2 on October 23, 2012 10:26 AM:

    as I said, I didn't watch...but would have preferred a slightly different response to Mitt's "fewer warships thats 1917" remark. I wish Obama would have said "Gee Mitt, that was almost 100 years ago, I know your TeaParty wants to Take the Country Back, but that's a little too far back, don't you think? We have these things called ICBM's now".

  • avahome on October 23, 2012 10:27 AM:

    My two cents............Romney was just repeating talking points over and over. I wondered out loud if he was even listening to the moderator... I love the hypothetical question bit....Mitt don't answer things like that!

    I gave up and went to bed. A true manager listens listens listens. I saw that in President Obama.

  • Bokonon on October 23, 2012 10:33 AM:

    Voters seems to be looking for permission to vote for Romney, and draw affirmation that Romney is a safe choice.

    And the reaction of the media to last night's drubbing - which wasn't really close - seem to be exactly that. Romney lost badly last night, on substance and style ... and yet we are being told this morning is all okay. Who cares. Doesn't change anything.

    The perfect example is the radio station I listened to this morning as I got up. They chirped that "people were impressed" by Romney's knowledge of foreign affairs ... while grudgingly admitting that "polls" showed that Obama won.

    That's called transforming a beatdown into a tie. And it is the affirmation that Romney needs.

  • stormskies on October 23, 2012 10:37 AM:

    Once again the corporate media is one of the greatest enemies our country actually has. They corporate agenda in the form of the props they use, called pundits, could not be more clear.

    Are we supposed to 'believe' that as of the first debate where Obama was pulling away before the debate from Romney in all the polls that the first debate was/ is the cause of the Romney surge ? Even though he lied 27 times in 38 minutes.

    And then Biden destroys Ryan, and Obama destroys Romney in the final two debates. Yet there is no 'surge' for them ? And that the 'momentum' is still with Romney based on those 38 minutes of the first debate ?

    This is a fucking monumental CON JOB being pulled of by the corporate media. And they do this deliberately of course in order to make people 'believe' that which is not true.

    And by doing this they then create an affect in which those that are still deciding who to vote for want to vote for a 'winner'. Stupid people do such things. It's called 'behavioral contagion' in psychological terms.

    The corporate media knows this thus they have created on of the biggest con jobs in our history. They are, indeed, one of the greatest enemies to our country.

  • flydoc on October 23, 2012 10:48 AM:

    Romney must also know that the Low Information Undecided Voters have low information about geography, too. How else to explain the bizarre claim about Syria being Iran's path to the sea unless he is counting on ignorance about basic geography in the region?

  • kd bart on October 23, 2012 10:49 AM:

    It's all going to come down to the jobs report relaeased on Friday, November 2nd

  • Ross C on October 23, 2012 11:02 AM:

    If we had a functioning MSM, that "Syria is Iran's pathway to the sea" comment would be Romney's "Poland" moment. I'm not holding my breath.

  • c u n d gulag on October 23, 2012 11:06 AM:

    I wonder which got hurt the worst in the beating they got when their master came home after last night’s debate?
    Bolton’s, or Kristol’s, poor dog?

    All those years and years of neoconning people, and Mitt turns into John Feckin’ Lennon last night.

    I was waiting for Mitt to start singing, “All we are saying… Is give peace a chance…”

  • Stetson Kennedy on October 23, 2012 11:07 AM:

    While I think Romnesia was clearly trying to run out the clock, I don't believe he did it because he knew he was winning. He did it because he knew he could not create enough distance between his policies and Obama's without sounding like the unhinged neo-con he's been for the past 18 months. That and he clearly has no clue about foreign policy beyond vague platitudes and GOP talking points. I mean, really, Syria is Iran's pathway to the sea? Is he even aware they don't share a border?

    My greater frustration is with many pundits trying to declare this debate a toss-up or even remotely close. They had no problem declaring Obama's first debate, quite rightly, a bomb, but bent themselves into pretzels to try and defend Romnesia's performance. No presidential candidate should be able to get away with the statement I referenced above without being flambed by the press. But I guess our wise villagers are ready for a change, and will push it all they can.

  • Anonymous on October 23, 2012 11:12 AM:

    Stormskies,

    Not sure you're right on this. My sense is the punters were right from the get-go when they said this election would be about the economy. For awhile the Obama team turned that round and made it a choice election between two competing visions for the country and up until the 1st debate it was Obama's vision voters preferred, but upbeat is upbeat and by failing to expose Romney's tax plan for the con it is, and by further failing to articulate his own economic positions with any kind of energy he encouraged the viewers to take a second look at Romney who, guess what, didn't seem as crazy as the ads made him out to be.

    Turns out Obama's support was soft. Polls don't lie.

  • Ross C on October 23, 2012 11:23 AM:

    Maybe before you parrot the MSM talking point about Obama's support being "soft," you should look at the actual polls, which Obama are winning in aggregate. Even when you factor in the ridiculous Rasmussen R+4 from today, Obama leads by a hair. Take that out along with the equally absurd Gallup LV, and Obama leads by almost 2, which is where the race has always been predicted it would end up.

    Pundits can crow "this is good news...for John McCain!" all they want, but it's not going to help Romney win. Just enough people trust Obama, and Romney's fundamental dishonesty is disqualifying.

  • BJ smith on October 23, 2012 11:28 AM:

    jjim was dead on, Mittie also forgot, he let them see him sweat!

  • j on October 23, 2012 11:31 AM:

    I must have been out of it, I don't understand the statements here that Romney was winning and all he had to do was show up, Nate Silver has always had Obama up and the national polls, although vary with each other have not been too bad for Obama. I am wondering about how the polls are taken, what is the impact of cell phones, are they polled?

  • Varecia on October 23, 2012 11:35 AM:

    One thing the dipstick pundits are probably correct about is the GOTV ground game. So if you have any concerns right now, convert that anxiety into concrete action by volunteering to scour every Obama vote out of your area you possibly can. I cannot stress this enough! Each hour of each day between now and election day matters. TICK TOCK!

  • T2 on October 23, 2012 11:37 AM:

    hummmmmm....judging from today's Market crash, maybe the guy I referenced in an earlier post was right.

  • Rip on October 23, 2012 11:41 AM:

    I'm not so sure that momentum doesn't matter, especially in the last week or so of a race. Looking at polling from earlier elections, it does seem that any candidate on the upswing a week before the election, usually continues to improve through election day. It doesn't necessarily turn a trailing candidate into a winner, but can effect the margin, and in a tight race like this, it could make the difference, which is why Republicans are desperate to continue the Romney has momentum narrative even though the race has flatlined in the last two weeks. If anything, after the Romney surge in the week following the first debate, Obama has bounced up a point or so on average in the two weeks since.

    Unfortunately, I don't think this debate will move the needle much for Obama. The first debate was instrumental in convincing a lot of wavering voters basically looking for an excuse to support Romney to jump on board. Once they did so it was going to take more than a substandard performance in the next two debates to get them to change their minds. Romney's problem is that even at the peak of his surge his average poll numbers barely scraped 48%, an all time best, and even factoring in Gallup's absurd numbers he has declined marginally since then. Given Obama's EV advantage, I don't see Romney winning if he can't find a way to pull away from Obama nationally enough to start tipping a majortiy of swing states into his column.

  • advocatethis on October 23, 2012 11:44 AM:

    Yeah, about those low information voters, I don't know what we can do about them, but they're the scary ones. A friend of mine told me a couple of weeks ago about a conversation he had with the gas guy at Costco, who told him that he votes on the topics that affect him directly, and since a Romney win would mean lower gas prices and an Obama win would cause gas prices to skyrocket (look at what they've done since the day he took office!), he was going to vote for Romney. To my friend, who made no effort to verify anything this expert told him, this all seemed perfectly reasonable. After my spinning head bounced off the ceiling and I was able to retrieve it I explained to my friend why this was preposterous, but there are still two weeks for him to hear so many more equally convincing arguments from equally credible sources.

  • Stetson Kennedy on October 23, 2012 11:53 AM:

    Just seen on CNN (no, I'm not THAT much of a news junkie, my employer happens to have CNN on in our lobby), a graph displaying the differences in military spending between Romney and Obama. This is finally getting the hearing it deserves, and I don't think anyone outside the GOP bubble thinks that our military is that underfunded.

    When people begin to see how potentially dangerous a Romnesia presidency would be, they'll come home to Obama to roost.

  • berttheclock on October 23, 2012 11:56 AM:

    For, at least, the 3rd time, Romney mentioned the comment by Secretary of Defense Panetta, who said cuts to the defense budget could be catastrophic. Yes, Sec Panetta has said that and it was in conjunction with funds possibly being sequestered by the Treasury due to the provisions from the Budget Control Act of 2011. That act was bi-partisan and was pushed through the House by Boehner. The act was a very late minute attempt to stop the US government from going into default. 28 Republican Senators, including, John McCain voted for the Act. In the House, both Paul Ryan and Cantor voted for the Act. Since then, Cantor has attempted to say he never voted for any money to be sequsestered. However, in one of the real hypocrises, US Rep Walden of Eastern, Central and Southern Oregon is trying to get to the bottom of proposed increases of co-pays to those veterans covered by TriCare. The proposed cuts are due to that Budget Control Act of 2011 which Rep Walden voted "Yea" for passage. Rep. Walden and other Republican politicos, ye reap what ye sew.

  • berttheclock on October 23, 2012 12:00 PM:

    "ye reap what ye sow"

    Yes, Blue Girl, you are ever correct in previewing before posting.

  • Anonymous on October 23, 2012 12:04 PM:

    Ross C,

    Lets be honest here, pre the 1st debate Obama was cleaning Romney's clock, not just nationally, but also in the important swing states, and amongst women. And not just marginally, big time. Something happened in that debate and all polls have been trending in Romney's direction since. I hope you're right, that I'm simply falling for the MSM's spin, but at this stage its anyone's election and its head in the sand stuff to think otherwise.

  • Lance on October 23, 2012 1:48 PM:

    The thing that struck me the most last night was the look in Obama's eyes when he told the story of going to the Holocast museum in Israel while a candidate...

    ... and learning what causal evil based on a lust for power enabled by dishonest demogogery looked like.

    He was looking right at Mitt.

  • Mitch on October 23, 2012 2:53 PM:

    Actually, I don't trust the polls one damned bit, nor do they trouble me in the slightest. I have heard that polling organizations focus on a rather small amount of tightly contested areas (since most of the nation is more or less locked in), and then project the results as if they reflect the entire nation. That makes the polls about as accurate as a drunken, blindfolded and dizzy marksman.

    The media, of course, is just going to pick and chose what they can for maximum horse-race drama. They do not care at all about accuracy. The media is not in the business of news, they are in the business of selling ad space.

    So if the polling organizations are saying, "Hey, this is a close race, full of suspense and surprises!" of COURSE the media is going to latch onto it. The hard-right media, because it supports their candidate and plays into the 'behavioral contagion' effect, mentioned by stormskies.

    The rest of the media will report this stuff ad nauseum in the hopes of boosting their ratings with tension and drama.

    I don't mean that we should be complacent. Other commentors are right, we should all be working as hard as we can for the next two weeks. But don't let the polls freak you out. We all know that polls are not very scientific or accurate, and that the media is less trustworthy than a pickpocket at a convention for the blind.

  • bdop4 on October 23, 2012 3:02 PM:

    The Romney camp is going all in on the American Idiocracy. They've placed all their chips on the assertion that a majority of Merkans will take anything he says as gospel as long as he says it with conviction and not even consider whether its true. That the average voter will accept Romney's critique of the economy without even trying to understand if he has a clue regarding the path to economic recovery.

    They're counting on conservatives letting him completely change his primary positions because their sole concern is defeating the Kenyan by whatever means.

    The fact that this "strategy" appears to be working is prima facie evidence of the inevitable decline of American Empire. It sickens me.

  • Neil B on October 23, 2012 3:16 PM:

    Part of the problem, is our side rolling over and abetting the *false* claim that Obama really (in true, debate-worthy and referee-check terms) lost that first debate! You should read what Juan Williams, yes of Fox now, said of that pretension. Yes we know Romney lied but Obama did hit back more than *we* are admitting - his big "problem" was being professorial, nerdy, whatever. If commenters on MSNBC, if Andrew Sullivan, Carville et al, had said, "hey, Obama really did win an honest real debate, he just didn't look good" - that would have helped overcome that perception by the public that "Obama lost the debate!" That didn't have to happen that way.

    Heh, "shake" - !

  • June on October 23, 2012 5:12 PM:

    A sweating, stammering Romney spouting absolute nonsense was not an inspiring sight. Period.

  • EnnisB on October 23, 2012 8:16 PM:

    Neil B, I agree completely with you. At the end of the 1st debate, I thought Obama had won. I believed his answers were honest, insightful, and to the point. When he didn’t look at Romney, I thought he was trying to hold his disdain and contempt for Romney’s dishonesty in check.

    And then Christ Matthews, Ed Shultz, and the rest came on and screamed like crazy. I had a function to go to after the debate, so I could on watch for about 15 minutes. However, by the time I left, I was seething. They didn’t do an actual analysis of the debate. They harped on how Obama didn’t do what they thought he should have done.

    I haven’t watched Christ Matthews or Ed Shultz since. In 2008, they and everyone else was wrong about how the race turned out. I suspect they are wrong again. If not, well Bush 45 with give the country what it deserves.