Political Animal


October 04, 2012 12:05 PM Why Obama Didn’t Go After Mitt

By Ed Kilgore

A lot of progressives are very upset today that in last night’s first presidential debate the President did not mention Romney “Boca Moment,” or tie his criticisms of companies outsourcing jobs to Mitt’s history at Bain Capital. It’s highly appropriate that the Johnny Appleseed of the “Boca Moment,” MoJo’s David Corn, gets the clearest answer from Team Obama on that question:

The Obama campaign does have an explanation. When I asked a top campaign official why Obama had made no mention of Romney’s 47 percent remark, he said,
“Not that we won’t talk about it again. We will. But [what’s] most compelling [is] hearing it from Romney himself. We’ve got that on the air at a heavy dollar amount in key states. And it’s sunk in. Ultimately the President’s goal last night was to speak past the pundits and directly to the undecided voter tuning in for the first time about the economic choice and his plans to restore economic security.”
It’s clear, one Democratic strategist said, that Obama’s inner circle concluded it was best not to turn the debate into a slugfest and hit Romney personally. That might come across as not presidential. It could distract from his aim of persuading those few remaining undecideds that they should see this election as a choice between two starkly different visions for the future and select his. Besides, there are weeks of ads to come, and if the 47-percent theme continues to resonate, the campaign certainly can keep producing ads that use the video as ammo.

If you read between the lines, this adds up to a very low-risk debate strategy that Romney successfully exploited. And if you add in that Obama may have been caught off balance by Mitt’s audacious fighting-centrist-technocrat self-presentation—just afire with a desire to replace Obama’s vicious partisanship with sweet reasonableness and bipartisanship—some of the hesitancy and meandering by the president aren’t that surprising.

It does not, however, explain why Team Obama has been reluctant to draw more explicit comparisons between Romney and George W. Bush, which has long been important to the entire re-election strategy. And that’s not just a matter of raising questions about Romney’s tax and budget plans, or his foreign policy radicalism: it provides a constant reminder that Bush, like Romney, got himself elected as a self-proclaimed centrist “problem-solver” with a heart full of compassion and a history (vastly exaggerated) of working with Democrats. The minute he was in office, all that flew out the window as W. monomanically pursued a deregulation agenda and the largest high-end tax cut he could manage, before exploiting the post-9/11 environment to pursue his “war of choice.”

Obama doesn’t have to get personally nasty with Mitt Romney to draw these comparisons; he just has to observe every time Mitt tries the reasonable-centrist gambit that “you know, we’ve heard this before, from the man Republicans don’t like to talk about any more, George W. Bush.” It’s this pattern of GOP mendacity that makes the private admission of ideological savagery provided by the “Boca Moment”—not to mention by Romney’s running-mate much more publicly—really hit you in the gut.

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.


  • T2 on October 04, 2012 12:30 PM:

    "A lot of progressives are very upset" yeah....the same bunch that was so upset with Obama after his first two years that they sat on their heels in 2010 and watch the GOP load the House with crazy people bent on ruining any and everything he's tried to do.

    I don't really buy the WH's talk that Obama's performance was strategic, in reference to the 47% thing. He ran into a buzz saw. He should expect the same next debate, and be ready to call Romney out (and make the dear progressives happy for a minute).

  • Andrew J. Lazarus on October 04, 2012 12:30 PM:

    From all that high-mindedness, sounds like Team Obama is getting its advice from serial loser Bob Shrum. He persuaded Kerry not to go negative. Low information voters aren't going to look past the lackluster presentation to the policy. Maybe watching Obama'spoll numbers take it in the gut will wake them up.

  • Jan on October 04, 2012 12:32 PM:

    Your last paragraph nails it.
    He should also have said repeatedly, in plain English, directly to Romney, "Your numbers don't add up."
    Let's hope they read your last paragraph and listen to Chris Matthews also!

  • Th on October 04, 2012 12:33 PM:

    I don't have as much problem with not playing offense as I have with the total lack of defense and counter-punching. I couldn't believe Obama let Romney talk about Obamacare taking $700 billion out of Medicare. What a fat one down the middle: "No Governor, I don't take $700 billion out of Medicare, by reducing that much of spending I am leaving it in Medicare to strengthen its finances. Medicare recipients know that they pay a set percentage of costs so your plan to spend the $700 billion means that current Medicare recipients have to pony up their percentage of that overpayment in premiums and copays. And it becomes insolvent faster. That makes as much sense as showing up at your favorite restaurant at 5:35 when the early-bird special ends at 5:30."

    I blame his debate prep team. You could see this one coming from outer space.

  • Neil Bates on October 04, 2012 12:35 PM:

    R-money bully-shitted his way through this "debate" to look like he "won" as mostly agreed by an incompetent, horse-racey commentariat that has no idea what a real debate is, moderated by real debate referees (like, uh, in High Schools across the nation.) In such real debates, if you say "doing A will lead to B", you have to tell us *why we should believe you.* R-money, of course, did not. Can you imagine how an analogous debate between scientists over particle physics would have been graded, instead?

    And, to reward bluster means that a decent, mild-mannered person - however brilliant, talented, caring, honest, etc - could not become President of the United States of America. The way Romney bullied and talked over pitiful old "Moderator" Jim Lehrer was disgraceful. Nevertheless, President Obama *must* get his game together and appear tougher yet remain Presidential - something Mr. Romney surely is not.

    (I may not have coined the term "bullyshit", but I hope it sticks (uh, as a derogatory epithet, not that "it" sticks ... ;-O)

  • Dan on October 04, 2012 12:36 PM:

    I remember the first presidential debate in 1984, Reagan-Mondale, when Reagan came out and seemed doddering and feeble. He got slammed. In the next debate, a different Reagan came out, used the great line about not trying to capitalize on Mondale's youth and inexperience, and had everyone in his pocket. Point being, it ain't over yet.

  • DAY on October 04, 2012 12:38 PM:

    @Jan- speaking of 'numbers that don't add up', here's one that does.

    Nate Silver (fivethirtyeight) says the possibility of Obama winning in November is 84.7%.

    And intrade (http://www.intrade.com/v4/markets/contract/?contractId=743474) puts it at 66.5%

  • kabiddle on October 04, 2012 12:39 PM:

    Obama did what he had to do -- pin Mitt down with statements in a public forum that Mitt will not be able to walk back with any credibility. O did look tired and distracted but he invited the overreach that is the hallmark of the GOP. And he did what any good candidate would do -- let the guy come out of the gate with all his mendacity full on. Mitt got all the rope he needs.

  • Larry Reilly on October 04, 2012 12:48 PM:

    During the debate I commented to my wife: "Obama is a black man who plays a decent game of pickup basketball but is wholly incapable of trash talk. He needs to step up that part of his game."

    I have long wondered -- and this amounts to putting him on the amateur psychiatrist's couch -- whether growing up black in a white family and being very, very smart, Obama has an ingrained quality that goes back to childhood: don't be seen as uppity.

    Just two examples: bringing in Federalist Society types when he was on the Harvard Law Review; playing Charlie Brown to the giggling Republicans' Nancy yanking back the football from a would-be place kick.

    He has been coolly rational and conciliatory all his life, including at times, such as last night, when he should show fiery passion and certitude about the other guy being all wrong.

  • yellowdog on October 04, 2012 1:06 PM:

    Thanks, Ed, for your thoughtful words on the first debate. Your phrase "pattern of GOP mendacity" stands out in this post. It captures the response I had last night--the same response in fact I had to many of the McCain and Palin debates last time. I was left wondering when the inert Lehrer or the professorial Obama would just step up and say, "Enough."

    Even more, I wondered over and over again who the real Romney is--what he believes, what he wants. "Come, let us reason together?" The current GOP has ways to shut that whole thing down. Romney cannot lead the radicalized GOP sounding like Jerry Ford or Bob Michel--It simply will not let him. He and Ryan are ducking and dodging and denying the real radicalism in their own party. Romney has embraced these views--in the person of Ryan, no less. Is the 'real' Romney reasoned moderation, or is it hard-right Ryanism? Does Romney even know anymore himself?

  • Hue and Cry on October 04, 2012 1:07 PM:

    I listened to CSPN callers this a.m. and a woman said she had watched the debate with a doctor, who said he had the impression the president was affected by the Denver altitude, having just flown there from Las Vegas.

    I wondered the same thing since I had lived near the University of Denver for a couple of years and noticed it had an effect--especially when you newly arrived, and it would last at least a couple of days. Lung power and stamina especially. You kind of felt out of it. I was a substitute teacher at the time, and when I traveled back east to visit family, then back to Denver, I would definitely notice a drag on me.

  • Anonymous on October 04, 2012 1:29 PM:

    I actually did get the impression that Obama's was disputing Mitt's claims, especially Mitt's "revenue-neutral" Plan of Vaguaries that would cut upper-income taxes and then turn around and give the Defense Dept $2 trillion without causing a ripple to the middle class. Obama even added it to "$7 trillion" at one point (i could feel Obama's frustration arguing it with Mitt). And to his credit, Obama did try to explain that those big, bad, scary cuts to Medicare weren't cuts to beneficiaries but to providers who were wasteful or outright fraudulent, basically a bringing-down-costs-not-benefits argument. And I do recall Obama getting in a word about our past experience with trickle-down economics.

    Obama was windy and a bit "loose" at times but I followed it. And perhaps maybe the moderately informed lay person could have followed his logic as well. He probably could have been more concise and to the point, but Obama's substance wasn't necessarily overshadowed by Romney's obnoxious belligerence.

    At this moment now, I'm still at a loss as to what Romney was doing. I didn't (couldn't) follow his logic since, as Neil Bates pointed out above, he just made assertions with no real reason why we should believe he's going to create 12 million jobs or that he'll make health insurance accessible while Obamacare is going to pull off the dual feat of dropping 90 million people from health insurance while individually mandating we all participate (yeah... wtf?).

    In comparison to Romney, I think Obama did a decent job explaining his priorities. Though Obama can be abstract, Romney took the cake last night on that front with his platitudes of amazingness ("I'll protect the Constitution" vs. "I'll protect the people"--very interesting distinction). In any event, Romney is now on tape as to what his "official" policies are, and I don't think Team Obama is going to let him do a bait-and-switch-then-make-shit-up ploy the next go 'round. (And hopefully the next debate will have a real format with real questions from serious moderators.)

  • Zinsky on October 04, 2012 1:30 PM:

    Obama should have asked Mitt if one of the deductions he would phase out was the $55,000 deduction he took for his wife's prancing horse? Or why Mitt took a $10 million government bail-out in the 1980' s, if he believes in the glorious free market? Or why if debt is "immoral", why Bain & Co. left a mountain of it behind at every company they "harvested"? I can think of many more that would have ripped Willard a new bunghole, but Obama, as usual played Casper Milquetoast and had his lunch money stolen - again!

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on October 04, 2012 1:31 PM:

    Anonymous on October 04, 2012 1:29 PM:

    That's me.

  • scott (the other one) on October 04, 2012 1:37 PM:

    You nailed what I think was Obama's #1 mistake, and I'm not sure he's going to (be able to) correct it: he didn't Romney to Bush. He could have accurately and devastatingly say Bush = Romney = Bush. It's true and it'd be a killer. Romney policies and advisors are virtually identical to Bush's. They'd not only halt the recovery in its tracks, but we'd start going backwards, rapidly, by adopting the exact same policies that screwed us up in the first place.

    But because, generally speaking, presidents don't trash their immediate predecessors by name, even when they deserve it, Obama didn't and, I suspect, won't in the next two either, even though it'd be correct and a game-winner.

  • Neil Bates on October 04, 2012 1:47 PM:

    BTW some commentator speculated, Obama may have been a bit fatigued from lower oxygen levels in Denver - after all, 5000 feet altitude does make a difference, and some are more susceptible than others.

  • TCinLA on October 04, 2012 1:50 PM:

    The two Davids are the worst kind of morons: morons to stupid to know they are, who think they're actually geniuses. These are the two fools who thought the campaign ended on January 20, 2009, instead of understanding that was Day One of the real campaign.

    That Obama came out and performed like this is just horrible. I have followed presidential debates since 1960 and this was the worst performance ever by a Democrat. He made Doo-doo-ca-ca look good.

  • TCinLA on October 04, 2012 1:58 PM:

    Nate Silver (fivethirtyeight) says the possibility of Obama winning in November is 84.7%.

    Which is the football equivalent of a team down by one touchdown with 10 minutes left in the 4th quarter. I'm sure no one here has ever seen a team go on to win from that position, eh?

    If Obama keeps up this sort of crap, he's going down and he's taking the country down with him. All the excuses are "bullyshit" - whistling past the graveyard.

  • Altoid on October 04, 2012 2:53 PM:

    I remember feeling exactly this way after the first Obama-McCain performance in '08. He didn't take advantage of any openings then either; it isn't his style at all. I don't remember him ever doing what his supporters wanted him to do when face-to-face with the opponent, namely hammering the SOB.

    Nobody's mentioned the effect of a silent auditorium full of people. Obama responds to the crowd (romney carries it around in his head and doesn't need live people). To have all those people sit there in silence must have been completely eerie and off-putting to him.

    He'd have been in a much better place as far as debates go, too, if he'd ever taught undergraduates. That would have forced him to break things down into simpler, more comprehensible units the way Clinton does, and do it on his feet. He only dealt with very bright, highly motivated law students who can handle complexity, or at least don't rebel at it.

    I may be alone in this but I think he may have been over-coached. When he gets hesitant at the start of a response it seems like he's trying to decide what track to take out of a bunch of canned set pieces. I think he may have had too many of these things set up and had trouble deciding which ones to use. And he may not have actually practiced enough, as opposed to just being coached.

    And if the measure of "success" is projecting passionate conviction, we all know that's what the worst are filled with. Really, there is almost nobody as full of passionate conviction as the unaware full-on sociopath. Passion says nothing about accuracy, fitness to lead, good decision-making capacity, or much of anything else. How is it that our princelings of the media so worship passionate self-absorption?

  • K in Poughkeepsie on October 04, 2012 3:20 PM:

    The President didn't even care enough about his supporters and contributors to prepare a cogent, passionate closing statement. He didn't care enough about the electorate to either write or have someone write a statement about what he has tried to do, what he wants to do next and why we should follow him.

    That says a lot more than "He was just off his game."

    He took his ball and went home last night.

  • elisabeth on October 04, 2012 3:41 PM:

    The president starts out with one hand tied behind his back. No one seems willing to say that after a week of right-wing reminders to the electorate that the president is a black man, there would have been a lot of "angry black male" stereotypes that would have been raised if Obama had been any more aggressive. What is admired in white men as assertiveness or some other positive attribute is often rejected or redefined negatively when practiced by males of color or by any woman.

  • murphro2 on October 04, 2012 3:59 PM:

    One possible outcome of this debate is to actually raise awareness that an election is going on for all those late-deciders. Not sure if one has identified (or can identify) who the viewers were last night, but it seems just as likely that many did not tune will suddenly wonder, after all the hooha of Mitt winning, if they shouldn't tune in for the next one. It will be interesting to see if viewership isn't higher for the second debate, and that maybe (we hope) Obama comes alive and shows to all how Mitt is talking in circles or simply lying. I am still of the opinion that this debate has the potential to really cost Mitt. The media loves moments, but life doesn't stop and the rest of us know it. Obama has always been better at the long game than most, and this is what gives the GOP fits.

  • Dee Gee on October 04, 2012 4:05 PM:

    I'm living abroad (sigh) and haven't seen the full debate yet. But from what I've read, this looks like the SAME TACTIC used by GWB against Al Gore.

    Gore would punch holes in things that Bush had said, or in the position plan that GWB's team had released, and Bush would say, "No it isn't" or "No I didn't", reducing Mr. Gore to ("WTH") grunts that sounded like a kid in a schoolyard argument.

    ("You said..." "No I didn't!" "Yes! You did." "Did not." [wth GRUNT!])

    It's a tactic that has been used before, but I don't think Obama's team prepped him for this at all. It's a miracle that it ever worked. It's hard to believe that the GOP would use it TWICE!

  • smartalek on October 04, 2012 5:10 PM:

    "How is it that our princelings of the media so worship passionate self-absorption?"

    Because that's what the "media princelings" themselves are made up of.
    It is what the media selects for.
    I would have thought this was obvious.

  • Anonymous on October 04, 2012 6:01 PM:

    " 'Obama is a black man who plays a decent game of pickup basketball but is wholly incapable of trash talk. He needs to step up that part of his game.' ... [Obama] should show fiery passion and certitude about the other guy being all wrong."

    ^Today's winner for thinly veiled bigotry!^

    One apparent meme by critics on the left regarding the debate is that if Obama didn't address a particular GOP/Romney talking point, that somehow the opportunity is lost, as in "OMG, Romney said XYZ and Obama didn't immediately throw it back in his face!!!"

    Sane observers are happy that Obama didn't take Romney's bait and turn into the Angry Black Man.

    Seriously, by this point in the campaign, if people aren't clear about what each candidate stands for, and stands against, and they choose to make their decisions based on the results of one debate, then we as a nation don't deserve democracy.

  • castanea on October 04, 2012 6:08 PM:

    For the record, Anonymous at 6:01 p.m. was me.

  • Th on October 04, 2012 7:09 PM:

    Sorry, castanea, but I couldn't disagree more strongly. Most of what people know about the candidates is from advertising, media appearances of their surrogates and maybe the conventions. If I have seen 27 commercials saying Obama stole $700 billion from Medicare to give health care to lazy, poor people, I would be really curious to see how he reacts when you throw that in his face. After his performance last night, I would think that charge is true.

  • Hue and Cry on October 04, 2012 8:25 PM:

    I agree so much with Castanea.
    I cannot even imagine not having a candidate selection by now. You'd think someone undecided would have paid attention by now and chosen the person most reflecting their views, or at least the person who won't adversely affect them with an economic plan favoring the uber-wealthy, or busy scheming about dismantling Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security if the "undecided person" supported those programs.
    Seems if you do want the poor to forage in fields and in the woods for food, you'd know who to support by now.

    P.S. Did I hear Romney call them "your poor" during the debate? I think I did.

  • trench28 on October 04, 2012 11:26 PM:

    ...they did not bring up the 47% or Bain capital because they knew that Romney came very prepared for the debate and might have potent "zingers" prepared especially for those issues. Why risk losing those effective attack lines when they can milk it down up to the end of the campaign period. Do you think Romney was not prepared to counter those and have the opportunity to just eliminate them in one swift stroke just like what he did with the other attack lines of Obama last night? If there is one person who may join in the disappointment of the supporters of the president about not bringing those two attack lines up...it might be Romney himself.

  • manapp99 on October 05, 2012 11:51 AM:

    The reason he did not bring up the 47% or Bain was that he was on the defensive all night and was unable to throw, much less land, a punch as he back peddled into the corner. He is just not as quick or smart as so many on the left so desperately desire him to be. This is evidenced by the many articles over the last four years by liberal journalists that would start with "What Obama needs to do...."