Saturday, October 13, 2012

Race for the White House

24 Days Until Election Day

In many ways, the aftermath of Mitt Romney's strong debate performance over Barack Obama over a week ago persist as the Republican challenger has had a good week in state and national polling. Most surveys now show him with a narrow lead nationally as well as having inched up to a slight lead in many of the swing states. While the margins are certainly not overwhelming, considering where Romney had been in polls before the debate and the gloom that had descended over many Republicans across the country, this has clearly been an energizing experience, as Romney is now campaigning before very large and enthusiastic crowds, with a renewed sense of optimism.

Democrats can perhaps take some solace by the fact that the race is certainly far from over, but all the confident claims for weeks, especially during the month of September about how the election was a "done deal" are now no longer realistic seeming. While many in that party had hoped that a lowered unemployment rate could negate any bounce that could come from the first Presidential debate, that does not seem to have happened. For much of this week, Democrats appeared to campaigning on the Big Bird matter in a way that embarrassed and concerned many of their loyalists, as it was clear that Republicans were continuing to win the spin war after the first debate. While polls in states like Virginia and Florida seem to inching away from Obama towards Romney, Democrats are holding onto hope that they are still ahead in Ohio, as a firewall, and that they might already have a large lead on the basis of early votes.

The largest single political event of the week though was Thursday night's Vice Presidential debate in Danville, Kentucky. Unlike the Presidential debate, there was a mixed reaction as to who might have "won" the debate, with Democrats believing that incumbent Vice President Joe Biden got the best out of Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, while Republicans believing that to whatever extent the debate might have mattered, Ryan gave a strong performance and likely helped the party to some degree. I happen to agree with my fellow Republicans.

Biden himself was the focal point of the debate, far more than the opponent in the chair next to him and even more than the two principals of each ticket. While it was a pretty low threshold for Biden to cross in regards to being stronger than Obama's performance in Denver, it was almost a given that Democrat supporters as well as those in the media would praise the performance and say numerous things along the lines of "Biden stopped the bleeding."

To be sure, Biden was energetic (at least for the first 75 minutes of the debate before suddenly becoming oddly subdued towards the end), forceful, and engaged. He also was a jackass. The VPOTUS acted in a way that is totally unprecedented (even taking Al Gore's sighs into account) in any sort of national debate history. Most Democrats and many in the media loved what he did. No other politician in America could ever have gotten away with acting half the way Biden did without being hammered, as the candidate regularly interrupted Ryan, smiled at odd times, and outright laughed while his opponent was speaking. In addition to being pretty nasty with Ryan, Biden even seemed anxious to debate the moderator Martha Raddatz (who did not attempt to reign Biden in when he was interrupting and trying to dominate the conversation).

As a political junkie, this was great theater and I enjoyed it from that aspect. As a partisan Republican, I sensed that Biden was doing damage to his ticket as I watched the debate, and thus I was happy about that, but as an American, I have to think that our democratic process was deserving of more respect than the way Biden represented himself (whether it was all a strategic, rehearsed set of actions or largely spontaneous.) I sense that the sort of undecided Independent voters who were watching the debate, especially women came away thinking that Biden acted like a complete jerk, even if many might also say that they tended to agree more with him and whether that or the sheer force of nature he tried to exhibit caused him to "win" the debate.

In all honesty (and I have said Republicans have lost debates before), I believe that my preferred candidate Paul Ryan, did win the debate and showed impressive knowledge on many matters, especially on foreign policy. While he is not the most naturally glib politician (and not as naturally strong in a debate format as Romney), I thought he conducted himself just fine and scored many points against Biden and Obama. I also applaud him for his patience and restraint in resisting the temptation to try to out interrupt Biden or to get in the mud with him.

However, I do think that Ryan might have missed a couple of opportunities in that regard. I think it was quite possible that he could have goaded Biden into a complete, profanity riddled tirade, that would have been nearly impossible for the Obama ticket to recover from. Most likely though, Paul Ryan was considering the importance of the moment and the event, and tried to stick to his game plan, instead of what could have been a not so difficult effort to psychologically unhinge Biden.

I will say though that with the way Biden was acting, Ryan left some opportunities on the table. With the Vice President of the United States, a man who is a heartbeat away from being the most powerful man on Earth, literally laughing when unemployment was discussed, or even worse when the matter of a nuclear armed Iran and the threat posed to Israel was being talked about, I do wish Ryan would have turned to Biden and something like, "why are you laughing Mr. Vice President? These are very serious issues. People are hurting in this country" or "people are at risk around the world. Why is that so funny to you?"

To some extent I was disappointed, but in retrospect not surprised to see the pass that the media gave to Biden and for the fact that Democrats just loved Biden being nasty in an MSNBC/Daily Kos sort of way. They think Republicans are evil people and since the performance was everything that Obama was unwilling or unable to do while he was on stage with Romney, they loved it. Had the tables been turned, and a Republican laughed, scoffed, and interrupted, during a debate the way Biden did, there would have been calls for that candidate to release their mental health history records.

Obama's liberal base was so despondent after his debate performance, they were holding out to anything to re-energize them and Biden's act seemed to have done it. They declared him the easy winner (though on points the debate was probably pretty close to a draw), and the evidence from various snap polls was inconclusive. A CBS poll of undecided voters had 50 percent saying Biden won the debate, but with no indication as to if it effected any voters. A CNN poll of all debate watchers (and Republicans seemed to be watching more, which is perhaps reflective of an enthusiasm gap), narrowly said Ryan beat Biden in the debate and narrowly showed more voters moving towards the Romney ticket than the Obama ticket based on that debate.

There has never been a Vice Presidential debate in American history that has had much impact on the Presidential results, and when all is said and done, I think that trend will hold. By the time Obama and Romney meet on the stage early next week, much of what happened in Danville will become a footnote, but Biden's physical and verbal reactions have become fodder since the debate and Republicans have been very intent on trying to capitalize on sentiment, which was seen in the focus groups, about how undignified Biden had acted. This is seeping into pop culture and how Jason Sudekis and Saturday Night Live portray the Biden performance later tonight should be quite interesting. While Obama/Biden cheerleaders will applaud everything Biden did, and while it might have rallied their base, I think laughing disrespectfully during a nationally televised debate is not a way to win over swing voters, but instead a way to turn them off.

Even potentially more troubling for Democrats are the policy gaffes Biden made during the debate. At one point, he misstated Obama's tax policy, but more significantly, very early in the debate, he claimed that nobody had any knowledge that the Libya attack which killed the U.S. Ambassador was an act of terrorism and that they had no knowledge that the embassy had asked for additional security. In fact, we now know from State Department officials, that both claims are false and the Administration did know. Perhaps, Paul Ryan did not do as well as he should have to hammer Biden on those points right then and there, but with Biden's statements (and the subsequent attempts from the White House to pass the buck to blame the State Department), the tragedy of Benghazi and all the potential scandalous implications are likely to become an even bigger part of the campaign moving forward. It is certainly a legitimate issue, and the efforts of Deputy Obama Campaign Manager Stephanie Cutter to say Mitt Romney deserves the blame for any controversy over the Libya attack is of course reprehensible.

Moving forward, the stakes are high for next weeks' Town Hall Debate in New York. Expectations are that Obama will be better than he was for the first debate. He certainly should be, but his overall expectations have now been lowered, while they are higher for Romney. Nobody knows what kind of people will be there to ask questions or what will be asked. If past Town Hall debates, going back the last 20 years are any indication, they could tend to be more favorable for Democrats, but I am not expecting too many fireworks from this debate, which will cover both domestic and foreign issues.

For one thing, Obama will not be able to be nearly as aggressive as Biden was or as his supporters now want him to be, based on the Town Hall format. He will have to respond to questions from the audience, who might not take too kindly by him sidestepping them and instead launching broad sweeping personal attacks against his opponent. I also think that Mitt Romney is probably better in the Town Hall format (and I have seen him do it in person) than many of his critics might realize, as he has been holding such events going back to 2007. I think he will be able to appropriate empathize with whomever is asking him questions for the most part. My prediction is that the debate will probably be considered a "draw" but that the media and Democrats will take solace now that things were not worse.

With less than 25 days until the final voting, the long race for the White House now looks to be neck and neck with the finish line clearly now in site. There are still a bit of a distance left to sprint to that finish line and either man may still win this race, but only one of them has been closing ground quickly and seems to have some serious steam at just the right time.