The two debate lies that could nail Mitt Romney

Has Obama given Romney enough rope to hang himself with?

Most observers here are saying President Barack Obama lost the first presidential debate with Mitt Romney, and perhaps they are right. The Republican nominee was eager to make his case before millions of television viewers. He was polite, witty, sympathetic to the plight of the middle class, and in command of the format. More importantly, he looked like a human being.

The president, on the other hand, was wonky and dry, more Explainer-in-Chief than Commander-in-Chief. He let Romney push him into a corner. He was on his heels. He didn't fight back. And he didn't use an arsenal of counterattacks available to him, like, "How can you stand there and tell the American people that you care about them when we know how you feel about 47 per cent of them." Predictably, this drove liberals, Democrats, and admirers crazy.

As The Daily Beast's Andrew Sullivan, an Obama supporter, said:

[T]his was a disaster for the president for the key people he needs to reach, and his effete, wonkish lectures may have jolted a lot of independents into giving Romney a second look. 

Obama looked tired, even bored; he kept looking down; he had no crisp statements of passion or argument; he wasn't there. He was entirely defensive, which may have been the strategy. But it was the wrong strategy. At the wrong moment [my italics].

James Carville, who was President Bill Clinton's adviser, said on CNN:

I had one overwhelming impression [that] it looked like Mitt Romney wanted to be there and President Obama didn't want to be there. ... I think he wanted to be there. I think he knew he needed this, and I think Obama gave the sense he wasn’t happy to be at this debate.

Matt Bai, a reporter for The New York Times, suggested that perhaps the president expressed a lack of enthusiasm for the job of being president.

Mr. Obama’s goal, it seems, was to indicate his continued willingness to serve in a job he believes he can do better than the other guy, but that doesn’t really seem to enervate or enliven him. That’s a problem, and not only for the duration of the campaign.

Yet much of this is surely overblown. If Obama did lose the debate, it's in part because the commentariat tells us he did, and much of the commentariat is telling us he did because, I suspect, it's applying the normative values of "American Idol" contestants to the ambiguities of presidential candidates.

That's why we are hearing so much about how Romney looked like he really wanted to be there, how confident he appeared and ready to be in charge. Obama, on the other hand, didn't appear to have anything to prove. He didn't want it enough. Meanwhile, the pundits forget Obama is the incumbent, and by nature of being the incumbent, he doesn't have anything to prove. It's the challenger's burden to prove the president is no longer fit to serve.

Still, when seasoned liberals start panicking, you worry. Bob Moser, of The American Prospect, wondered which Obama will show up next time, and what he will do when Romney hurls salvos of equivocation and mendacity.

The question for the remaining debates is no longer the one people were asking prior to Denver: 'Which Romney will show up?' It’s which Obama will show up—the half-asleep one who declined to debate on Wednesday night, or the jolted-awake one who so effectively hammered his opponent’s dishonesty half a day too late?

But here's the thing: What if the real Obama was there? Think about it. What if the president was setting a trap for Romney? It's not as odd as it sounds.

First, the real effect of this debate, as with any debate, probably won't be felt for another few days during which time pollsters will attempt to measure public opinion. Meanwhile, the punditocracy will cycle and recycle the debate until no one remembers what happened, only what it says happened.

While there will be time spent wondering why the president wasn't more assertive, and time spent speculating on how Romney's "win" will give him a bounce in the polls, that will fade, and eventually the substance of the debate will come to the fore, and that's where the president has set a trap.

Romney's fundamental liability, among many cosmetic liabilities, has been that he lies. A lot. Steve Benen, who blogs for MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show, has attempted to document them all (a heroic effort), but Romney's reputation as a dissembler has not yet risen to the level of national consciousness. With 58 million people watching the debate, however, that may soon change.

The president did appear to be on the defensive, but like a counter-punching boxer, that may have been to his advantage. I don't mean to make Obama seem cleverer than need be here, but he was able to do in 90 minutes what many journalist have failed to do since Romney began running: pin him down. And knowing that he was being pinned down, Romney did what he does. He lied.

What happened? Obama told the truth.

Romney's budget proposal includes tax cuts for the rich, tax hikes for the middle class. I won't go into the details, but that's right. It has been known for months, and many say the effects of the plan would be a campaign-killer if the effects of the plan were well known. So guess what was Romney's reaction was? Nope, nuh-uh. I don't support a $5trn tax cut, no tax hike on the middle class.

So Big Lie No. 1.
 
Second, Obama said Romney wants to repeal Obamacare but doesn't say what he will replace it with. Romney said his plan will prevent private insurance companies from discriminating on the basis of so-called preexisting conditions, as Obamacare does. That's true except for being entirely false.

Romney has said anyone who already has insurance will enjoy health care protection under his proposal. As for everyone else, his senior adviser told Talking Points Memo that the Romney replacement plan will actually leave that up to states. In other words, Romney has no plan to protect the sick from discrimination unless they already have insurance, which is already the law.

So Big Lie No. 2.

Remember, the president is the incumbent. The burden of proof is on the Republican nominee's shoulders, and for all the talk about his victory, no one is saying that he made a convincing case that the president's time is up.

Conversely, all Obama has to do to win is cast doubt on Romney. He continued to portray himself as the most reasonable man in the room, above the fray, and deeply concerned about the health and welfare of ordinary Americans. At the same time, he made one solid point. That Romney isn't on the level.

Romney says he'll repeal Obamacare, but doesn't say what he'll replace it with. He says he'll cut taxes by 20 per cent, but doesn't say how he'll pay for it. Over the next few days, as the commentariat chews on the debate, all the talk about posture, eye contact and poor moderating will dissipate, but what will rise to the top is that Romney lied about two of the major concerns of the day.
All of this combined may cast an enormous shadow of doubt over the Romney campaign. If voters are doubtful, they may choose to stick with Obama.

By remaining cool and likeable, and by speaking the plain truth, Obama might have given Romney just enough rope to hang himself with. Time will tell of course, but time is the very thing that's on the president's side.

 

Obama and Romney during the debate. Photograph: Getty Images

John Stoehr teaches writing at Yale. His essays and journalism have appeared in The American Prospect, Reuters Opinion, the Guardian, and Dissent, among other publications. He is a political blogger for The Washington Spectator and a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera English.

 

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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times