The Debate: What Happened?

I watched the debate from inside the media filing room in the Ritchie Center. You can see my perspective at left, which pretty much encapsulates my thoughts on the debate — it was all about Romney. It was hard not to see this as a very one-sided debate, with Romney proving very assertive, confident, and in-command, and Obama really appearing not those things.

I think there were a number of reasons for this. First was the point James Fallows nicely made in his article “Slugfest” and Nate Silver backed up yesterday: first debates usually favor the challenger because they challenger has had a lot of recent debating experience. In Romney’s case, he just came off a spring in which he faced 20 party debates, most of which centered on all the other candidates trying to trip him up. Obama, conversely, hasn’t done this in four years; his recent public appearances have mainly involved prepared speeches and town hall meetings, not this sort of policy-rich exchange.

The second reason is that to the extent Obama prepped for this debate, he prepped to debate someone else other than who showed up. The awkward Randian conservative, so uncomfortable in his own ideological skin, had morphed, incredibly rapidly, into a pragmatic, confident moderate. Jim Tankersly (via Wonkblog) summed it up nicely:

Apparently Mitt Romney likes government regulation, loves Medicare the way it is, agrees fairly regularly with President Obama, and does not, in fact, want to cut taxes very much. Those are gross simplifications of Romney’s economic platform, and ones very much at odds with the anti-tax, anti-regulation, pro-entitlement-reform campaign the former Massachusetts governor has waged for more than a year.

I was really struggling with this. I couldn’t tell whether Romney had completely abandoned his old positions on taxes and regulations or whether he was just casting those positions in a new light. Regardless, the pivot to the center that had been conspicuously absent from Romney’s campaign this year finally happened, in the space of 90 minutes. Now, in the short run, this presents an advantage — Romney’s new stances were obviously much more popular than his old ones, and the president had difficulty critiquing views that were so similar to his own. But I’m wondering about the costs of this pivot: a) Does he alienate some conservative activists, who have long worried about his ideological bona fides? b) Does this reinforce his image as a flip-flopper? Possible answers: a) Conservative activists will probably suck it up and be grateful for a nominee who could stick it to the president in a debate. b) There was plenty of flip-flopper material there for Obama to exploit, but he largely didn’t, although I’m sure his surrogates will be all over that for the remainder of the week.

Well, that’s what I saw. The other great flip-flop of the night, which most of you probably didn’t see, came from Denver’s weather. The temperature dropped from around 80F in the mid-afternoon to the 30s after the debate, and we’ve got snow on the way. Yes, Colorado’s weather transformed itself almost as quickly as Romney did.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Seth Masket

Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.