Don’t Be Fooled, That Debate Was a Big Deal
By Chris Stirewalt Power Play Published October 05, 2012
“Well, I'm a little confused here, because I don't see how you can grow the deficit down by raising people's taxes. You see, I don't think the American people are taxed too little. I think they're taxed too much. I went for one tax increase and when I make a mistake I admit it. I said that wasn't the right thing to do.”
-- President George H.W. Bush in an Oct. 15, 1992 town-hall debate with Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and Reform Party nominee Ross Perot.
Mitt Romney beat the britches off of President Obama in their first debate, including the devastating sound bite “you’ve been president for four years.”
It was the most-watched debate in 20 years and was the most decisive victory by a challenger in at least that long, but to look at the news today, you might be tempted to think it really didn’t matter.
Another month of essentially flat job growth is being trumpeted as just the comeback the president needed, with reporters, addicted to the top-line unemployment rate, freaking out about the fact that the measure fell below 8 percent.
(Power Play will spare you another lecture on the irrelevancy of this measure in a stagnant economy. The number to watch to know how people are really doing is the larger measure of those unemployed, underemployed and those who have given up work, which held steady at 14.7 percent.)
Certainly the very presence of an avalanche of favorable, if misleading, economic headlines will give the president a boost. And he certainly needs one given his botch on Wednesday.
The most effective spin from Team Obama so far has been that this kind of thing happens all the time – that incumbents always have trouble in their first debates. Why, just look at Ronald Reagan in 1984 and George W. Bush in 2004, they were off their game, came back and won.
While the long-term spin from Obama and his campaign is that Romney is a liar and a phony who only won by taking advantage of an incumbent too tirelessly committed to honest politics and detailed answers, the most urgent matter is to get the establishment press to minimize the importance of the president’s loss.
Some reporters were on that buggy right away, talking about the “debate curse” of the incumbent even before the first Big Bird Twitter meme had begun. The “curse” concept is picking up speed as is the expectation on the right and left that Obama will be back on his game by the time the two men meet up again for a town-hall debate at Hofstra University.
There is lots of truth in that. The president will come back strong and certainly there will be a phalanx of reporters there to say that the old magic is back and that Obama looked potently presidential.
The Romney Obama contest was the most watched first debate since 1980, when an estimated 80 million viewers watched the only contest between President Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan
But don’t be fooled into thinking that what happened on Wednesday was not a massive moment for the race.
Consider the margin of victory. The most frequent comparison for the Obama-Romney debate was that of John Kerry’s win over George W. Bush in the first debate of 2004. Certainly Bush did himself no favors by looking annoyed with his opponent and by muffing several answers.
Since the conventional wisdom holds that this election is a replay of the narrow contest of 2004, with Romney filling the role of doomed Massachusetts politician destined to come just short of victory against an embattled incumbent, the Kerry v. Bush comparison is like catnip on the Obama press plane.
But does it fit?
When CNN polled debate viewers about who won the 2004 match up, 53 percent said Kerry had won, while 37 percent said Bush won, the remaining 10 percent call it a tie – it was a decisive win that helped Kerry erase what had been a steady lead for Bush heading into the home stretch. It was the magic moment for the challenger who seemed headed for a big defeat.
How did Romney score by comparison? CNN’s post debate poll this time found 67 percent believed Romney won compared to 25 percent for Obama, with 8 percent calling it a draw. Based on debate scores alone, the “cursed” Bush of 2004 looks like Daniel Webster compared to Obama.
What about eyeballs? More than 62 million viewers watched Kerry and Bush duke it out eight years ago. For Romney and Obama, it was more than 67 million, plus millions more watching online.
The Romney Obama contest was the most watched first debate since 1980, when an estimated 80 million viewers watched the only contest between President Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. This year’s mile-high smackdown was the most watched of any debate since the second contest of 1992.
And it’s that debate that may prove the most instructive for this year. That was the first-ever town-hall contest, pitting struggling incumbent George H.W. Bush against challengers Bill Clinton and Ross Perot.
That was the debate in which Bush, already tagged as out-of-touch, kept checking his watch as if to say “Are we done here? I have a government to run.” Obama’s grimacing, downcast look said very much the same thing, as did his dismissive tone toward the challenger. Voters didn’t think Bush the elder had earned a second term and wanted to see him work for it. The same is true for Obama.
You will see lots of stories suggesting that today’s jobs report will put Obama back on track. But Bush the elder actually had an improving economy in 1992, measurably better than the one Obama is lugging this time.
While media slant will help Obama make lemons out of lemonade at every moment possible, it isn’t enough to roll back what happened on Wednesday when Mitt Romney all at once became a plausible alternative.
With voters hungry for change in Washington, that’s a perilous thing for Obama.