Thursday, October 4, 2012

Obama-Romney I: The president’s stealth TKO

IT WAS 38 years ago this month that two fighters were locked in combat in a distant arena. During the contest, and from all outward appearances, one of them seemed to be pummeling the other with such energy and force, it was a given among those who watched the struggle: The aggressor was the odds-on favorite to be the winner.

You can bet your subprime that’s how George Foreman wished things had played out in October 1974, in Kinshasa, Zaire, at the Rumble in the Jungle.

History is current events: If all you were looking for in last night’s first presidential debate of the 2012 campaign season was a count of punches landed vs. punches thrown, you’re probably one of the early adopters of the idea that it was a victory for Romney. Once the fact checkers weigh in, you’re likely to be in for disappointment; the former Massachusetts governor shook the Etch a Sketch more than a few times last night, in ways that couldn’t be more transparent.

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But beyond that, despite the first-blush anointing of Romney as the winner, a look at last night against the backdrop of Obama’s previous bouts on the debate stage reveals something else again. Now, like before (in the 2008 derby), Obama displayed an uncanny ability to go internal, to get quiet when the prevailing wisdom screamed for volume and presence. To feel his opponent out. To let his opponent punch himself out. And Romney happily obliged.

In ways that the chattering class can’t even understand right now, Romney’s performance last night redounds hugely to the president’s favor. In ways no one is talking about yet, Mitt Romney may have performed the last aria in a disastrous political campaign opera by doubling down — or quintupling down — on his proven willingness to say anything to anyone at any given time, even when what he says is directly, immediately contradicted by the public record.

Last night, Mitt Romney may have finally defeated Mitt Romney.

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YOU DON’T need a revisitation of the whole 90-minute debate to get this; excerpts will do nicely. Go back and read the transcript or watch their exchanges on health care. Note how the president effectively schools Romney about the absence of Republican support for the Affordable Care Act, (law since March 2010, now & forever shorthanded as Obamacare) and the changes Romney would make in crafting a new health-care law if he wins.

“Governor Romney said this has to be done on a bipartisan basis,” President Obama said. “This was a bipartisan idea. In fact, it was a Republican idea.

“And Governor Romney ... wrote and said, what we did in Massachusetts could be a model for the nation. And I agree that the Democratic legislators in Massachusetts might have given some advice to Republicans in Congress about how to cooperate, but the fact of the matter is, we used the same advisers, and they say it's the same plan.”

Mitt Romney then betrayed himself with a revealing tic, an inadvertent physiological announcement of his true mental state at that moment: As he’s done before when he knows he’s in trouble, he licked his lips and swallowed. Quite visibly. The mask slipped. Like the bead of sweat on Richard Nixon’s chin in 1960, like Bush 41’s glance at his watch in 1992, that Romney tell spoke volumes, revealed in an instant where Romney’s permanently wounded. On health care, the former governor’s got no play. And he knows it. And the president knows it. And we know it too.

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Obama continued: “Governor Romney says we should replace it: ‘I'm just going to repeal it, but we can replace it with something.’ But the problem is, he hasn't described what exactly we'd replace it with, other than saying we're going to leave it to the states.

“But the fact of the matter is that some of the prescriptions that he's offered, like letting you buy insurance across state lines, there's no indication that that somehow is going to help somebody who's got a pre-existing condition be able to finally buy insurance. In fact, it's estimated that by repealing Obamacare, you're looking at 50 million people losing health insurance at a time when it's vitally important.”

Romney responds: “Let — well, actually, actually it's, it's, it's a lengthy description, but number one, pre-existing conditions are covered under my plan. Number two, young people are able to stay on their family plan. That's already offered in the private marketplace; you don't have, have the government mandate that for that to occur.

“But let's come back to something the president — I agree on, which is the, the key task we have in health care is to get the costs down so it's more affordable for families, and, and then he has as a model for doing that a board of people at the government, an unelected board, appointed board, who are going to decide what kind of treatment you ought to have.”

This — this jittery, defensive stammering response, this narrative of inconsistencies — is what the pundits think was a winner in a presidential debate?

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THE PRESIDENT pressed his advantage, connecting dots between one Romney position and another: “When Governor Romney says that he'll replace it with something but can't detail how it will be, in fact, replaced … the reason he set up the system he did in Massachusetts is because there isn't a better way of dealing with the pre-existing conditions problem. It, it just reminds me of, you know, he says that he's going to close deductions and loopholes for his tax plan. That's how it's going to be paid for. But we don't know the details.

“He says that he's going to replace Dodd-Frank, Wall Street reform. But we don't know exactly which ones. He won't tell us.

“He now says he's going to replace Obamacare and assure that all the good things that are in it are going to be in there and you don't have to worry.

“And at some point, I think the American people have to ask themselves, is the reason that Governor Romney is keeping all these plans to replace secret because they're too good? Is, is it because that somehow middle-class families are going to benefit too much from them?

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The acuity and sharpness of this response, and others, seem to have been lost on the mainstream media, whose collective immediate reactions hinged on the president’s physical attributes. Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC’s “Hardball,” came out swinging, viewing things through the classic lens of Kennedy-Nixon 1960: “Obama kept his head down like he was writing notes — for what, a future debate?”

Well, frankly, yes. Having the good sense to know he’d have to debate Romney again this month (twice), Obama was taking notes, not notes based on what advisers had told him or what columnists and pundits suggested, but what he was in the act of observing himself, in real time, on the debate stage.

It made for brilliant optics, maybe accidental, maybe not: Watching the frequent cutaways between Romney and Obama, it was almost as if Romney was on the couch, unburdening himself to the president with the rising physical animation of a patient in the midst of a self-revelation.

Obama let Romney be Romney. And Romney revealed himself to be what he’s always been in this campaign: a Zelig, a chameleon, a windsock in a hurricane, a man who will be whatever he needs to be at any given moment.

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ROMNEY HAS said previously in the campaign that his proposed $5 trillion tax cut — reducing individual income tax rates across the board by 20 percent — would be paid for by closing loopholes on tax deductions. Last night, however, he reversed himself, lied about his own proposal.

“If the tax plan he described were a tax plan I was asked to support, I'd say, 'Absolutely not,’ ” Romney said. “I'm not asking for a $5 trillion tax cut. What I've said is I won't put in place a tax cut that adds to the deficit. ... I've got five boys. I'm used to people saying something that's not always true, but just keep on repeating it and ultimately hoping I'll believe it.”

Obama had something to say about that. “Now ... he is saying that his big bold idea is ‘never mind.’ Obama said. “The fact is, if you are lowering the rates the way you describe, governor, it is not possible to come up with enough deductions or loopholes. It is math. It is arithmetic.”

Note that almost subliminal swipe at Romney, that momentary channeling of Bill Clinton, who devastatingly used the word “arithmetic” on Obama’s behalf at the Democratic convention.

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Last month, Romney said that Americans shouldn’t “be expecting a huge cut in taxes because I’m also going to lower deductions and exemptions.” Last night, Romney said “[m]y view is that we ought to provide tax relief to people in the middle class.”

Romney called for the repeal of Obamacare last night (“I’ll get rid of that”), but offered an argument that was little better than making a change for the sake of making a change, and buying into the reflexive, presumably populist assumption that there’s nothing government can do that private industry can’t do better.

This, mind you, at the same time he said he found things to like in the Affordable Care Act: Last night he said he supports one of the ACA’s tenets: requiring insurers to cover people with pre-existing conditions — a statement of support that calls into question what he’d do differently.

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FLASH POLLS conveyed the first-blush mob-howl sentiment that Romney had won the first debate. Much of the mainstream media’s instant analysis was big on the “instant” part. “Analysis”? Meh.

MSNBC’s Matthews was king of the vein-poppin’ daddies last night. Screaming for rhetorical fireworks, he clearly wanted a knockdown, drag-out event at the Magness Arena. “I don't know what he was doing out there!” he fulminated. “Where was Obama tonight?!”

Matthews had company. Ed Schultz, who hosts “The Ed Show” on MSNBC, also had a taste for blood, saying that Obama should have gone “for the jugular.”

Regrettably, oratorical brawlers like Matthews and Schultz missed the overall. They confused Obama’s unwillingness to get down and dirty in the mud (the classic warrior debate, relentlessly on offense) with the president’s intention to fight — on his terms. They howled for confrontation and challenge when a smarter strategy was called for.

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Think about it. Obama and Romney had never debated before. What would Obama have gained by wading into his opponent, telegraphing punches, charging into battle before he knew the terrain?

Matthews and Schultz were looking for dueling campaign rallies wrapped in a debate format. Obama understands what they don’t, he understands what columnist (and Matthews intellectual darling) Andrew Sullivan understands: For Obama, this is “the long game.”

“What liberals have never understood about Obama is that he practices a show-don’t-tell, long-game form of domestic politics. What matters to him is what he can get done, not what he can immediately take credit for,” Sullivan wrote in Newsweek, back in January. “ ... I realized that to understand Obama, you have to take the long view. Because he does.”

Matthews and Schultz seem to think that Romney “got away” with something last night, because Obama didn’t make like a prosecutorial pit bull and snarl with every opportunity. Romney got away with nothing; the fact checkers (at MSNBC and elsewhere) will see to that.

Obama brought a scalpel to a knife fight last night. Guess what? In the right hands, a scalpel can do the same damage, and maybe more. And a scalpel’s easier to hide.

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THERE WERE times when the president did seem to be off his feed. Romney tried to pick a fight with Obama over $90 billion in alternative energy subsidies; the president’s body betrays its own truth; he tenses visibly; you can see the tension on the left back side of his jawline. The president seemed preoccupied at times. There was much on his mind in general … and anyway, it was his 20th wedding anniversary. Who’d want to spend that special day facing down some rich schmo with the charm of a trash compactor?

The TV analysts made a big deal out of Obama not looking Romney in the eye (something the president did do almost evasively, when he did it at all).

But nobody last night seemed to notice where else Obama was looking: On more than one occasion, Obama didn’t waste time looking at either Romney or moderator Jim Lehrer when he had a point to make. Instead, brilliantly, Obama broke the fourth wall, looking straight into the camera — making a play for, making an appeal to the wider audience of the American people.

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Everyone thought Mitt Romney did a great job last night, but what did he do a great job doing? Testily going on offense from a defensive crouch; proposing to do what the Obama administration has already done; and furthering the distortions and Etch a Sketch rewrites that have defined his campaign from the beginning — and doing it in front of an audience of at least 50 million people. Not a bad night’s work.

With his back not just against the wall but pushing through it, Romney did throw a lot of punches last night, and Obama gave as good as he got. But looking through the lens of the long game, President Obama actually won the first debate, on points. It was a stealth TKO: the president revealed the weaknesses of his opponent with minimal exertion.

And he did it in the most elegant, ruthlessly efficient way you can imagine: by letting his opponent do it to himself.

Sun Tzu would be proud. The fact checkers will be busy.

Image credits: Obama-Romney two-shot, top: via Obama-Romney two-shot, bottom: MSNBC. Romney: Pool feed. The Art of War cover: © 2005 Shambhala Publications.


  1. Right on Michael Ross!! Thank you for pointing out the obvious that most of us didn't see. Obama is a Master and will win the "war" in the end.I just hope he survives to finish what he started.

    1. Many thanks. Now it's gettin' interesting ...

  2. wow,Michael Ross you hit it out of the ball park,Our president Obama is a master,he let romney swim in his own lies. I don't think romney knows how to tell the truth,but I am glad he spouted his lies in front of 50 million people.

    1. "he let romney swim in his own lies." LMAO. That's great, A. Thanks for reading!

  3. thanks for a very insightful analysis of the debate between Obama & Romney. I had an intuitive feeling while watching the debate that president Obama was in his game plan mode, by letting Romney expose himself with all his lies, distortions, petulant, aggressive, & full of privileged attitude, that he displayed for all to see. To my eye's he looked down right craven, full of deceit & tricks ! They say "like attracts like"; & for those on the "Right" this is the Romney they have been waiting for.

    I heard the break down of Obama's body language by so called 'experts". They said he keep smiling & nodding to all the charges that Romney was leveling at Obama like, he was agreeing with Romney. I said to myself they don't know "Black body language" very well. For if they did they would know his nodding & smiling that he was calculating his next move for a future debate.Like you have indicated, Obama is a long haul strategist, losing the battle doe's not mean you have lost the WAR !

    1. Hey, thanks for reaching out. I especially liked your take on black body language -- you got it dead on. It's really true; on debate night, Obama went inside, called on his inner resources to deal with the buffoon in front of him. The experts on body language don't understand everything, and none of em's read The Art of War. I guarantee you, Obama has. Stay tuned for round two!

      Thanks again for reading.


  4. I do believe the president was somewhat shocked by the onslaught of groundless obscenities that flowed from Romney's lips; however his facial expressions showed an inward chuckle going on. Like when I chuckled when my 5 year old told me Martians had invaded his room and painted on his walls and out into the hallway. Obama is playing a poker game and Romney showed all his best cards, yet Romney chose to make it a brawl and threw all his best punches. Round two will be the education of America on substance versus nonsense as the President exposes Romney for the fair weather friend to the American Working Class. This will leave Romney in a position where he has to come out swinging again in the third round, but honestly he's Mitt the Liquidator. His business has been based on playing the margins on if they believed his lies or not. If not, he moves on to the next one. Unknown territory to Romney. He will come off as a buffoon in round three, swinging at the Obama of his imagination and exposed before Millions as another sloppy pick by GOP, 'Grumpy Old People'.

    1. Hey A --

      You got it all! Couldn't have said it better myself. He's goin' down; it's just a matter of when. Thanks for reading.


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