President Obama wins debate, but victory might not mean much
By By David Zurawik
The Baltimore Sun|
Oct 23, 2012 | 7:53 AM
President Obama won the third and final presidential debate Monday night, there is no doubt about that.
In a debate about foreign policy, the man who made the call to kill Osama bin Laden looked and sounded, firm, decisive and focused. He could have done with a little less glaring at his opponent, but seeming to be on the edge of anger is better than seeming too agreeable when one of the big topics of the night is bad people in the world who would do horrible things to America if given half a chance.
Mitt Romney, on the other hand, was Mr. Agreeable. I am sure some of the hardcore members of his base were wondering how their guy suddenly came to agree with Obama on so many matters of foreign policy.
Coming across as agreeable isn't a bad thing on TV, especially when you are afraid mainstream American voters might confuse you with dangerous and blustering chicken hawks like Dick Cheney if you seem too bellicose. And Obama clearly wanted to tar Romney with that brush repeatedly using the term "wrong and reckless" to describe Romney's policy proposals.
But the problem with being as even-handed and agreeable as Romney tried to appear Monday night is that to radiate that vibe on TV you have to ratchet down your energy level and pull in any sharp elbows. And when you do that, you are raw meat for someone who isn't reining it in one little bit -- someone like Obama who was high energy -- sitting on the edge of his seat waiting for an opening like the one Romney gave him when he said our Navy had the fewest ships since the eve of World War I.
Obama almost came out of his seat saying warfare has changed and we are not supplying our military with horses and bayonets the way we used to either.
Not only was it the kind of fast hard right jab to the nose that breaks skin, it drew blood in painting Romney as a old-timey, out-of-date candidate who is still living in the Cold War Era -- and Obama's not talking Ronald Reagan's 1980s, he means Richard Nixon's 1950s. In fact, in another answer that sounded super-scripted, Obama referenced some of the past decades he thought Romney was getting his policy ideas from.
In that sense, Obama beat Romney up pretty good for a clear victory on points Monday. Many viewers might not have followed all the ins and outs of the discussions on Iran, Pakistan and Libya, but they get the sarcasm of horses and bayonets. In fact, bayonets will probably be trending Tuesday morning like Big Bird and binders did in social media the previous two debates.
But in the larger game, I am not so sure this victory is going to mean much for Obama.
First of all, based on preliminary figures for social media engagement, the audience was down from those first two presidential debates -- especially the first one when some 67 million viewers saw Obama looking lost.
Monday's debate generated 6.8 million comments in social media, compared with 12.2 for last week's debate and 11.2 for the first debate. The 6.8 is only preliminary and the final number won't be available until Tuesday from Bluefin Labs, the pioneering firm in social media measurement.
Monday's debate had three obstacles it had to overcome to match the huge 60-million-plus audiences of the first two debates: an NLCS game seven on Fox, Monday Night Football on ESPN, and a debate that was supposed to be all about foreign policy (a topic news research shows to be a turnoff for viewers). I say supposed to be, because both Romney and Obama kept trying to talk domestic policy and the economy as much as moderator Bob Schieffer would let them.
The other reason I think Monday's victory might not mean much to Obama long term is that he didn't take Romney out. The GOP challenger stayed in the ring with him even if he got a little bloody.
And by being so agreeable, Romney never seemed like the reckless character Obama tried to conjure up by using the phrase "wrong and reckless" over and over. And one of the challenger's biggest tasks in any TV debate is to behave in such a way that viewers can conceive of him as being president. Romney did accomplish that.
Since moderators have become such a contentious issue in these debates, mention must be made of Bob Schieffer. He was about as good as you can imagine a moderator ever being in such a high-stakes showdown with the highest office in the land on the line.
Yes, he might have let the two go domestic too often and too long in some stretches, but the argument can be made that you can't talk about the military without talking about the budget. And Schieffer always successfully brought them back to foreign policy with a steady hand.
And he did not play referee the way Candy Crowley did last week when the two debated the veracity of one another's statements. I think he was right in doing so, because the truth is rarely a clean call in the kinds of arguments these two have been having in the debates. Schieffer is one of the most remarkable figures in the history of TV news -- and I mean that only in a good way.
In the end, Monday night's debate will be seen as a letdown by many, because it did not appear to do much to resolve the deadlock the two are said to be in by many polls.
Nothing big and dramatic happened anyway -- unless you think it matters that the president of the United States finally started acting like he gives a darn about the trouble this nation is in during the last two TV debates.