Traditionally, CyberShrink reviews the American Presidential Debates. Here's what he saw on Wednesday night.
General consensus was that Obama, moving ahead of his rival in most polls and especially in crucial states, would obviously triumph in the presidential debates. But to the astonishment of most viewers and the glee of his opponents, Obama abandoned all his skills, and looked like a tame zombie, sleep-walking through the whole thing, forgetting all his most telling and even potentially damaging points with which to challenge Romney.
He was dry, boring, and academic in the worst way; professorial and lecturing when he should have been lively and succinct. One expected him to set an exam at the end. The reason we professors tend to get long-winded is that we usually know too much about the subject, and feel the need to explain it fully. But in this sort of debate, that's entirely the wrong approach. One needs to summarise briefly and actually engage with the opponent, revealing all the flaws in his arguments.
He was long-winded, pernickety, and almost devoid of humour. He seemed surprised, almost stunned, to find himself challenged by his opponent, though that's obviously the entire point of the debate format.
Obama seemed to forget all the excellent ammunition he had, and failed to challenge Romney seriously on any of the points where he is really vulnerable. He tended to be repetitious, as though puzzled to find he was not prevailing. Romney jumped on this, pointing out that as a father of several boys, he had learned to ignore their belief that something they said became true if they repeated it often enough. As in most other examples of wit, Romney was sharper, quicker at recognising and seizing an opportunity.
There wasn't a mention of the valid concerns about Romney's work at Bain Capital, on which he used to base most of his claims of being brilliant at job creation, though there were so many opportunities to do so. Nor were there mentions of his immense wealth, use of overseas tax shelters, policy reversals, and so forth. Obama entirely let him off the hook, when there were so many hooks begging to be used.
Only occasionally did he make a smart point (like pointing out that by Romney's definitions Donald Trump counted as a small business), but it was done so meekly as not to make its point. Maybe his best point was in his closing, when he said from the start he'd admitted he wasn't a perfect man, and had promised he'd be an imperfect president, and that he felt sure Romney would at least agree with that. But it was far too little, far too late, and by that time, self-evident.
One thing Romney did which Obama seemed to find literally breathtaking, was to cheerfully abandon policies and claims he has been making emphatically for months, as though he had never heard of them. As though he hadn't been properly briefed and prepared, Obama just stared at his notes, rather than chasing up these bold and devious moves. He did a lot of this, as though avoiding making eye contact with his opponent. Occasionally, Barack would very obviously remember the real audience, and stare right into the camera, speaking directly to us. At other times, he'd flash a sudden broad and dazzling grin, though it wasn't usually clear what he was smiling about.
The empty chair
It must be said that the moderator was deplorably feeble - as a chairman, he was so like an empty chair, that one expected Clint Eastwood to walk in and start talking to him.
He seemed unfortunately semi-senile, and at no time had control of the process. Both speakers essentially ignored him, and when at one point he whined that they weren't keeping to time, Romney smirked and said: "Yes, isn't this fun !" His every intervention was pointless and boring ; a lesson in how not to run an important event. This fuddy-duddy fudded and dudded, his every utterance simply wasting time.
Romney was a surprise to almost everyone, maybe even himself. Certainly he startled Obama. Up to now, many of his characteristics had counted against him. He's so consistently been stiff, uncomfortable, robotic, awkward, out-of-touch, aloof, unspontaneous and inauthentic, prone to gaffs and generally disaster-prone.
Most of that was gone. He was relaxed, confident, smiling, fluent, in full control of the situation. When Obama occasionally remembered to challenge him, he simply ignored it. He was highly creative with some very dubious numbers and claims, but there was nobody there to draw attention to that convincingly. He managed to be assertive without being aggressive. He was obviously enjoying himself, while Obama throughout looked as though he wished he were anywhere else.
His wife introduced him with wild hyperbole, insisting that "he's been ready his entire life to fix the economy"! What a very odd and disturbing infant he must have been, tapping away at his toy calculator, with a stuffed banker under his arm.
We were told (you may find it cute or creepy) that at the start of each debate he writes "Dad" on the pad in front of him. Interestingly American presidential candidates have often been father-ridden, for well or ill, including Romney, Gore, Kennedy, Bush, and others; while some such as Reagan, Clinton, and Obama, seemed hardly to have had a father.
Tax loopholes and military spending
He remained obstinately light on details. He insists his large tax cuts, mostly benefiting the very rich, would be paid for by closing various tax loop-holes, but carefully didn't (or couldn't) name any of those he'd stop. Obama feebly repeated his accusation that Romney would add many millions of extra military spending to the budget, even more than the military was asking for - but Romney just ignored this, and Obama gave up.
He was allowed to get away with basing his claims for being able to solve all America's problems on his short term as Governor of Massachusetts, and not to even mention his far more contentious time at Bain Capital.
Years ago, I pointed out that if you're going to make a wild guess, do it in numbers, as people tend to believe them. So Romney vowed he would create "12 million jobs" (or Jarbs, as he said it ). Not a single specific on how this'd be achieved, but a very specific number.
So what happens now?
So where to now? We must assume that Obama will wake up and start taking this seriously; that he will do his homework and become appropriately assertive. We'll see what sort of bump in opinion polls Romney will get - if it's not large after this triumph, then he's in major trouble.
The Vice-Presidential debate may be good for him too, as Ryan is quick-witted and clever, while Biden, though likeable, suffers from chronic Foot-in-Mouth Disease. The further presidential debate on foreign and world affairs may be difficult for Romney, as he's achieved nothing in this field and manages to annoy many in a highly undiplomatic manner. Maybe next time Obama will look more like a President and less like a schoolboy summoned to the Headmaster's office.
(Professor M.A. Simpson, aka CyberShrink, October 2012)