Who Won the Debate Yesterday: The Different Visions of Obama and Romney We Failed to See


For an election season which has been characterized by hyper-partisan rhetoric, in the first presidential debate on Wednesday President Barack Obama was oddly quick to assert how much he agreed with his Republican opponent Mitt Romney. Romney attempted to use Obama’s usual rhetoric against him, coining new terms like “trickle down government” and “the economy tax.”  While the choice to subtly (and sometimes overtly) emphasize similarities — in their plans and policies, in their assessment of the importance and severity of the problems we face, and, most of all, in their commitment to bipartisanship — may have been a calculated move on the part of both candidates, it seems to have been to Obama's detriment.

In highlighting the ways in which he and Mitt Romney agreed, and failing to effectively convey  their differences in terms of policies by combatting Romney's facts and figures with his own, Obama allowed Romney to set the tone for the debate. Romney used language that sounded like it should have come from Obama’s own mouth, blurring the lines between the candidates and further muddying the truth in an election characterized both by misinformation and by mass disbelief of any information.

Obama started off the debate by telling voters that it is ultimately up to us what path America takes, asking, “Are we going to double down on the top-down economic policies that helped to get us into this mess, or do we embrace a new economic patriotism that says, America does best when the middle class does best?”

The president went on to explain that he and Mitt Romney agree on the fundamental issues facing America, issues like corporate tax rates being too high, or boosting American energy production, or caring about and investing in education, or encouraging and developing small business. Unsurprisingly, Romney agreed. After establishing their similarities, Obama and Romney attempted to highlight where their differences lie: namely, in their policies.

Obama's strongest point of the night was that Romney has not made clear what his proposed policy alternatives would be across a wide variety of issues.

“[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?” asked Obama. “Is it because that somehow, middle class families are going to benefit too much?”

But beyond attacking Romney for failing to provide the details of his plans — and charging him with changing his mind five weeks before the election — Obama’s subdued manner and the subtleties of his arguments against Romney (which some pundits called "wonkish") led to an overall impression that the candidates were not that different. Speaking about Social Security, Obama even said outright that the candidates had very similar positions. When coupled with Romney’s re-purposing of liberal rhetorical tools and terminology, Obama's long, rambly policy descriptions left something to be desired.

According to Obama’s deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter, CNN reports, Obama was aiming to “have a conversation with voters” although Mitt Romney won “the preparation and the style points.” What kind of conversation Obama intended to have remains unclear to me, as he neglected to provide the snappy figures and statistics which Mitt Romney proffered in abundance, and further failed to address Romney’s charges that the president, like Romney’s own sons, was straight-up lying.

“Mr. President, as president you’re entitled to your own airplane and your own house, but you’re not entitled to your own facts,” chastised Romney. He further claimed to have read studies about Obama’as policies which proved they were not working. (A little much, coming from the candidate whose campaign strategists have stated that they will not be governed by fact-checkers.)

In characteristic tech-savvy form, less than an hour after the Obama campaign had already fact-checked the debate via Facebook, but it may already be too late. 

To be fair, debating over truth and fact and asserting that your opponent is lying is common in political debates — in fact, it’s half of campaigning. But it was unnerving and atypical to only see Obama harp on facts, statistics, studies and numbers after the fact (so to speak), and not in the debate itself.

Another odd new similarity which emerged between the candidates during the debate was Romney’s insistence that bipartisanship is crucial to get anywhere in Washington.

“I had the great experience of being elected in a state where my legislature was 87% Democrat. And that meant I figured out that from day one, I had to get along, and I had to work across the aisle to get anything done,” explained Romney. “As president I would sit down on day one — actually, the day after I get elected — I would sit down with Democratic leaders as well as Republican leaders … we have to work on a collaborative basis, not because we’re going to compromise our principles, but because there’s common ground.”

“Republicans and Democrats both love America, but we need to have leadership, leadership in Washington that will actually bring people together and get the job done, and could not care less if it’s a Democrat or a Republican. I’ve done it before, and I will do it again.”

Sound familiar? It should. In his 2008 campaign, Barack Obama was all about bringing people together regardless of party lines, and the president’s 2009 inaugural address drew upon the same premise.

“On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics … What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long, no longer apply.”

As a friend asked me over g-chat, “Is Romney trying to be the blue Obama?”

I doubt either candidate, if elected, will truly walk the walk of bipartisanship (Obama has already been critiqued for failing to live up to his own ideals.) What's interesting is that so far, Romney has not been campaigning on a platform of bipartisanship. He's spoken a lot about America, but it's an America of businesses and faith and communities and individuals, not an America of political parties — unelss the parties are protecting those businesses, faiths, communities, and individuals.

The closest he has gotten to bipartisanship has been generic rhetoric about national unity. But even when speaking of those who died for the country’s sake at the RNC, Romney was careful to point out “There is no mention of their race, their party affiliation, or what they did for a living. They lived and died under a single flag, fighting for a single purpose. They pledged allegiance to the UNITED States of America.”

And as Obama himself pointed out in the debates, “"[When] comes to his own party during the course of this campaign, has not displayed that willingness to say no to some of the more extreme parts of his party.”

Due to a strange blend of recycled rhetoric and appeals to commonality and bipartisanship, the important policy differences between the presidential candidates did not shine through in the first presidential debate. Even Jim Lehrer  appeared to be having a hard time keeping track.