I’m a very excited political science geek at the moment. Right this second, I’m sitting in my very first Debate watching party. A few days ago I spotted loads of flyers around the neighbourhood, advertising the party which is being hosted by the local Democratic Club. One of the main reasons I’m here, aside from the fact that ‘here’ is my local, is that I really wanted to watch the debate surrounded by people. Part of my love of debate is the crowd reaction. My last televised debate during a general election in the UK was experienced on Labour’s doorstep. So as you might imagine, watching the debate surrounded by enthusiastic and vocal local voters is an ideal place to be.
And it seems that there is overwhelming consensus in deciding the winner and loser of this debate. Whilst the San Francisco Democrats I’m sitting with don’t want to crown Governor Romney as the debate victor, there isn’t a huge amount of praise for the debate presence or skills of the President. Opinion seems to be that he wasted an enormous opportunity in not making any reference to the 47% comment, something most viewers expected him to capitalize on.
Debates have not historically been a strong suit when it comes to Obama’s skill set. During the 2008 primaries and into the campaign, his advisors worked constantly with him at getting better. And he did improve. He became more confident, relaxed and used the debate opportunity to his advantage. The Democratic Party needed that guy to show up.
Maybe Obama was intentionally keeping his kindling dry. This was the first of three debates and focusing on the economy was never going to yield a platform that favoured Obama. The reality is that he got caught in the trap of relying too heavily on statistics and numbers which mean very little to voters. Especially when the validity of the numbers you’re using are questioned by your opponent. The discrepencies made both men look like they didn’t have a handle on the economic situation.
Despite the torpor and lack of excitement, President Obama stuck to his main theme throughout, making the case again and again that Mitt has no clear plans for how he’d replace the policies he disagrees with. It seems that going on the defensive over the economy is the only card President Obama could really have played. He is a Democratic President during a recession, high unemployment numbers and an overall weak economy. Unfortunately, in my opinion, this seemed to play into Romney’s hands.
Whether it was musing over the replacement of Dodd Frank or Obamacare, Romney advocated a state by state response, underlining the key distinction between the candidates on the role of the federal government. He had to present himself as a moderate in this debate and appear as a potentially unifying President, however we have to take into consideration that his race so far has looked to appease the increasingly conservative party base and leadership, as well as not alienating the other members of the Republican party. It’s also worth remembering that this GOP platform is more conservative than even Reagan’s.
Both candidates throughout the debate tried to position themselves as the candidate who will better improve the lives of middle class America. Both campaign teams know that securing the votes of America’s middle class families is the only way to clinch the Presidency, demographics which both parties have struggled to engage in recent times. It seems that the debate was one way of dealing with the realities of support for their respective parties and an opportunity to reach out to those voters directly. I don’t have a lot of faith that it worked.
One thing that did not impress me about the debate was the lack of strength of the moderator. With eleven presidential debates under his belt, moderator Jim Lehrer was doing what is usually done and until now, expected: letting the debate have its way. However, it seems to have hurt him this time. Both candidates appeared to disregard the time limits on answers, appearing to approach the debate in the manner of a TV chat show. The smirking and smiling from Obama and Romney really started to get on my nerves after only fifteen minutes. My debate watching partiers also agree, questioning why campaign staff thought looking smug in between questions was a good idea.
So to conclude, a fairly damp squib of a debate that got bogged down in techy wonk language, statistics, and smugness. I really wanted to be excited about watching one of the cornerstone set pieces of the American Presidency in real time, with actual voters, but I must confess to being a bit disappointed. After the first debate the main topic of conversation shouldn’t focus on the role of the moderator. No one won this debate, not Obama, not Romney and definitely not the moderator.
Hannah McFaull is a graduate student at San Francisco State University, and a former member of the Policy and Communications Team at The Howard League for Penal Reform. Additional reporting was done by Cristina Barron.