Last weekend I was a guest panelist on the Melissa Harris-Perry show on MSNBC and the host came up with a really fascinating set of questions for the first segment. She noted that in a campaign season where no one can agree on anything, where everything from the polls to labor statistics to tax returns (and of course birth certificates) are fought over is there ever a point where real “truth” can reign supreme in the campaign. I pointed out that the debates are the latest example of this phenomenon where many networks are more interested in #facechecking than #factchecking the candidates. Pundits blather over body language and facial expressions more than whether or not one candidate told the truth or not. What’s worse, with ‘dial technology’ and insta-polls right after the debates viewers barely get a chance to decide on their own who they thing “won” (a problematic term in and of itself) before “conventional wisdom” bombards them with how the debate should be interpreted. This is why tonight’s debate won’t be won by Barack Obama, and why ultimately it may or may not matter in the general election.
I am in the minority on the first debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. I don’t think Obama did poorly at all, he simply didn’t do as well as Mitt Romney. Romney was aggressive, as a good challenger should be, and Obama was not aggressive, as an incumbent, even a weak one, should be. If you read a transcript of the first debate the candidates both equipped themselves well with Romney getting in a few more jabs, but Obama wasn’t steamrolled. However, that was not the story, the story was how people “THOUGHT” the candidates did, based on theatre, and moreover, the post – debate polls which became more of a story than what was discussed for 90 minutes (that and whether or not Jim Leherer was actually alive during the debate.) Fortunately the real world has a way of making political prognosticators look foolish. In the two weeks since the first debate, new jobs numbers, new revelations about Libya, the Vice presidential debate and a slew of polls first showing Romney with a national lead, then less of one, and now back to an Obama lead have returned this race to a stable if potentially malleable place. So where does all of that leave us for debate # 2. A few key points.
1. Obama can’t Win the Debate: Last weekend I watched Obama’s town hall debate with John McCain. He was much more succinct than the Obama we saw in the first debate of 2012 and a lot less gray too. He was declared the winner of that debate in large part because McCain spent more time attacking Obama than making a case for his own presidency. But in this new era of “truthiness” I don’t see how Obama can “win” this debate unless Mitt Romney performs horribly or gets caught saying something terrible. Mitt won’t screw up that badly which means that Obama will do well (he’s successfully lowered standards such that almost any performance will be seen as an improvement) but he cannot ‘win’ without Romney’s help. That help won’t be coming. A perceived “tie” is a victory for Obama. Likewise Romney can’t win either, but he can maintain his momentum.
3. Watch Out for the Following Two Questions: There really aren’t any undecided voters in the 2012 election but you do have some non-strong partisans who will ask tough questions. There are two big ones that both candidates have got to be prepared for. The successful answering of these questions will basically decide who is deemed as the “winner” (only for those results be fought over for the next 3 days). Somebody (probably a woman) is going to ask Romney a tough question about the 47% statement. He’s never really dug himself out of that hole, and it is the one lingering thing about him that makes voters wary of a Romney presidency. Romney doesn’t really HAVE a believable answer either, having flipped from doubling down on the statement to then saying it was out of context then a mistake. Either way he spins it, he’s got to have an answer that is legitimate in the face of a real voter or he’s sunk. Obama will face the disappointment question (probably from a minority). Where someone will point out the litany of promises and changes they thought he’d magically enact, and ask why they haven’t happened. Obama can probably answer this question easily but the key will be can he be sincere in his answer without blaming Republicans, which is not what anyone will want to hear.
While these elements will likely determine press coverage of the debate, the awful truth is that it won’t matter. The debate about debates will be skewed by partisan hacks and agenda driven writers, rather than an assessment of what really happened in the campaign or the debates. So, while we will all tune in with baited breath, let’s remember that for most Americans, their minds will be made up by the slips of news they hear a day later, rather than what they see tonight in Hofstra for 90 minutes.
This article originally appeared online at Politic365.com.