Following the first national debate between President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney on Wednesday night, progressive journalists and commentators weighed in with their reactions.
In addition to conceding the poverty of Obama's performance, most progressives also lamented the narrow scope and poor moderation of the debate by PBS' Jim Lehrer.
In the end, however, as Charles Ferguson argues, it is the topics both candidates agree not to talk about and questions moderators like Lehrer refuse to ask which tell us most about how terribly uninformative modern presidential debates really are.
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Charles Ferguson, director of the documentary Inside Job, 'America's duopoly of money in politics and manipulation of public opinion'; The Guardian:
Neither of [the candidates said] a serious word about the causes of the financial crisis; the lack of prosecution of banks and bankers; sharply rising inequality in educational opportunity, income and wealth; energy policy and global warming; America's competitive lag in broadband infrastructure; the impact of industrialized food on healthcare costs; the last decade's budget deficits and the resultant national debt; or the large-scale, permanent elimination of millions of less-skilled jobs through both globalization and advances in robotics and artificial intelligence.
In a time of pervasive economic insecurity, with declining incomes and high unemployment, four years after a horrific financial crisis, how can all of these questions be successfully ignored by both candidates?
As it turns out, their behavior is entirely rational, though for disconcerting reasons. The answer lies in the combined effect of three related forces: America's deepening economic problems; the role now played by money in politics; and the emotions of a scared, increasingly cynical, economically insecure electorate.
Amy Davidson, 'Seven Chances Obama Missed'; The New Yorker:
President Obama did badly in his first debate—by his standards, by those of his supporters, and in comparison to Mitt Romney. As Ann Romney said recently, this is hard; it’s easy to criticize from home. (Jim Lehrer, the moderator, who all but announced at the end that he’d lost control, might borrow that line.) But the loss is especially striking when one considers the openings Romney gave him, both before and during the debate.
Karen Dolan,'The Biggest Losers: Big Bird and the American People'; Institute for Policy Studies:
Lehrer proceeded to let the candidates run roughshod over him, then lost us all when he said "we've lost a pod" as he reprimanded the candidates for taking too long. In an evening devoted to domestic issues, none of the three men ever mentioned women's rights, civil rights, immigration, poverty, climate change, or any other environmental issue.
Most importantly, nobody dared to breathe the truth, lest it actually get out -- America Is Not Broke.
That's right, the debate was an exercise in ridiculousness that produced no insight, no plan, no inspiration, no leadership, no truth. We are rich. We have enough money to put nutritious food on the tables of the one in five U.S. kids who are hungry and undernourished. We have enough money to help the laid-off moms and dads make ends meet until they get another job.
We have enough money to keep grandma, sister, and even every child ("future people," as I believe Romney put it) taken care of through their hard-earned benefits of Social Security and Medicare. We have enough money to help the down-and-out in times of sickness and emergency through Medicaid and help low-income families through refundable tax credits and the last shreds of welfare available to some.
We do. We're a rich country. We're not broke. Not only are we not in an economic position, recovering from the Wall Street-induced Great Recession to be able to tolerate the austerity trumpeted by Romney and half-conceded to by Obama, but we don't need to resort to it.
Richard Kim, 'Jim Lehrer Gets Pwned'; The Nation:
I’ll leave it to the horserace pundits to decide who won tonight’s debate and to the voters to decide who will win the election. I know who lost: Jim Lehrer, PBS, old media and the myth of the “sensible center.” Tonight’s moderator, Jim Lehrer, got utterly, totally, savagely pwned. The Lehrer/PBS school of moderation is fundamentally unequipped to deal with the era of post-truth, asymmetric polarization politics—and it should be retired. Time and time again, Romney deviated from the positions he took to win the GOP primary, and neither Lehrer nor Obama was able to effectively press him on it. Obama at least tried, at times.
The gulf between political reality and mainstream media mores has never seemed so wide and unbridgeable. Frankly, I came away with one new opinion, and that was to agree with Mitt Romney that PBS should go. (Big Bird, I’ll rethink this in the AM.)
But beyond the numbing boredom and bewilderment that tonight’s debate format and moderation caused, there are real costs. Not necessarily to the candidates—the media has called the debate for Romney, but I don’t think it will move the needle enough for Romney to win—but to democracy.
Gary Young, 'Romney edges a presidential debate light on zingers'; The Guardian:
Barack Obama [...] appeared nervous, distracted and unprepared. After four years in the Oval Office, he'd lost his voice. Gone was the charisma, the optimism and the eloquence. Defensive, halting and verbose – he looked tired and that made his presidency look tired. Both campaigns set low expectations, but only Obama met them. If you were watching without knowing who was the president, you wouldn't have guessed it was him.
Poorly moderated and often wonkish, the debate frequently got swamped in the kind of detail that few could follow and with charges and counter-charges that few could immediately verify.
Robert Kuttner, 'First Round to Romney'; The American Prospect:
Romney’s strategy, as it has been throughout the campaign, was to lie, and for the most part Obama failed to call him on it. Romney essentially disavowed the tax and budget plan he has been running on for eighteen months, claiming that it was possible to cut tax rates and make up the difference by closing loopholes. Obama correctly pointed out that the arithmetic didn’t work. But Obama failed to challenge Romney to identify just which loopholes he would close.
On Social Security and Medicare, Romney gave Obama another opening that the president failed to maximize. Romney said that nobody at or near retirement age needed to fear any changes. The obvious implication is Social Security and Medicare cuts for younger people. Obama had a nice one-liner—"If you are 54 or 55, you might want to pay attention."—but he failed to drive the point home.
On Dodd-Frank, Romney told one whopper after another. He claimed that the law protects banks that are “too big to fail.” What Dodd-Frank actually does it to authorize, for the first time, how to shut down such banks.
For the most part, Obama was operating on Republican territory—he admitted that his health plan was a copy of Romney’s; he was for tax cuts, too; for small business, too; for budget balance, too.
To hear Romney, he would preserve America’s social safety net, not cut taxes on the rich, and make sure that Medicare was preserved for America’s seniors. All this flies in the face of what the Romney campaign claimed for 18 months, but for the most part Obama let Romney off the hook.
Robert Reich,'The First Presidential Debate'; RobertReich.org:
In Wednesday night’s debate, Romney won on style while Obama won on substance. Romney sounded as if he had conviction, which means he’s either convinced himself that the lies he tells are true or he’s a fabulous actor.
But what struck me most was how much Obama allowed Romney to get away with: Five times Romney accused Obama of raiding Medicare of $716 billion, which is a complete fabrication. Obama never mentioned the regressiveness of Romney’s budget plan — awarding the rich and hurting the middle class and the poor. He never mentioned Bain Capital, or Romney’s 47 percent talk, or Romney’s “carried-interest” tax loophole. Obama allowed Romney to talk about replacing Dodd-Frank and the Affordable Care Act without demanding that Romney be specific about what he’d replace and why. And so on.
David Corn,'"We Have a Horse Race Again"'; Mother Jones:
Throughout the campaign, Obama has tried to depict the election as a choice between two visions of how the nation should move forward. At the start of the debate, he pitted his "economic patriotism"—in which the country together invests in education, innovation, and infrastructure to ensure a solid economy in the years ahead—against what he called Romney's "top-down" economic policies that are premised on the belief that if taxes are cut for the rich and regulations are lifted on corporations, the economy will rev up. But he never seemed to place Romney on the defensive on this mega-theme. On other occasions, Obama has presented this case much more effectively.
Turning Obama's choice message on its head, Romney basically agreed, Yes, there are two choices: what you got now, or what I'll give you. And promises are easier to sell than actualities—particularly when they are not bound by facts.
At the start of the campaign, the conventional wisdom was that Obama could have a difficult time winning reelection, given the lousy economy and polls indicating widespread public unease. Yet Romney's liabilities ensured a competitive race. This first debate showed how challenging the fundamental dynamics are for Obama.
With the president failing to bring his A-game to Denver—and neither he nor moderator Jim Lehrer referred to Romney's 47 percent rant—Romney took full advantage of the occasion. But given there are so few undecided voters at this point, Romney's strong performance in a debate that didn't generate much news or memorable exchanges may not move the needle much. (How many undecideds watched this wonkish debate?) But now that the pundits are once happily declaring, "We have a horse race again," the Obama crew will have to make sure the president sharpens his case. In a way, he's always had the tougher sell. This first debate was a painful reminder of that.
Joan Walsh, 'Those old Obama debate blues'; Salon.com:
A subdued, deferential, over-prepared President Obama ceded the first debate to Mitt Romney on style and substance. Democrats had to look at historical evidence that debates don’t change election outcomes for comfort Wednesday tonight.
Romney shook his Etch-a-Sketch and lied his way through the entire debate with no challenge from moderator Jim Lehrer. He simply denied he has proposed a $5 trillion tax cut. He insisted he wouldn’t cut the education budget or Pell Grants, when he will. He claimed the Affordable Care Act raised taxes by a trillion dollars. He essentially revived the idea of death panels by saying Obamacare established “a board that will tell people what kind of treatment they’re going to get.” Yet the president didn’t call him on any of it.
In fact, Obama let Romney off the hook on a range of toxic topics, from Social Security to the tax deductions he’d eliminate to make his tax-cut plan “revenue neutral.” Some omissions seem like political malpractice. The president had many opportunities to ask Romney exactly what loopholes he’d close and which deductions he’d eliminate – child tax credit? Mortgage interest deduction? Charitable deductions? – and help Romney commit political suicide. But he never did; he went straight to the wonky idea that there are not enough loopholes to close or deductions to balance his tax cuts for the rich. He had the chance to ask Romney for his deduction-elimination plans directly, even if only rhetorically, even if Lehrer didn’t follow up. But Obama never did.
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