Politics & Policy

Round One

I’d like to jot a few notes about the debate — a few observations, a few impressions. But first, I’d like to make some general statements — five of them.

1. As is my practice after these debates, I have read no commentary. (Neither have I listened to any.) So quickly, a consensus forms. And people want to agree with everyone else, or at least not stray too far from everyone else. You can forget what you actually thought, as you watched the debate.

2. Both men are good spokesmen for their causes — for their points of view. Obama is a good spokesman for a big-government philosophy. Romney is a good spokesman for a more classical-liberal philosophy. The difference, I think, is that Obama, come campaign time, pretends to be a centrist — some combination of Ike and Bill Clinton. Just Joe Pragmatist. And I think that’s phony.

3. A few weeks ago, I read the transcripts of the 2008 debates. I did this in order to write a piece for National Review. (Available here.) I was amazed, watching this first 2012 debate, at how much Obama repeated what he’d said four years ago. He used just the same lines.

He debated as though he hadn’t been president for four years.

4. Does everyone think the candidate he favors gets shortchanged on time? Does everyone think the other guy got more time? I thought Obama got loads more time — more time to talk. I thought Romney got way less time.

Probably all partisans feel this way. Maybe Obama partisans thought Romney got way more time. I guess a statistician, a timekeeper, will tell us.

5. Bear in mind, as I critique these debates, that I tend to be tough on my own guy — in this case, Romney, and then Ryan. I think Romney-Ryan should be leading by 20 points. I think Obama has basically no case, except for socialists and people who want America to be a nothingburger in the world.

(Just kidding.) (Sort of.)

Okay, now I’ll give my debate notes, in order — in the order in which I jotted them (rough order):

‐Why have an audience at all? No matter what you tell them, they may well applaud, snicker, sigh, etc. Why not just a studio?

‐It’s important to “win the handshake” — or at least not lose it. In 1980, President Carter didn’t think to shake his challenger’s hand, at the beginning. Reagan startled him, when he walked up to him with a handshake. (At least, that’s the way I remember it. A tape will tell the tale.)

‐I wish Romney would say, “Presidents don’t create jobs. What they ought to do is help ensure an environment that helps others create jobs.” But maybe the public wouldn’t go for it . . .

‐Good of Obama to credit the American people (for whatever success there has been). Reagan always did that. Some presidents forget.

‐I bridle at this word “invest,” for “spend.” Clinton made that a permanent part of the Democratic vocabulary, I think: He never “spent” public money; he always “invested” it — just as an individual does with his personal money.

‐So now Obama’s talking about the tax code and its screwiness? But he’s had four years!

‐Again, that funny Chicago “s” — the word “wars,” for example, is not pronounced “warz,” but “warss,” as in “Warsaw.” Interesting.

‐In his opening remarks, Obama actually seems a little nervous. I’m not used to that. I don’t recall ever seeing him nervous.

‐I wish Romney would pounce on this “NEP” — the “New Economic Patriotism.” So offensive, this label, for several reasons. (I went into that in an Impromptus on Monday.)

If a Republican labeled his own economic policies “patriotism” — holy-moly, the blood that would flow . . .

‐Romney loves — loves — lists. One, two, three, four, five — whatever. He listed constantly, during the Republican-primary debates.

‐He keeps saying “trickle-down government.” I believe I know why: because Obama said “trickle-down economics” constantly during the ’08 debates. I think Romney’s people prepared him with this counterphrase. But I don’t believe Obama uses “trickle down” in this debate — lucky for him, because Romney is definitely ready with “trickle-down government.”

A good coinage.

‐Romney’s opening statement, or first answer, or whatever it is — excellent.

‐Obama can certainly drop a “g” — “shippin’ jobs overseas.”

‐He is painting Romney as the big spender — the riskily big spender. Clever. Unbelievable, but clever.

‐Ooh, I wish Romney wouldn’t look at Obama, and lecture him, and reprove him. People will call it racist. I wish he would look directly into the camera and speak to the American people — not to Obama (even if he’d like to rattle him).

Republicans are called racist just for getting out of bed in the morning, taking a leak, and having an orange juice (or whatever the proper order is).

‐Interesting that Romney is saying Obama has raised health-care costs $2500 per family. Because I know from my reading of the ’08 transcripts that Obama promised to lower costs by that amount. That exact amount.

‐Presidents aren’t used to being talked back to. They live in a cocoon of agreement and deference. How’s Obama handling it? Well, I think. Quite well. Just rollin’.

‐So now Obama is for businesses and profits? Cripe, he sounds like some free-market evangelist. What gives? Can’t you campaign like you govern?

Are people falling for this? Many are, no doubt . . .

‐Hang on, wasn’t there a time when Obama refused to wear an American-flag lapel pin, because he thought that was phony patriotism? Now he’s got one on. I get so confused as to what the rules are, where Obama is concerned . . .

‐Obama says he’s “deeply interested in small-business growth.” I want to yell at the TV, “Barack, you can’t fool me, you’ve been president for four years, and I’ve watched you! It’s my job!”

‐Did someone forbid Romney to mention the stimulus? Did someone tell him the public liked it or something? You might as well have taken that trillion dollars, or whatever it was, and whooshed it into outer space.

‐Romney is calling Obama “Mr. President.” In 1992, Clinton refused to call 41 that, calling him “Mr. Bush” instead. Bob Dole took note of this in ’96. He said that he would call Clinton “Mr. President,” though Clinton hadn’t extended that courtesy four years before.

‐I can’t believe Obama is talking about the deficit he inherited. But he has more than doubled it! Will Romney say so? Come on!

‐Interesting, the frequency with which Obama cites Bill Clinton.

‐Just as he did in ’08, Obama paints himself as the fiercest budget-cutter around — he was practically born wearing green eyeshade, apparently.

How does he get away with it?!

‐I wish Romney would look into the camera and say, “What are you going to believe, Obama tonight or life in these United States over the last four years?”

‐Shouldn’t he quote Vice President Biden on how the middle class has been buried over the last four years?

One can’t think of everything, upon that stage, I know.

‐Obama is just going to ask rich people like himself to “pay a little bit more.” Exactly what he said in ’08. (Almost everything he says in this debate is exactly what he said in ’08. You could credit him with consistency. But, boy, the phoniness, the falsity.)

‐He’s still knocking Big Oil, just as in ’08! He mentions ExxonMobil! Four years ago, he mentioned ExxonMobil twice in his three debates. Biden, in his one debate, mentioned ExxonMobil four times.

‐I wish Romney wouldn’t correct and instruct Jim Lehrer — looks rude.

‐Obama says “textbooks that are ten years old,” like that’s some great tragedy. Hell, probably the textbooks were better in some subjects 50 years ago!

‐I wish Romney wouldn’t say “our poor” — “There’s a better way to take care of our poor”; “Each state knows best how to take care of its poor,” etc. Sounds like something a rich person would say. Something an aristocrat would say.

To my ears, it’s perfectly innocent, of course. I even like it. I hate the substitution of “low income” and all that for “poor.” I’m just thinkin’ politics.

‐Later, Romney says “poor,” and then corrects himself to “low income.” I think he even apologizes — says, “Excuse me.”


‐Obama talks about his grandmother, again! Now she’s “fiercely independent.” Remember how she was “a typical white person”? Is the typical white person fiercely independent?

‐Boy, is politics boring. It changes so little. In 2000, Candidate George W. Bush was explaining patiently to people about entitlement reform: “Those who are in retirement, or are nearing retirement, don’t have to worry: Nothing will change for you. We want to give younger people some options, so they’ll have something when it’s their turn to retire.”

Just what Romney is saying. Does anyone believe us, or do they think we’ll have ’em on dog food? Do they think we’ll let ’em die in the snow?

Sometimes you feel you are wasting your breath . . .

‐By the way, does Romney ever say in this debate, “We’re going bankrupt”? “We’re the brokest nation in history”? “We’re going down the tubes”? “We’ve got to stop this slide, or we’re cooked”?

Shouldn’t he? Shouldn’t he, somehow, communicate the urgency? Or is that unnecessary?

‐I’ve never liked Romney’s pained smile. I know he can’t help it. And I love Romney. It’s just an unfortunate facial position, I think. (We all have our share, I’m sure . . .)

‐I think his purpose in this debate is to say, “I’m not scary. I’m not a Social Darwinist. I’m okay with regulation. I’m not going to cut taxes for the rich. I’m going to be a little more Republican than President Obama.”

Will that cut it?

‐Obama’s citation of Lincoln makes me gag. I think Obama would make Lincoln gag.

‐Obama gives a really good answer on the role of government. Brilliant. But does his governance match his words?

The Obama of the debates — of the three in ’08 and this one in ’12 — would be a pretty good, palatable, moderate president.

‐Romney, too, is good on the role of government. Very good.

‐Hang on, I forgot to mention something. Let’s go back a little. Did Obama really say that insurance companies are “spending on profits”? So confusing, this president’s view of business. I believe he himself is confused.

‐I should note: Romney does indeed say that Obama promised to cut health-care costs per family $2500. He also says that, under Obama, the deficit has doubled. Whew. (What I mean is, “Whew” that he said it, not “Whew” that our deficit is crushing.)  

‐Mitt, please remember two pungent words, for a subsequent debate — particularly in the context of the stimulus, if it comes up (and if it doesn’t, should you not bring it up?): “shovel ready.”

‐Also, repeat after me: “one-term proposition”!

‐This is cute: Obama has gone on forever. He delivered a lengthy monologue. Lehrer’s not going to let Romney respond. And Obama gestures as though to say, “No, he must have a chance to respond.”

Well done (on O’s part).

‐Romney crabs at Obama for “picking winners and losers” (and the crabbing is fair). Just as Bush did at Gore in 2000. Boy, is politics . . . consistent. The battle lines get drawn, and they stay there, for a good long while. At least they have in recent history . . .

‐I didn’t like Romney’s closing statement, at all. Too negative. No autobiography (I believe). No “I’ve been a ‘turn-around artist’ all my life, and we need a turn-around now.” No poetry. No uplift.

Could have made more of his time — that opportunity.

‐By the way, I don’t like this idea of “keeping our commitment to our military.” Our commitment is to the nation: A presidential candidate should promise the nation that he would do his utmost to keep us safe and strong. Of course, that involves a “military second to none,” as Romney has often said.

Just a matter of wording. I knew what Romney meant. (And our commitment to our military should be to equip them as well as possible. And to use them as wisely as possible, of course.)

‐So, who won? You know, this is so much an expectations game. So are many things in life. (I talk about this in my music criticism a fair amount.) I think Romney is exceptionally smart. Exceptionally capable. And, of course, humane. I think he’s the right man for the presidency, at this time. I wanted him to be president in ’08. He’s even more needed, even more right, now.

And I know he’s an excellent debater. I watched him, and wrote about him — along with all the other candidates — for months, as the primaries and caucuses were going on. So I expect excellent things from him. I expect excellence from him every day.

Other people, I know — conservatives included — are not so high on Romney. They think he’s stiff, goofy, out of touch, gaffe-prone, weak, etc. So maybe they’ll say, “Geez, Romney did great!” Because they expected less.

I think he did fine. I know he can do better. I feel he left a lot on the table, as they say. But remember — let me repeat myself: I think Romney’s wonderful. And I expect him to kick butt. I expect him to KO Obama with practically his every breath. Which is unreasonable . . .

And Obama? I think he did well. How can he not? He’s one of the best talkers who have ever entered politics. It’s hard for me to judge him — because I find his views so off-putting, so wrong. I wish he were on our side. I wish a performer of his caliber were on my side.

Here’s my prayer — my wish — for every debate, in every election: that the candidates say what they believe; that they are honest; that they give true impressions of themselves. Then let the electoral chips fall where they may.

Okay, now I’ll surf the Web to see what the consensus — Th’Almighty Consensus — says. At intermission now and then, someone’ll ask a music-critic colleague of mine, “What do you think?” (He’s one of the wittiest, tartest men around.) He’ll say, “I don’t know, I haven’t read the reviews yet.”


To order Jay Nordlinger’s new book, Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World, go here. To order his collection Here, There & Everywhere, go here.


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