You watched the Presidential Debate on Monday, I assume? Good – because we can discuss a very confusing yet important topic about debate strategy this year. Specifically, let’s discuss Mitt Romney’s strategy in the second and third debates, and Paul Ryan’s strategy in the VP debates.
The Bully Pulpit
The President doesn’t have as much power as the press and popular culture like to imagine he does, but he does have certain advantages not afforded to private citizens. Sure, he can issue Executive Orders, but his main advantage is from the so-called ‘Bully Pulpit’. As President, anything you do is news – so if you talk or issue a direct statement you can guarantee it will be amplified in the press.
This isn’t a foreign idea, and it’s about as far from an original idea as you can find. Now, my conservative readers are probably wincing that I would imply that a Republican President would ever have an advantage in the press. Well, friends, have you heard the theory that “any press is good press?”. I’d say that applies here – the most paranoid Republican in history, Richard Nixon, benefited (pre-Watergate!) from sewing the seeds of doubt about the motivations of the press – and don’t pretend for a second they didn’t report on the most arcane details of the President’s life. He had a bully pulpit too – even a combative press can keep you in the spotlight.
If the President has a disadvantage, it’s due to the status of his office. You see, traditionally the ‘attack dog’ role has fallen to the Vice President as opposed to the President. That dynamic has led people to associate staying dignified with the office, while people don’t mind a VP getting into the muck. This dynamic is ironically seen best in this piece from (of all places!) Gawker. Romnesia, indeed.
So how does that help Mitt Romney? At first, it didn’t. The President used his bully pulpit and campaign to depict Mitt Romney as a wildly out of touch aristocrat who is more interested in dancing horses than 47% of the nation, and will take alms from the poor to redistribute to his rich friends while driving his boat to the Cayman Islands. His running mate was depicted as an arrogant young man willing to dump granny off the cliff while praying to Ayn Rand, single-handedly shutting down every abortion clinic in America, and rolling back women’s suffrage.
However, the extreme depiction ended up helping him get a coin-flip away from the Presidency.
Of course, the Republicans we saw depicted in campaign adds didn’t match up with the ones who showed up at the debate. The most fortuitous debate for team red was easily Denver, the first debate in which Romney won in a blowout. The Economy has always been Romney’s strong point – even when getting destroyed in the press for gaffes and ideology, people have associated his business background with money smarts. If Obama loses, he will have to blame his weak showing at the first debate – instead of pushing the idea that Romney really was the strawman that had been set up, he let Romney redefine himself as a reasonable man who would be fit to govern. At that point, the Republicans suddenly switched to a new strategy – up 12 runs in the second inning, they took out their offense and put in their best defensive players.
That’s right – they played not to lose, a strategy which can often explode in sports and personal finance (see: four corner offense, extreme frugality). Yet their lead was so huge it didn’t make sense for Romney to attempt to take it to the President in the second and third debate – and, paradoxically, the President taking it to Romney made him look more like an attack dog than a President. So, even though the President thoroughly dispatched Romney in the third debate, and slightly beat him in the second (the VP debate is best described as a tie), Romney had changed perceptions so much in the first debate it didn’t matter.
Losing the Battle, Yet Winning the War
The war isn’t won yet, by either side – I agree with sites like Five Thirty Eight that Obama had a huge edge before the debates, but I recognize that Romney has masterfully made this a close race. The variables are stacked against Romney – lingering disgust with Bush, a slightly improving economy, an incumbent President during wartime, an arguably sympathetic press, gaffes, and everything else – the President’s debate victory may be more akin to Matthew Stafford’s touchdown at the end of Monday Night’s game (my fantasy team appreciates it) as opposed to a Manning comeback. Or, if you hate sports, it may be akin to Homer’s boxing strategy in The Simpsons episode 4F03, The Homer They Fall, where Homer takes a massive pounding only to later nudge over tired opponents for a TKO.
So, instead of a countdown to a second term, we turn now to the Economic headlines. It’s a coin-flip, friends!