Thursday, October 11, 2012

quick remarks on a debate I never saw

I was tooling home from work while the Rombama debate was happening, so I completely missed it. By the time I got home, all I had left were the aftermath commentaries, over 90% of which gave the debate to Romney. Apparently, James Carville (I think I've seen him jogging on a bike path in Alexandria, Virginia), who isn't known as a conservative stooge, said that Romney came to the debate "with a chainsaw."

Some of my students, in the days following the debate, said they felt Romney came off as overly pushy and interruptive. This impression stands in contrast to that of many conservatives who have felt, for a while, that Romney has been too meek and mild during his campaign, and that he needed to adopt a more aggressive posture. What these folks witnessed on debate night was nothing short of miraculous, hence the current swing in the polls. Moderates, in particular, are now paying attention to Mitt Romney.

Not being a fan of either candidate, I'll offer my theory on Romney's sudden change of demeanor: he had been advised by his entire circle of Wormtongues to go strong, go big, go for the kill. Romney, who had never debated on such a large-scale forum before, was probably also fueled by nervous energy: he may have laid it on a little too thick-- a fact that seems to have generated liberal sympathy for the president, who came off looking, in liberal sympathizers' opinions, like the victim of a beating.

But I wouldn't count Obama out quite yet. He came out swinging after the debate was done: the following day, he spun a narrative about how the man he had met on that debate stage wasn't the Mitt Romney whose talking points had filled the airwaves up to then. Obama's staff (and the many, many left-leaning newspapers) also began a massive wave of fact-checking (to be fair, many of Obama's own claims during the debate have proven spurious as well); all these points will undoubtedly find their way into Rombama's second and third debates. I expect much greater intensity out of Obama in these upcoming exchanges, for pride's sake if nothing else.

Keep in mind that Americans, still largely Christian, love a resurrection narrative, which in common parlance we call a comeback. Obama's on the ropes after that first debate, but just like Rocky Balboa and Muhammad Ali, he'll do his rope-a-dope until he sees the opportunity for the knockout. Mr. Romney, meanwhile, is going to have to maintain the same level of wild-eyed, chainsawing ferocity in the subsequent debates, and I'm not sure he's got the grit to manage that feat.

But we'll see, I suppose. Obama's staggering loss was a surprise to everyone, including to us latecomers. He might keep surprising us with more lackluster performances.

Some say that Obama's not stupid: he can't defend his indefensible record, so he's not even trying. My own theory, lately confirmed by various news headlines, is that Obama's had enough of the Oval Office and just wants to go home. I've had a weird suspicion, for a couple years now, that Obama doesn't really want the job he's in. If you look at his controversial economic and foreign-policy moves (defend Big Bird but not US ambassadors, as the new meme goes), he gives one the appearance of a man asking to be voted out of office.

Of course, Obama could shock the nation with a stunning reversal: he could pull out of the presidential race and back Hillary Clinton for president. By doing this, and by slyly planning a return campaign for a later term (the man is still young, after all), he'd be following the christic death/resurrection narrative that Americans so love: noble self-sacrifice followed by a triumphal return. But can he fight his hubris, and American political tradition, hard enough to take such a path? Can he abandon his current campaign? I doubt it. I think the momentum, in terms of both political process and human ego, has become too strong to resist. It's Rombama to the bitter end.


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